Sarah Waters

(Jump over to read a review of The Little Stranger)


(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel MAR 16, 2003)

“My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan.”

And so starts Sarah Waters’ third novel, Fingersmith, which was nominated for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, in 2002. The word, fingersmith, was slang for pickpocket or thief during the 1800’s in London, also known as the Victorian era. Waters has placed her story during this time in a way that some critics compare to Charles Dickens. I think this story is as rich as any Dickens I have read; I feel compelled to start again, at page one, after just finishing it.

Read excerptThe novel begins with the introduction of Sue Trinder -- an orphan. Seventeen years earlier, Sue’s mother arrived pregnant on the doorstep of Mrs. Sucksby and Mr. Ibbs, who live on Lant Street, in London. Mrs. Sucksby had the reputation in “The Borough” for taking in unwed mothers and orphaned babies. “Mrs. Trinder” gave birth to Sue, and stayed at Mrs. Sucksby’s until the police found her, arrested her for murder, and hanged her. Sue continues to live with Mrs. Sucksby and Mr. Ibbs in their strange, poverty-stricken family of miscreants. Mr. Ibbs makes his living melting down silver and gold stolen by the thieves around London. Mrs. Sucksby, in essence, sells babies.

All is well on Lant Street, when “Gentleman” shows up with a scheme in mind. Gentleman is a well-known con man among the London thieves -- he’s 28, quite good-looking, and penniless. “We called him Gentleman, because he really was a gent -- had been, he said to a real gent’s school, and had a father and a mother and a sister -- all swells -- whose heart he had just about broke. He had money once, and lost it all gambling…”

Gentleman has acquired a position at a country estate mounting the owner’s art collection onto frames. The master of the estate, Christopher Lilly, is an old scholarly man with a huge collection of books. He is obsessed with his collection and is really just a hermit. His orphaned niece, Maud, who is sixteen, lives at the estate and helps him with his library. Gentleman describes the situation at the Lilly estate as this,“He’s made a secretary of her, all these years- has her reading to him for hours at a stretch. I think he hardly knows she has grown up and turned into a lady.”

Gentleman, who is known as Richard Rivers to the Lillys, plans on courting Maud and secretly marrying her without her uncle’s knowledge. He then plans on putting her into an insane asylum and keeping Maud’s inheritance for himself. Gentleman has come to London to get Sue’s assistance in making this plan come to fruition. With Sue as Maud’s maid and chaperon, Gentleman will have more freedom to court Maud. Sue will also be able to convince Maud, the country heiress, that eloping with “Richard” is the right thing to do. Sue agrees to the scheme after negotiating a three thousand pound payment once Maud has been placed in the asylum. Sue starts lessons to become a “proper lady’s maid.”

This is about as much of the novel that I can summarize, without giving away the plot. There are more twists and turns in this story than the best roller coaster. Once you think you’ve gotten it figured out, Sarah Waters throws a delightful wrench into the whole story, throwing you in a different direction. And Waters has the ability to bamboozle the reader more than once -- you think you’ve got it, and you’re effectively blown away AGAIN!

It is Waters’ wonderful ability to create characters which are loving, but we have to remember that the book is about thieves. I found myself falling for each of her characters, and then finding out that they all do pretty despicable things.

In addition to the wonderfully surprising plot, you get a nice education on life in Victorian England. The life of those in poverty and the life of those on country estates -- glimpses into insane asylums, prisons, and the public spectacle of hangings are all detailed in this novel. Waters even accomplishes a walk through London detailing all the things you might see if you traveled through the city during the 1800s. Waters’ earlier novels, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity also deal with life in Victorian London. I read Affinity, which dealt with primarily with conditions in the women’s prisons during Victorian times. Affinity was a really good book, but Fingersmith has to be Waters’ proudest achievement so far.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 174 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Fingersmith at

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About the Author:

Sarah WatersSarah Waters was born in 1966 in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales. She studied English Literature at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, at the universities of Kent and Lancaster. As a student she lived for two years in Whitstable, the sea-side town—famous for its oysters—in which her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, is partly set. In 1988 she moved to London; her first full-time job was in an independent bookshop; later she worked in public libraries. In 1991 she decided to return to postgraduate study, and she spent the next three years writing a PhD thesis, on lesbian and gay historical fiction. She developed a daily writing routine, and a passion for language and composition.

While working on her thesis she became increasingly interested in London life of the nineteenth century, and so Waters began to conceive the historical novel that would become Tipping the Velvet. With the thesis complete, and supporting herself with bits of teaching and part-time library work, she started to write. The novel was finished in just over a year. Tipping the Velvet won the Lamda Literay Award and was a New York Times Notable Book.

By 1991, Waters had already begun her second novel, Affinity. This was completed with help from a London Arts Board New London Writers Award, and appeared in the U.K. in 1999 and in the U.S. in 2000. Affinity won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, a Ferro-Grumley Award and an American Library Association Award and the Times of London cited her as novelist of the year 2000.

Waters taught for a time for the Open University, a national educational institution offering undergraduate schooling to mature students from a range of social backgrounds. She has also tutored on creative writing programs. She published articles on literature as recently as 1999, but now devotes herself full time to the writing of fiction. Her third novel Fingersmith was shortlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize and the Booker prize for fiction. She made the Granta list for 2003.

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