ⓘ Fingersmith, novel. The novel resumes Sues narrative, picking up where Maud and Gentleman had left her in the mental asylum. Sue is devastated at Mauds betrayal ..

Fingersmith (novel)

ⓘ Fingersmith (novel)

The novel resumes Sues narrative, picking up where Maud and Gentleman had left her in the mental asylum. Sue is devastated at Mauds betrayal and furious that Gentleman double-crossed her. When she screams to the asylum doctors that she is not Mrs Rivers but her maid Susan, they ignore her, as Gentleman helped by Maud has convinced them that this is precisely her delusion, and that she is really Maud Lilly Rivers, his troubled wife.

Sue is treated appallingly by the nurses in the asylum, being subjected to beatings and taunts on a regular basis. Such is her maltreatment and loneliness that, after a time, she begins to fear that she truly has gone mad. She is sustained by the belief that Mrs Sucksby will find and rescue her. Sue dwells on Mauds betrayal, the devastation of which quickly turns to anger.

Sues chance at freedom comes when Charles, a knife boy from Briar, comes to visit her. He is the son of Mr Way and, it turns out, the nephew of Mrs Cream. Charles, a simple boy, has been pining for the charming attentions of Gentleman to such an extent that Mr Way, the warden of Briar, had begun to beat him severely. Charles runs away, and has been directed to the asylum by Mrs Cream, who has no idea of the nature of the place.

With Charles recognition of her helping Sue accept her own memories as fact, she quickly enlists his help in her escape, persuading him to purchase a blank key and a file to give to her on his next visit. This he does, and Sue, using the skills learnt growing up in the Borough, escapes from the asylum and travels with Charles to London, with the intention of returning to Mrs Sucksby and her home in Lant Street.

On arrival, an astonished Sue sees Maud at her bedroom window. After days of watching the activity of her old home from a nearby boarding house, Sue sends Charles with a letter explaining all to Mrs Sucksby, still believing that it was Maud and Gentleman alone who deceived her. Charles returns, saying Maud intercepted the letter, and sent Sue a playing card - the Two of Hearts, representing lovers - in reply. Sue takes the token as a joke, and storms into the house to confront Maud, half-mad with rage. She tells everything to Mrs Sucksby, who pretends to have known nothing, and despite Mrs Sucksbys repeated attempts to calm her, swears she will kill Maud for what she has done to her. Gentleman arrives, and though initially shocked at Sues escape, laughingly begins to tell Sue how Mrs Sucksby played her for a fool. Maud physically tries to stop him, knowing how the truth would devastate Sue; a scuffle between Maud, Gentleman and Mrs Sucksby ensues, and in the confusion, Gentleman is stabbed by the knife Sue had brought with her to kill Maud. He bleeds to death. A hysterical Charles alerts the police. Mrs Sucksby, at last sorry for how she has deceived the two girls, immediately confesses to the murder: "Lord knows, Im sorry for it now; but I done it. And these girls here are innocent girls, and know nothing at all about it; and have harmed no-one."

Mrs Sucksby is hanged for killing Gentleman; it is revealed that Richard Rivers was not a shamed gentleman at all, but a drapers son named Frederick Bunt, who had ideas above his station. Maud disappears, though Sue sees her briefly at Mrs Sucksbys trial and gathers from the prison matrons that Maud had been visiting Mrs Sucksby in the days leading up to her death. Sue remains unaware of her true parentage until she finds the will of Marianne Lilly tucked in the folds of Mrs Sucksbys gown. Realising everything, an overwhelmed Sue sets out to find Maud, beginning by returning to Briar. It is there she finds Maud, and the nature of Christopher Lillys work is finally revealed to Sue. It is further revealed that Maud is now writing erotic fiction to sustain herself financially, publishing her stories in The Pearl, a pornographic magazine run by one of her uncles friends in London, William Lazenby. The two girls, still very much in love with each other despite everything, make peace and give vent to their feelings at last.


1. Characters

  • Mrs Cream - The owner of the cottage in which Gentleman and Maud stayed in, on the night of their elopement, along with Sue; Charles aunt.
  • Mr Way - A servant at Briar; father of Charles
  • Mr Ibbs - The crooked pawn seller who runs the den of thieves with Mrs Sucksby
  • Nurse Spiller - One of the asylums nurses who is particularly cruel to Sue
  • John Vroom - An ill-tempered boy; also a petty thief
  • Christopher Lilly - Mauds uncle, in reality Sues uncle; brother of Marianne Lilly
  • Agnes - Mauds long-suffering maid, who is seduced by Gentleman in order to make a post available for Sue
  • Nurse Bacon - The ward nurse at the asylum who is more lazy than cruel
  • Maud Lilly - The heiress whom Sue plans to defraud
  • Dainty - Sues best friend in Lant Street; a petty thief and close friend of John Vroom
  • Mrs Stiles - Mauds childhood carer; a bitter woman who never recovered from the loss of her own daughter
  • Susan Trinder - The protagonist of the novel
  • Mrs Sucksby - Adoptive mother of Sue; Mauds real mother
  • Dr Christie - Head doctor at the mental asylum where Sue is kept
  • Marianne Lilly - Susans mother, whom Maud believed to be hers; her father and brother had her committed to an asylum after giving birth, where she died
  • Charles Way - A knife boy at Briar, who becomes enamoured with Gentleman
  • Richard Gentleman Rivers - Partner in crime to both Sue and Maud

2. LGBT and feminist themes

The book is notable for its eroticism and depiction of pornography. Reviewers have praised Waters’ negotiation of sexual themes; a review from The Guardian describes it as" erotic and unnerving,” while the New York Times praises its" illicit undertow.”

Literary critics have also focused on the novel’s sexual themes, and identified its engagement with debates surrounding feminism and pornography. In Fingersmith, Waters uses her depiction of lesbian love between Maud and Sue to challenge a variety of hetero-patriarchal norms, and respond to different feminist arguments about pornography. Outside of discussions about sexuality, the struggles that Maud and Sue both face as women in Victorian society, and their often exploitative relationships with men are also of interest to feminist critics.

The novel’s title is likely intended to reflect the erotic themes of the novel. Fingersmith is an archaic term for a petty thief, but given the content of the novel, it can also be assumed to have intentionally sexual connotations.

Waters is known for writing lesbian fiction, and is a lesbian herself.


3. Allusions/references to other works

  • Waters also states in the Notes that all of the texts cited by Maud in Fingersmith actually existed, and lists their titles accordingly.
  • In her Notes on the Text, Waters informs the reader that the book Christopher Lilly and Maud are working on is actually based on bibliographies published by Henry Spencer Ashbee, under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, in the late 1870s. Waters makes it clear, however, that though Lillys sentiments on book-keeping echo those of Ashbee, he is in all other aspects entirely fictitious.

4. Adaptations

The novel has been adapted for television, the stage and as a film.

Fingersmith, a BBC TV adaptation, was broadcast in 2005. Its cast included Sally Hawkins as Susan Trinder, Elaine Cassidy as Maud Lilly, Imelda Staunton as Mrs Sucksby, and Rupert Evans as Gentleman.

Alexa Junge wrote a stage adaptation that premiered in March 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. It starred Erica Sullivan as Maud, Sara Bruner as Sue, Elijah Alexander as Gentleman and Peter Frechette as Chris Lilly. The play had its New England premiere at the American Repertory Theater in December 2016. It was directed by Bill Rauch, and star Tracee Chimo as Sue, Christina Bennett Lind as Maud Lilly, Kristine Nielsen as Mrs Sucksby, and T. Ryder Smith as Christopher Lilly.

The South Korean director Park Chan-wook created a film adaptation titled, The Handmaiden Korean title Agassi, set in 1930s colonial Korea and starring Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee, Cho Jin-woong and Kim Tae-ri. The film ended production on 31 October 2015, and was released at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The film received critical acclaim and was a box office success.