57 pages 1 hour read

Sarah Waters


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


A thrilling tale of thievery, betrayal, and mistaken identity, Fingersmith, by Welsh author Sarah Waters, tells the story of two women from two very different stations of life whose fates are inextricably linked. Set in the 1860s, Fingersmith is narrated alternately by Sue Smith (also known as Sue Trinder) and Maud Lilly. One is a young “fingersmith”—slang for a thief—lovingly protected from the worst of her world by Mrs. Sucksby; the other is an aristocratic lady, secretary to her debauched uncle. Both think they are orphans, and in the course of the novel, their intertwined history is exposed, along with the conspiracy to wed Maud to Gentleman—who is anything but—to steal away her fortune. Sue is to act as her maid, an accomplice to the plot, but in the course of their interactions, the two women slowly fall in love, only to realize they have been working against each other all along. Published in 2002, Fingersmith was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of three novels by Sarah Waters to achieve that distinction. It was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize and won the British Crime Writers’ Association award for best Historical Crime Fiction. The BBC television adaptation was nominated for Best Drama Serial and starred Academy-Award nominated actress Sally Hawkins as Sue. The novel is both a Dickensian fable and a Gothic romance, overflowing with fascinating characters, historical detail, and multiple plot twists. All quotations in this guide come from the 2002 Riverhead Books edition, which uses standard British spelling and punctuation.

Plot Summary

Part 1 is narrated by Susan Trinder, whose name is later changed to Sue Smith to hide her real identity. She is raised by Mrs. Sucksby, whose main source of income derives from running an infant farm, and Mr. Ibbs, who ostensibly operates a blacksmith shop while clandestinely overseeing an enthusiastic band of thieves. Thus, Sue herself becomes something of a fingersmith, though she remains special to Mrs. Sucksby. Her tenure there has lasted 17 years because Mrs. Sucksby promised her mother—who was hanged for murder—that she would take care of young Sue.

One dark winter evening, Gentleman—also known as Richard Rivers—shows up unannounced at Mrs. Sucksby’s doorstep. He stays at the house from time to time, though on this occasion, he wants to enlist Sue’s help in one of his schemes—a scheme that will undoubtedly secure their fortune. While Mrs. Sucksby has heretofore kept Sue close, she enthusiastically recommends Sue for the job: “Your fortune’s still to be made. Your fortune, Sue, and ours along with it” (12). Sue is to impersonate a lady’s maid, serving the young Maud Lilly, heir to a fortune, once she is away from her imperious uncle and lawfully married. Sue’s job is to convince Maud that Gentleman is the man she should marry; once married, Gentleman will have Maud committed to a psychiatric hospital. The money will be theirs to split, though Gentleman will claim the bulk of it. Sue agrees to the plan, and after some basic lessons in being a lady’s maid, she is sent off to Briar, the Lilly family home, to work for Maud.

Maud Lilly is another orphan, kept by her uncle and working as his secretary in his vast library. Gentleman has indicated to Sue that Maud is an innocent, even simple-minded, young lady who knows nothing of the world. Sue takes to her kindness, and Maud returns the favor. They spend their days visiting Maud’s mother’s grave after she finishes her morning’s work. Sue begins to sleep in Maud’s bed at night to comfort her and keep away the nightmares. The two are inexorably drawn together, and they slowly fall in love.

When Gentleman returns, allegedly to help Mr. Lilly organize his great collection of images, the relationship between Sue and Maud grows strained. Sue tries to encourage Maud to accept Gentleman’s overtures, though Maud becomes more overwhelmed as the days pass. Finally, Sue catches Gentleman kissing Maud’s palm—her hands are usually enclosed in demure gloves—and she realizes that their scheme verges on success. The three make the plan to abscond from Briar under cover of night three weeks hence. When Maud asks Sue what Gentleman might do to her on her wedding night, Sue responds by kissing and caressing her; they make love, though, by the next morning, Sue exhibits shame—though Maud does not fully understand the reason—that of her impending betrayal—and the plan moves forward.

The trio escape without a hitch, and Maud marries Gentleman that very night in a hasty ceremony in a small village some miles away. However, much to Sue’s dismay, Maud grows ever thinner and more listless according to plan. She wears the same worn gown, stained with mud, that she was wearing the night of their escape. On the other hand, Sue dresses in Maud’s finer clothes at Maud’s insistence. Finally, the doctors are summoned, and Sue tells them that Maud needs to be taken away to be kept safe: “I wish you would keep her some place where no-one could touch her, or hurt her—” (156). Though she is most certainly acting her part, Sue is genuinely concerned for the woman she has grown to love.

The next day, the doctors arrive, and they take Maud to the psychiatric hospital—except that, once the carriage stops, it is Sue the doctors usher indoors. They have been told that Sue is actually Maud Lilly, now Mrs. Rivers, pretending to be Maud’s maid in her delusions. Sue begins yelling and cursing, realizing she has been the one double-crossed: “You thought her a pigeon. Pigeon, my arse. That [expletive] knew everything. She had been in on it from the start” (161).

Part 2 retells events from the perspective of Maud. Far from being a simple, innocent lady, Maud has been physically and psychologically abused by her debauched uncle. Her work as his secretary is to assist him in indexing his enormous library of pornographic materials; she has been reading aloud from such texts to her uncle and his male guests since she was a child. When Gentleman approaches her with his plan—he will liberate her from her uncle’s imprisonment for half of her fortune—Maud fearfully but hopefully agrees. At first, she thinks nothing of the innocent girl who will be sacrificed in the bargain, but once Sue arrives, Maud too falls in love.

After Sue has been left at the psychiatric hospital, Maud goes reluctantly with Gentleman to London. She is terribly guilty, heartbroken even, but even if she had decided not to bring the conspiracy to fruition, she would have lost her Sue. However, once they arrive in London, Gentleman brings her not to his house, as he promised, but delivers her to Mrs. Sucksby. It turns out that the orchestrator of the entire plot was Mrs. Sucksby. She had promised an aristocratic lady some 17 years ago that she would care for her daughter, not let the child fall into the hands of her wicked family. That daughter was, in fact, Sue, while Maud was one of her abandoned infants; the two were switched, and Mrs. Sucksby coddled Sue and kept her from the Lilly family while Maud was subjected to ill-treatment all these years. Mrs. Sucksby explains that once she has the fortune, she will keep Maud with her; she needs a gentlewoman by her side once she is rich. Maud is distraught and thinks only of escape. Once she gets her chance, she traverses the city to reach Mr. Hawtrey, a gentleman who used to hear her read at her uncle’s house. He sends her away with a woman, promising she will be taken care of, but the woman takes her to a poorhouse—nothing more than a prison by another name. Maud returns, defeated, to Mrs. Sucksby’s home. Mrs. Sucksby seems overwhelmed with relief to see her, though Maud becomes frustrated at what she believes is exaggerated sentimentality. Finally, Mrs. Sucksby admits that Maud is not some random babe she was tasked with selling; Maud is Mrs. Sucksby’s own daughter.

Part 3 returns the reader to Sue’s point of view. It begins with Sue’s shock and rage at being left at the psychiatric hospital and details the rough treatment she receives. The doctors are convinced that Sue’s delusions will be overcome if only she will remember how to read and write; after all, she has been working as a secretary to her uncle all these years. The problem is that Sue is, in fact, illiterate, and she cannot convince the doctors that her inability to write anything but her name is not an act. She has almost given up hope when Charles, the knife-boy at Briar, comes to visit, thinking that she is actually Maud on her honeymoon with Gentleman. Mr. Rivers has promised Charles he could come with him to London, so Sue plots her escape with Charles as her accomplice, pledging to help him find Gentleman once they get there. Charles brings her a blank and a file, and Sue manages to make an impression of the psychiatric hospital key. She escapes, and the two make their way back to London.

Once there, however, Sue grows apprehensive, not knowing what she will find at Mrs. Sucksby’s. She assumes that lies have been told about her and that Mrs. Sucksby will be devastated at her loss—not knowing that it is, in fact, Mrs. Sucksby who has conspired to have Sue locked away. She takes a room across the way from Mrs. Sucksby’s house and watches. When she sees Maud in Mrs. Sucksby’s bedroom, she grows wild with anger and jealousy. She has Charles deliver a letter to Mrs. Sucksby, but it is intercepted by Maud, who tries to send Sue a signal—that she still loves her. Sue bursts into the home with a knife, planning to kill Maud, but Gentleman’s drunken arrival interrupts the scene. Both Maud and Mrs. Sucksby want to protect Sue from the truth that her surrogate mother has betrayed her; Maud protects her out of love, while Mrs. Sucksby protects her out of financial interest. When Gentleman threatens to expose the truth, Maud and Mrs. Sucksby rush at him; someone has Sue’s knife, and Gentleman is fatally stabbed in the melee. When the police arrive, Mrs. Sucksby confesses. There is a sensational trial, and she is sentenced to be hanged.

Sue remains in the house, knowing that she must eventually leave and start afresh—the neighborhood has turned against her, thinking that she has betrayed Mrs. Sucksby and broken the thieves’ code of honor. She receives a package from the jail containing Mrs. Sucksby’s personal items, including the dress that she wore on the fateful night. In trying to clean it of bloodstains, Sue comes across a letter. She pays a street vendor to read it to her, and at last, Sue knows the entirety of the truth, that Sue and Maud were each to have half of her true mother’s fortune. Lady Lilly has written that “Susan Lilly [is] to know nothing of her unhappy mother, but that she strove to keep her from care. Maud Sucksby [is] to be raised a gentlewoman; and to know that her mother loved her, more than her own life” (497). Both women—Mrs. Sucksby and Lady Lilly—thought they were doing best for their daughters (and, certainly, for her future fortune in the case of Mrs. Sucksby).

Sue immediately decides to find Maud, who she still loves deeply, and travels to Briar in hopes that she might determine her whereabouts. Maud, it turns out, is still at Briar. Her uncle has died, and Maud is free. Maud also confesses what her uncle’s books were all about and what she had been forced to learn. At first, Sue is shocked—and upset, realizing that Maud knew everything about their sexual encounter while Sue was still an innocent. Maud also reveals that this is now how she makes her living, writing what is considered obscene literature—but she says it with pride. Sue realizes that she loves Maud, no matter what she knows or what she writes: “After all, I thought, [it] was only ink” (511). They kiss and tremble, and Maud shows Sue what she has written.

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