Fingersmith: readers' responses

John Mullan on readers' responses to Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

We know the past most of all through its fictions, argued Sarah Waters during the discussion of her novel Fingersmith at the meeting of the Guardian book club. Which is why she had written a historical novel that she was also happy to call a "pastiche". It was evident from the evening's questions that part of the pleasure of Fingersmith is exactly that it recalls, for readers as well as for its author, the pleasures of other books. When one reader asked Waters what her favourite 19th-century novels were, she was in effect asking about the stories that went into the making of Fingersmith. Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were the titles that Waters mentioned. "They're probably all there in my books," agreed the author. The varieties of Victorian Gothic were especially fascinating, "all the archetypes of horror" are there.

Who was her favourite amongst all her own characters? asked another reader. Gentleman, of course, the ingenious, self-consciously "wicked" villain of Fingersmith. For, in the mould of Wilkie Collins's Count Fosco, the good villain, alluring and utterly bad, is another special Victorian character. There would be no plot without his plotting, and none of the shocks that Waters's readers relish. Even such an academic expert on Victorian fiction as John Sutherland has conceded that while setting out to "invert, pervert and subvert" the plot of Collins's The Woman in White, Waters remains oddly true to Collins too. The master of what the Victorians themselves called "sensation novels" would have relished how Fingersmith "makes us gasp with surprise".

Readers spoke of the delight of being manipulated into these surprises. Waters acknowledged that she went to Victorian fiction for intricacies of plotting. She particularly mentioned the fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Charles Reade's fearlessly sensational Hard Cash. This once-bestselling novel is yet another that features confinement in a private lunatic asylum, though here it is the hero rather than the heroine who is incarcerated. One questioner noted that, while short-listed for the Booker and Orange prizes, Fingersmith actually won a prize (a Crime Writers Association "dagger") for crime fiction. Waters said this delighted her, as crime fiction valued plot, "with its twists and surprises".

Readers described relishing the novel's first and central reversal of expectations, what fellow historical novelist Tracey Chevalier has called "a mid-book twist so fiendish that ambushed readers flipped backward and forward as they read, trying to locate terra firma". Several wanted to know whether Waters had it all worked out in advance, and she said that she had. One of her main purposes had been to contrive the moment of reversal at which Sue is taken to be the mad gentlewoman rather than her servant. This was the "basic pleasure" of "being taken by surprise". Yet it was clear from the discussion that many had read Fingersmith more than once, and that for them this "surprise" was re-enacted on each rereading, even if known in advance.

Waters confessed to one questioner that she had toyed with a possibility that would have tempted Braddon or Reade: making Sue and Maud, the two narrators whose identities have been swapped, into (non-identical) twins. The novel's coda, where Sue returns to Briar to find Maud and declare her love for her, was regarded by the author as strictly optional. One questioner expressed disappointment that the Andrew Davies adaptation of Tipping the Velvet for television had provided a "happier" ending than was allowed for in the book, but Waters said that this had been fine with her. Many of her original readers, she said, had wanted such a finale, and, like her Victorian precursors, she was content that readers should get what they wanted.

She was asked about all the research that she did for her three Victorian novels (Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity) and spoke of the importance for her of being true to historical detail. But readers were also ready to see the Victorian idiom as a means to an end. One commented on how it allowed Waters to examine love as a relationship of power, a possibility given special shape by the mistress-servant relationship at the heart of Fingersmith

Scan the many responses of American readers to the novel preserved on the Amazon website and you will find most preoccupied with the novel's sexual politics. The responses of British readers have rather rarely made an issue of the lesbian subplot of Fingersmith, which is arguably not essential to the central plot. (No one pointed out that The Woman in White has at its heart a near-romantic relationship between the dark, masculine Marian Halcombe and the fair, ethereal Laura Fairlie.) One reader did think that the titillations of the TV version of Tipping the Velvet misled those who had not read the novels. And an American reader asked the novelist about the present climate for a gay writer. Was there less freedom of expression than in the 1990s? Waters was relieved to think not. "Popular culture seems to me to be very queer."

· John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Next week he will be looking at On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Join them for a discussion of the book on Thursday July 13. To reserve a ticket call 020 7886 9281 or email


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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