Fingersmith: the plot

John Mullan on the plot of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Why should any contemporary novelist not only set a novel in the 19th century, but also take the novel of the time as a model for this new work of fiction? Waters is not the only one to do so. Novels such as Charles Palliser's The Quincunx and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White have also tried not only to imagine a Victorian setting but to imitate a Victorian literary form. Earlier this year there was DJ Taylor's Kept, its subtitle "A Victorian Mystery". Like Fingersmith, this has a villain who plans to steal a young woman's inheritance, and she too is kept locked up by a nefarious mad doctor.

It is above all plot for which Waters and these other pasticheurs return to the 19th-century novel. Victorian novels deal elaborately in plot. This is not only true of the so-called "sensation novels" of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, in which Waters is clearly steeped. Dickens used minutely contrived plots to establish connections between reaches of society that were politely assumed to be separate. So did the greatest Victorian novelist of ideas, George Eliot. Even the resolutely unsensational and subtle Middlemarch has a plot in which stolen legacies, concealed illegitimacy, blackmail and (in effect) murder are revealed.

A sense of plot depends on just this sense of hidden deeds and surreptitious schemes. In the opening chapter of Fingersmith, Sue recalls how Gentleman revealed his plan to her and her fellow tenants of a thieves' den (taken straight out of Victorian "Newgate novels"). He is going to trick an innocent heiress, Maud, into marrying him, and then make off with her fortune. Sue will become Maud's maid, nicely placed to chaperone her as Gentleman performs his seduction. She will get a cut of the profits. This is his plot, ostensibly. Yet the plot of the novel must run deeper. Sue herself senses something awry. "'I don't know,' I said. 'It seems a rum sort of plot to me.'" The chapter ends with a further nudge to the reader that a different kind of plot will unfold. Sue remembers how, when she agreed to the scheme, her adoptive mother, Mrs Sucksby, smiled, "but her face seemed troubled. I could almost have said she was afraid.

"Perhaps she was.

"Or perhaps I only think that now, when I know what dark and fearful things were to follow."

This glancing ahead to what is to come (called prolepsis) is often used by novelists who relish their own plots (Fielding and Dickens are peculiarly addicted to it). Sue's narrative is peppered with these hints at, as she puts it, "what happened later". As in Jane Eyre or Great Expectations, the first-person narrator withholds her knowledge for the sake, as we say, of a good story. She knows in advance the narrative surprise that comes at the end of the novel's first section, yet we must be allowed to experience it with a little of the jolt that she is supposed to have felt. Once Gentleman has indeed married Maud, he and Sue conduct her, in a sealed coach, to a private madhouse. But it is all a "filthy trick". It is Sue who is incarcerated, fooled into wearing one of her mistress's dresses and seized by the doctors as a mad gentlewoman who insanely claims to be a servant. Maud, whom she had come to love, to whom she had once secretly made love, is suddenly pretending to be the distressed servant. The innocent dupe is the trickster.

"You thought her a pigeon. Pigeon, my arse. That bitch knew everything. She had been in on it from the start."

Now a new section begins and Sue's narration gives place to Maud's, which, for further contrast, is in an anxious present tense. We go back in time to see events from a different point of view - evidence of a different plot. Far from Maud succumbing to Gentleman's advances, she has agreed with him to pretend to do so. He has confessed his original scheme to her, but changed it. "I understood that to seduce you would be to insult you - to make you only a different kind of captive." (The careful reader should be suspicious of the villain's turn to candour.) They will marry, share the inheritance that comes to her on marriage, and substitute Sue in the madhouse to procure themselves a "rare and sinister liberty".

And yet we should now guess that this too is a deception. The contrived substitution of one woman for another tells us of a deeper secret about the identity of the two women's mothers. Think how many carefully plotted Victorian novels rely on the revelation of a leading character's unguessed-at parentage (Bleak House, Great Expectations, The Woman in White). Maud is eventually told by the co-conspirators, Gentleman and Mrs Sucksby, of a plot laid many years before - and the truth about her mother. The knowledge will enable her to redeem herself from her cheating of Sue, and produce a kind of happy ending. As it does for the great Victorian novelists, plot means deception - and redemption.

· John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and Sarah Waters for a discussion of Fingersmith on June 12 at the Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Doors open at 6.30pm and entry costs £7. To reserve a ticket call 020 7886 9281 or email book.club@theguardian.com

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John Mullan

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