Book Review: Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Content note: This review contains details about the plot of Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Since the twists and turns of the plot are sort of crucial to the enjoyment of the book, if you have not read it yet, I would recommend skipping this review and scooting your butt to the nearest independent bookstore to pick up a copy. You can always come back when you’re done; this review isn’t going anywhere, I promise.

I encountered a number of obstacles in the process of trying to get my hands on a copy of this book. First, someone recommended it and I ordered it from the library. The first copy that the library brought in was damaged, so they had to order another one. The second copy reeked of smoke and was functionally unreadable as a result. The third copy smelled suspiciously like vomit and had ominous stains on the cover. So I gave up and ordered a copy from the bookstore, which is just as well, because I think that this book is going to become a repeat read. I do not say this about all books, so consider that high praise.

Fingersmith is a fun and sad and engaging little romp that borrows a lot of literary devices from other books written in the period it’s set in. I definitely detect a whiff of Wilkie Collins, shall we say. This makes me adore the book all the more, because I really like historical novels that also set themselves in the literary tradition of the periods they are evoking. Fingersmith comes complete with the same story told from different points of view, with all of the mistakes of fact and memory that you expect when hearing a story from two witnesses, and it has a labyrinthine plot filled with constant twists and turns.

What I adore about this book isn’t the deliciously homoerotic storyline, or the deft writing, or the circuitous plot, or even the characterisations, but that it took a very real historical problem and used it with brilliant effect as a plot device. This could have been clumsy or obvious or crude, but it wasn’t, at least to me, perhaps because I’ve been reading a lot about said historical problem lately so I have it on my mind, and it fit in very well with the storyline.

That historical problem is, of course, the institutionalisation of women who were inconvenient, unwanted, or ‘troublesome.’ The 1800s marked the rise of psychiatric institutions and these facilities were abused almost before the mortar was finished drying to warehouse unwanted and undesirable women. So, it made brilliant sense to me to see the con man in the story plotting to steal the fortune of an heiress by locking her up in an asylum, thereby ensuring that she couldn’t come forward to protect her interests.

Were scores of women locked up to steal their fortunes? Unlikely. But scores of women certainly were locked up for other spurious reasons. When you could be condemned on the word of your husband and held at his whim, it’s hard not to see how that might be abused, as indeed it was in this case. This was a male dominated society where women were most definitely not being considered for full integration, and it would have been laughable to suggest that women deserved equal rights and the ‘ailments’ women were condemned for had more to do with cynicism and greed than any actual pathology.

This book, in some senses, was terrifying, because although asylum culture is not as entrenched now as it was then, the fact is that women continue to be institutionalised against their will. Women continue to be abused by psychiatrisation. And watching our character struggle for release, trying to point out that she wasn’t who they thought she was and she certainly didn’t need psychiatric care, reminded me of all the women in institutions right now who do not belong there.

I doubt that was Waters’ intent with this book, there’s certainly no afterward in my edition talking about the history of forced institutionalisation and the ways it plays out today, but it’s what the book evoked for me. A grim reminder of the experiences of women in this period who were trapped on the say-so of husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and held until their male family members decided they were worthy of release. A reminder of how women today continue to be institutionalised on very shaky grounds because they are inconvenient or unwanted and no one knows where to put them.

One of the things about including this plot with a firmly sympathetic character, of detailing asylum abuses unflinchingly, is that Waters challenges a lot of traditional narratives about asylums and institutionalisation. I read between the lines, because I can’t help myself, and I think that there was a hint of indictment of modern facilities as well, from the pretty face put on the front to fool visitors into thinking it is safe and pleasant to the abusive behavior of guards and nurses when they think no one is looking.

I’d recommend Fingersmith because it’s a book I really enjoyed, but also because I think it has some interesting storylines about disability, normality, and who decides what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’ and what happens when limited numbers of people are allowed to control that and people live in a culture of shame, a culture where their own love is viewed as evidence of pathology and is utilised to fuel self-hatred.