In “Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith: Leaving Women’s Fingerprints on Victorian Pornography,” Kathleen A. Miller traces the significance of a number of objects contributing to her feminist reading of the text. Miller argues that the way that characters throughout Fingersmith relate to books correlates with their attitudes toward relationships. This connection seems most prominent in Christopher Lilly’s role as cataloguer of books:
Christopher Lilly’s lack of interest in reading books coincides with his lack of interest in “reading” the lives of the people around him. He shows no concern for the welfare of Maud as a young girl developing into womanhood: “‘My happiness is nothing to him . . . Only his books! He has made me like a book. I am not meant to be taken, and touched, and liked. I am meant to be kept here in dim light forever!’ ” (130). He cares only to appropriate her body in order to continue his scholarship. Thus, in his world, women, like books, are valued as objects, rather than as beings with inner lives. Neither books nor women have any emotional resonance for this set of male readers. [Paragraph 21)
Christopher Lilly seems to take no interest in the content of his books just as he takes no interest in the content of the lives of those around him. He uses both as means in achieving his own selfish ends. Maud comes to live with her uncle as a secretary and the only visitors who come are directly related to Lilly’s bibliographic projects. Christopher Lilly uses all people to achieve his goals and extends his cataloging to time as well as people. The household works like a giant machine that runs by the strike of the central clock.
Her uncle’s relationship endows Maud with a kind of revulsion regarding books. In fact, she wants her London home to be bookless:
Feeling like one of Christopher Lilly’s objectified possessions, Maud desires liberty more than anything else. For Maud, this means a house without books: “I know. London, where I will find my liberty, cast off my self, live to another pattern — live without patterns, without hides and bindings — without books! I will ban paper from my house!” (252). Yet Maud does not find liberty in a book-less house in London; instead, she must reinvent her relationship to the history of Victorian books in order to (re)invent herself. Readers have already encountered examples of Maud’s rebellious nature and her attempts to invent herself — failing to wear her gloves, arranging her escape from Briar with Gentleman, and abusing her maids — but her resistance to adopting Christopher Lilly’s relationship to Victorian books clearly demonstrates her development of an independent female identity, an identity embodied in the production of a woman’s erotic literary tradition. [Paragraph 22]
This desire to renounce books seems a bit disturbing on at least two levels. Maud not only casts off the knowledge contained within books but casts off her identity as well. However, as Miller points out, there is an interesting doubling at work between Maud and her uncle’s books:
While instances of doubling abound in the text (Sue/Maud, Christopher Lilly/Gentleman, Mrs. Susckby/Marianne Lilly), one of the most significant instances of doubling occurs between Maud and her uncle’s books. She becomes thin, white, and fragile like the aging pages of a text. Her hands are cased in gloves, like a book’s hide, in order to protect the pages. Waters suggests book collecting, bibliography, and pornography become dangerous when the human connection to these activities ceases. Objectification of his books coincides with Christopher Lilly’s objectification of people, particularly his callous disregard of Maud’s interior life. Maud’s physical weakness and delicacy echoes the fragility of her stunted emotional development. [Paragraph 21]
Here, Maud’s relationship with books seems very deeply ingrained in her physical body. As she conforms more and more to the role of secretary, her body begins to exhibit physical characteristics of her uncle’s books more distinctly. In this text, we discover that identities can be forced upon others on a very deep physical level. This makes the revelation of Maud’s family history even more destructive. She likens the experience to the violence of erasing a story from the pages of a book:
‘Oh, but this,’ I think I say, ‘is perfect! This is all I have longed for! Why do you stare? What are you gazing at? Do you suppose a girl is sitting here? That girl is lost! She has been drowned! She is lying, fathoms deep. Do you think she has arms and legs, with flesh and cloth upon them? Do you think she has hair? She has only bones, stripped white! She is as white as a page of paper! She is a book, from which the words have been peeled and drifted — ’ (355)
When Maud’s identity is stripped from her, her body feels the injury. She has been stripped to “only bones” which resembles the pages of the books she has been made to erase as an apprentice secretary, “The book is a slim one, and when it is filled my job is to render it blank again with a piece of India-rubber” (204). Identity extends to a deeply physical level for Maud, yet is always liable to be erased at the hand of another.
1. In Fingersmith, Waters likens identity with the content of a book. Is this image particular to feminine identity? Might this model suggest something in terms of literary criticism? Is this a similar critical model to what we saw in Waterland?
2. Does Maud’s image of the violence of erasing the words from the pages of a book (and its parallel image in the construction of identity) challenge or support Christopher Lilly’s failure to adequately “read” people (as Miller puts it)? Is Maud, perhaps, to some degree guilty of erring on the side of placing too much importance on the “words” printed in these books and not enough on the conditions of their production, their physical beauty, and their bibliographic meanings? In other words, is Maud’s reading of people on the opposite end of the same problematic spectrum as Christopher Lilly’s?
3. What is Sue’s relationship to books/text and what might we tease out of this relationship in terms of identity? It may also be interesting to consider Richard and Mrs. Sucksby — especially in terms of letters and their roles in “render[ing] blank” the identities of Sue and Maud.
4. How might we begin to theorize different forms of identity construction in terms of comparing and contrasting forging (with Mr.Ibbs) or smithing (“fingersmith”); writing; or leaving fingerprints?
5. Would Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol.1 add any useful insight in looking at identity in Fingersmith?
6. How exactly does the swapping of identities in the madhouse compare to that found in The Woman in White? It might be interesting to look at the roles of madness, paternity, and who is being swindled in both of the texts.
Miller, Kathleen A. “Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith: Leaving Women’s Fingerprints on Victorian Pornography.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4.1 (2008): np. Web. 18 April 2010.
Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2002.
Last modified 19 April 2010