In a 2008 interview with Abigail Dennis, Sarah Waters remarked:
I think it’s amazing too, how much we do want our historical fiction to be authentic, even though it’s fiction. I know that myself. And you feel cheated if you then discover that they didn’t get it right, or they were manipulating things, even though it’s all a manipulation. We do have this tremendous investment in authenticity. (“Ladies in Peril,” 49)
Indeed, Waters’s Fingersmith strives for authenticity to the point of seeming, in Waters’s words, “pantomime Victorian” (“Ladies in Peril,” 50). Fingersmith uses Collins’s sensation novel format to explore Dickens’s favored lower classes and, in the process, engages with symbols and tropes that appear repeatedly in the works of the Brontës (“Ladies in Peril,” 51). Yet the novel is, at the same time, explicit in its “manipulation,” its inconsistencies and exaggerations, as well as its contemporary political concerns. Fingersmith enters twentieth-century discussions of pornography through a fictionalized recounting of the work of collector Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834-1900), and though the pornographic marks the most explicit site where body and text converge, the novel continually meditates on the fraught connection between textuality and corporeality. Characters often refer to themselves as texts, read themselves in mirrors, and feel their bodies signifying to one another. In turn, texts define class status and heritage (Miss Lily’s letter) and evoke the material body (“The flesh made word” ), while indulgence in reading and the incapacity to write both result in physical confinement (447, 449). Fittingly, in this modern text, illiteracy and misrecognition prove just as important as literacy and recognition:
“I have grown used to thinking of myself as a sort of book. Now I feel myself a book, as books must seem to her: she looks at me with her unreading eyes, sees the shape, but not the meaning of the text. She marks the white flesh — ‘Ain’t you pale!’ she says — but not the quick, corrupted blood beneath.” (Fingersmith, 264)
Sue repeatedly misreads Maud’s body, even as she earnestly opens herself to being read: “I didn’t need to say it anyway: she could read the words in my face” (Fingersmith 582). Characters’ readings and misreadings drive the stirring plot of Fingersmith, but they also evoke an important question: how, and how much, should we expect the female body to signify? How much access should the female have to her own material “text”? Waters’s novel does not answer these questions but rather strives to illuminate, through a neo-Victorian lens, the assumptions and expectations that structure our culture, often at the expense of the female body.
1. How does literacy function in this text? Why does Waters seem to locate the pornographic as the beginning of female literacy and the primary end of female authorship? What sort of dangers does an assertion of the female’s capacity to write pornography pose to female authorship itself? Does Fingersmith itself function as a type of pornography?
2. How does Fingersmith’s narrative differ from that of Collins’s The Woman in White? How does the use of past- or present-tense affect the two narrators’ stories? Consider Maud’s desperate attempts to clarify her motives for an indeterminate “you” (200, 302), as opposed to Sue’s bitter anger at the end of Part 1 (184) — an anger which should have dissipated by the time she wrote her story, since she has forgiven Maud by the novel’s end and it is Maud, presumably, who teaches her to read and write. For whom is this text written?
3. How do mirrors function in this text? Consider passages from, among others, 271, 458-59, and 504. How does Waters’s use of moments of self-recognition (or failed self-recognition) differ from that of Charlotte Brontë? What is at stake in the readability of various characters? Waters states in an interview, “the things that I look for when I’m starting a book or writing a book, when I’m looking to the past, for example, I’m looking for sites of interest or possibility around sexuality or around gender, and thinking about how class impacts on that” (“Ladies in Peril, 43). How do physical mirrorings and imitative behaviors draw class differences into Fingersmith’s discourse of the body?
4. In her interview, Waters explains that
I’ve sometimes thought that [neo-Victorianism is] a way of addressing issues that are still very, very current in British culture, like class and gender, and submerged sexuality or sexual underworlds. Things that we think we’re pretty cool with, and actually we’re not at all, and we keep on wanting to go back to the nineteenth century to play these out on a bigger scale, precisely because they’re still very current for us. [“Ladies in Peril,” 45]
How does Waters negotiate contemporary sexual anxieties through Victorian tropes? We might consider Sue’s experience in the madhouse — the scenes of bondage and domination — as well as the attention paid to female clothing.
“Henry Spencer Ashbee.” Wikipedia. Web. 18 April 2010.
Dennis, Abigail. “‘Ladies in Peril’: Sarah Waters on neo-Victorian narrative celebrations and why she stopped writing about the Victorian era.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1.1 (2008): 41 52.
Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2002.
Last modified 19 April 2010