Hardcover, 511 pages
Published: February 4, 2002 by Riverhead Books
Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2002), Stonewall Book Award Nominee for Literature (2003), Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2002), Crime Writers’ Association Ellis Peters Historical Award (2002), Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction (2003), Kono Mystery ga Sugoi for Best Translated Mystery Novel of the Year in Japan (2005)
Seventeen-year-old Susan Trinder has been raised in a house full of “fingersmiths,” thieves and con artists, in Victorian London. Her foster mother, Mrs. Sucksby, is a “baby farmer,” fostering children for money. The house is full of babies who are quieted with doses of gin, a brazier who melts down stolen goods, and young girls work the streets, begging and swindling. In the midst of this, a bond forms between Susan and Mrs. Sucksby, who singles her out for special attention and care, treating her like her own daughter.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Sucksby colludes with a swindler called Gentleman to involve Susan in a scheme to rob an heiress of her inheritance. The target of this plot is Maud Lilly, a girl about Susan’s age. Maud, who works as an assistant to her scholarly uncle, is harboring dark secrets of her own. Susan and Maud come to care for each other in ways they’d never expected, but their feelings are likely to be tossed aside as they fight for their own survival in a world of dark schemes, cruelty, and narrowly proscribed roles for young women.
This novel is written in Victorian style, with elegant language and careful, detailed descriptions. Like Dickens, the author takes us into the poverty and desperation of the London streets, and like the Brontes, she leads us to a dim, drafty Gothic mansion with dark secrets.
However, Sarah Waters also brings modern sensibilities to this novel. The result is an intriguing period piece that offers a glimpse at the dark underside of upper-class Victorian England, beneath its careful manners and puritanical mores, as well as a vivid picture of lower-class life in the London streets. It also explores the unlikely ways we find love and intimacy and the conflict between affection and compassion for others and the desperate struggle to survive at all costs. Not to mention a wealth of delightful plot twists.
This well-researched historical novel also offers many layers of fodder for discussion, especially about women’s issues. We’re transported to a time when marriage — in the words of one character — was legalized rape and robbery. This is a cynical view but not far from the truth. Women were not allowed to own property — everything they had legally belonged to their husbands. And there were no laws against marital rape.
In this era, mental hospitals were used by husbands as a way of disposing of wayward or unwanted wives. Physical intimacy between two women was grounds for being committed to a “lunatic asylum.” And, if one scene in this book is to be believed, allowing a young woman to overindulge in literature was thought to cause insanity. Apparently it causes the “organ of fancy” to become inflamed, provoking psychosis. 🙂
The breadth of the social issues Sarah Waters explores amazed me. The most compelling part of this novel, however, is the characters. The heroines are not paragons of virtue; they have been misshapen by destructive circumstances and are often selfish and cruel. However they are intelligent, thoughtful, and thoroughly human. And there are luminous moments when courage and love win over everything else. These women — and this story — will be difficult to forget.
I also highly recommend the film adaptation, which offers a wonderful cast, including Imelda Stanton and Sally Hawkins.