Retro-mad book review: Fingersmith, the novel (UK, Virago Books, 2002)

The long delayed book review: BBC movie and the novel from which the movie is based on, describe this book as a lesbian novel, gothic fiction, crime, a sensation novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and so on. I find these descriptions of this award-worthy book insufficient. For above everything else, this novel is a tale of mutual betrayal, of self-discovery, and finally, of  retribution and redemption.

The plot of the novel is pretty much the same as that of the movie: it is divided in three parts, with Susan “Sue” Trinder narrating the first part, Maud Lilly taking over the narration in the second part and Sue resuming the story in the third part. In part 1, orphaned, streetwise fingersmith (British slang for thief) Sue narrates the nefarious plan Richard “Gentleman” Rivers hatches: Richard means to con rich, isolated would-be heiress Maud Lilly out of her inheritance by tricking her into marrying him, and then throwing her into an insane asylum after their wedding so that he can take all the money for himself. To achieve this, he employs Sue’s help, who must pose as the maid who will convince Maud to marry him. Sue agrees in exchange for a cut of the profits. She is thus sent to the countryside, to Briar Court, to be Maud’s maid, but an unexpected fondness for her mistress which grows into desire and eventually transforms itself into love, becomes a major obstacle in Sue’s carrying out her goal. However, a last burst of courage, born more out of a fear of failure, helps her carry out their plan and so she succeeds in helping Maud escape Briar Court and elope with Gentleman. But on the day when Maud is supposed to be taken to the asylum, it is Sue that the doctors seize from the carriage, and only then does it dawn on Sue that she has been tricked and that Maud has been in on it from the start.

In the second part, Maud takes over the narrative and explains why she did what she did. This is where it gets more interesting than the film, it is much more elaborate and detailed. Maud is brilliant, articulate, and excellent at self-justification. She is an orphaned girl who grows up in an asylum. The nurses treat her as a young staff and let her run around with a stick. She is a bit of a wild, uncouth, free spirit and her time at the asylum already has an effect on her young, impressionable mind. Then her uncle comes to bring her to Briar Court and her nightmare begins. Her uncle considers himself a gentleman, a scholar and a curator of poisons.The poisons here mean porn, or porn as it was in Victorian times -which, in light of the modern times, would seem so tame, even literary (a bit cheesy), as to be art.^^ So that would mean her uncle is a strange pervert, especially because he means to train Maud in the art of book collecting and indexing. But she is still a wild child and needs to be trained and it falls on Mrs. Stiles and the other staff to discipline to her. She is starved, hit, put in an ice house, deprived of heat during winter, when she forgets her gloves, her hands are hit, when she dozes during her training, her uncle throws paper weights at her or her uncle threatens to return her to the asylum. Her uncle teaches her about his books, what kind there are, fonts, styles and so on. When his friends come over, she reads the pornographic books to them, and has to endure the leering, lewd looks of her uncle’s gentleman friends. In time, she learns to be as cruel as well. When she learns that Mrs. Stiles had lost a child, she gets a cat and names it Mrs. Stiles’ daughter. When she gets a new maid, around her age, the maid reminds her so much of who she was and might have been that she begins to abuse her maid – hitting her hands with her slippers until her hands bled, or pricking her hands with needles. What she has gone through has made her grow up not entirely resigned, but cold, calculating and just a bit psychotic, maybe beyond redemption. Then Richard “Gentleman” Rivers comes and proposes a plan to her: they elope with a maid, but the maid must be tricked into thinking she’s out to con Maud, but actually what they will do is trick the maid into turning into her, so that she is mistaken for Maud, thrown in the asylum and not be tracked by her uncle. It is a brilliant plan and one that Maud embraces. They get rid of her young maid by  having Gentleman rape her and the new, illiterate, gullible maid, Sue comes in. As you can see, in the book, Maud is a much darker, more vile character, darker than the one in the movie. But she is still the most intriguing, interesting character in the book and as you get to know her, you still want to root for her.

Anyway, what happens is that Sue is not like any of the other maids Maud has had. Maud says Sue is more loose, more frank, more free. One of the things I love about the book is how it shows how their romance unfolds. In the film, it is a abbreviated, and it seems like there are some things missing. But the book explains it all: Sue is the first person to think her kind and good, and Sue is the first person to show her kindness. It is this kindness that Maud responds to, that helps her see that she can still redeem herself. When Sue realizes how much Maud hates eggs for her meals, Sue has the kitchen bring soup instead, when Maud’s feet are cold, Sue kneels to blow at her feet, when they take their walks, Sue is careful to make sure she does not grow cold, when Maud has nightmares (or pretends to have nightmares), Sue comes and makes sure she is safe, and in time sleeps beside her and holds her until she falls asleep.  Sue teaches her to play cards, and to dance and a hint of more intense feelings come to the fore. When Richard comes back, Maud is changed and now has doubts about carrying out their nefarious plan. Shrewd Richard observes this and realizes, during one pivotal scene, that Maud is in love with Sue. Maud realizes this as well and this complicates the situation, until that one fateful night when they finally consummate their desire. Maud goes through a period where she contemplates telling Sue the truth, but the morning after they have made love, Sue acts as if nothing  has happened and says, in not so many words, that it is for Richard that Maud was devote herself. Sue’s rejection is  like a slap to Maud and this rejection is what makes her go through with the plan afterall. But Maud arrives in London and Richard brings her to Lant Street,to Mrs. Sucksby and as Mrs. Sucksby and Richard tell her of the bigger plan,that she had been tricked into coming here because actually Sue and Maud had been switched at birth, and that Sue’s mother is actually the real Ms. Lilly, making Sue the real Ms. Lilly and not Maud, who turns out to be one of nameless orphans Mrs. Sucksby farms before she’d gone to the asylum and to Briar Court, Maud realizes she had planned and plotted and betrayed Sue for nothing. She is kept prisoner at Lant Street until she turns the ripe age to get the fortune the late Ms.Lilly has made for her and for Sue. For she will become both Sue and herself to claim the fortune. At the same time, Mrs. Sucksby reveals that she is her daughter and this changes She says  it all in this line from the book, “I have bitten back rage, insanity, desire, love, all at the cost of freedom” and she realizes that it has all been for nothing.

Sue takes over the third part of the novel and this time describes the abuse she has gone through the hands of the doctors and massive nurses of the asylum. She is beaten, sat over, almost sexually abused, plunged into a bath, incarcerated, pretty much driven into madness. The more she insists that she is not Mrs. Maud Rivers, the more they think she is,and the more they think she is mad. Her illiteracy and her London accent are taken to be another manifestation of her madness. What keeps her alive is her hate for Maud and the hope that one day Mrs. Sucksby will rescue her. No one comes for a time, until one of the staff, a boy named Charles, comes to visit, thinking her to be Mrs. Rivers. The boy has run away after Maud and Richard elope. He is the nephew of the woman whose lodge they had stayed in. Sue convinces him to buy a blank key and a file, visit her and help her escape. She succeeds in escaping and hitches her way all the way to London, with the boy in tow. She makes her way to Lant Street, rents a room across the street from Mrs. Sucksby’s house, spends time observing the house and when she finds out that Maud is living in the house, this drives her into a murderous rage and she rushes into the house meaning to kill Maud, with knife in hand. What follows is basically what happens in the movie as well – except it is a longer, more tense scene, and there is a longer confrontation scene between Maud and Sue where they accuse each other of betraying each other, and when Sue tells her, “We could have run way together”, Maud asks her, “How much were you willing to give up?” to which Sue, not answering, realizes that she would not have given up anything for Maud at all. This scene is quite pivotal and would have explained how they manage to forgive each other (as is shown in the film). Anyway, as with the film, there is the tussle with Richard (who, despite how vile he is, I actually like – only he is very shrewd and calculating), and Richard is stabbed, and Mrs. Sucksby goes to jail and is hanged. Maud disappears, only to turn up in Briar, Sue finds out about her origins  and her inheritance, and realizes too late what Maud had done at Lant Street to protect her. Sue finds her in Briar Court, and they confront each other some more and since they are still very much in love, they acknowledge their feelings for each other. End of story.


I love this novel. For someone who has grown up on a steady diet of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Eliot, and later, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Henry James, Thomas Hardy (I intend to read them all into the next century), “Fingersmith” is right up my alley and I very much enjoyed it. I thought it was quite subversive to turn the normally repressed, proper Victorian heroines into full-on scheming, manipulative, cold, calculating villains. I love the tone and the language, and the author’s decision to make it a first person narrative, first narrated by Sue, then by Maud then by Sue again, makes the novel a much more personal experience for the reader. I love how the romance is developed between the two, amidst all the scheming and vile plot that each one has concocted. I still concur that Maud Lilly is the most intriguing, most fascinating, psychotic,  brilliant villain since Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons and played by Glenn Close in the movie. Maud Lilly is an evil, vile, manipulative little lady, but she is a sympathetic, complex character as well, so her desire for escape and freedom, at all costs, is understandable, though it is unforgiveable. Her redemption, in the hands of Sue, is sweet and exhilirating and the movie should have devoted more time to this.

Overall, the novel explains so much more, the characters are more developed, the events more fleshed out. Maud and Sue, by the way, are both 17 in the book, although in the film, they are both 21. As a 17-year old, Maud’s actions make much more sense, but as a 21 year old, in the film, it’s scarier.

Reading this, you’ll come to realize how abbreviated the BBC adaptation is, although this is an adaptation that is more faithful to the book than other adaptations are. However, Elaine Cassidy will always be Maud Lilly to me, and Sally Hawkins will always be Sue Trinder. ^^ Which now gives me an excuse to post this photo. ^^

Overall, this tale of  love, retribution and redemption is beautiful and for £7.99 shouldn’t be missed. ^^

PS Now I am off to watch Harper’s Island – the new CBS TV show that stars Elaine Cassidy – in an American accent (this I gotta see!). Shall I review it? Maybe. This blog has evolved so much since I started blogging that it would seem a shame to limit my reviews to gay or gay-themed movies only. ^^


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