Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is the narrative of two Victorian women, each with an unusual background, each having each been raised in an untraditional home. Maud and Susan both live surrounded by people they consider to be familial replacements, and both narrators describe worlds that challenge family, motherhood, and typical formations of female identity. In one such apssage, for example, Maud recalls her wedding only vaguely, offering a sparse description of her experience of the event:

I remember the church of flint, the stalks of honesty, my own white gloves — my hand, that is bared then passed from one set of fingers to another, then bruised by the thrusting of a ring . . . I do not remember the walk from the church: what I recall next is a room, Sue loosening my gown; and then a pillow, coarse against my cheek; a blanket, coarser; and weeping. My hand is bare and has that ring upon it, still. Sue’s fingers slip from mine. [308]

Until this point, Maud retells the novel’s first section from her point of view with a great amount of detail, providing a narrative that is both open and direct. But in recalling her marriage to Gentleman, Maud suddenly stops short, providing only this lurching and hazy narrative. Although the rest of the novel is colored with an unmistakable clarity, Maud rushes through the wedding day and what briefly appears be the consummation of the marriage, until it becomes clear at the end of the paragraph that Sue is still present. Maud denies the reader an experience of the wedding and avoids the copulation that accompanies it, thereby subverting expectations for the female body and for familial structure.

The novel repeatedly undermines familial structure throughout the novel in multiple ways: through Mrs. Sucksby and her baby farming, the unmarried status of both Susan and MaudŐs mothers, Maud's childhood in an asylum where multiple nurses perversely imitated motherhood, and the unfruitful marriage of Richard and Maud (to name a few). And in many of the same ways, the novel also violates a Victorian sense of the female. For although Susan and Maud each have their share of more characteristically feminine moments, primarily during their interactions with each other, when Susan and Maud interact with men or masculine women, they display their capacities for rage, violence, evil plotting, deception, and manipulation.


1. At the novel’s close, Susan and Maud reunite and express their mutual love, but only after the rest of the novel’s primary characters are dead or distant. Furthermore, although they unite in a home, it is a home that is dark, primarily empty, and isolated. Does this apparent conflict trouble the novel’s stance on homosexual love?

2. Unlike The Woman in White, Fingersmith goes beyond gesturing to the asylum from a distance, giving the reader an intimate and detailed experience of Susan's life in the asylum. Is this willingness to plunge into the asylum the product of the novel’s Neovictorian status? What do we gain from receiving the details of Susan’s experience, and how are we to consider the significant absence of Laura’s asylum narrative in The Woman in White?

3. Many important relationships in the text are characterized by distinct pairings: Maud & her uncle, Susan & Mrs. Sucksby, Maud & Susan, Susan & Gentleman, Maud & Richard, John & Dainty, and so forth. Does this clear preference for pairs have any symbolic meaning in the text?

4. In Fingersmith, the asylum is a female space, occupied by and disciplined primarily by women. How does the internal space of the asylum compare to Victorian domestic spaces, and are they equally feminized spaces?

Last modified 22 April 2010