A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Part of LGBT Week on VL
I’d heard of this modern classic from various sources and even knew of the mini-series which aired in the U.K., but had never read it. I was not disappointed. The novel works on many levels; suspense tale, Victoriana, love story, feminist bell ringer.
Sue is part of a group of fingersmiths– thieves and pickpockets(think Dickens‘ Artful Dodger). Another member of the gang, nicknamed Gentleman, sets out to seduce a wealthy heiress, Maud, who will come into her fortune once she marries. Sue, acting as lady’s maid, is to encourage Maud’s feelings toward Gentleman. Soon however, Sue is falling in love with Maud herself.
Sue has grown up with the fingersmiths and was part of their ‘baby farm’, where abandoned babies are cared for and later sold into servitude. Though living in the slums, her life has been in many ways better than Maud‘s, who grew up with her rich and twisted uncle.
The plot lines and double-crossings often take turns which are completely unexpected. One such left me feeling poleaxed. Full of vivid descriptions, it presents an unromanticized view of Victorian England, the monotony of servant’s lives, the darkness of lantern lit rooms. It doesn’t spare us the harshness of the times either; the routine abuse of children, the horrors of the insane asylums or arsenic in dresses. Waters gives us well drawn characters with distinct voices. The narration of the well-read Maud is quite different than the illiterate Sue, whose speech is littered with slang.
One of the underlying themes of the novel was how most people, especially women, was at that time on a fragile tether to society, utterly dependant upon male relatives and acquaintances. If the man’s circumstances, or indeed opinion, should change, a woman had hardly any options for making her way in the world. That fear surrounded any choices a woman had to make.
The web of society and some surprising revelations, lead Sue and Maud through some harrowing situations, making the reader relieved to find oneself in the present day. Don’t be put off by the number of pages, you won’t even notice once you start down those shadowed cobbled streets.
Riverhead Books 2001 511 pp. ISBN 1-57322-203-8
Jackie is very glad she didn’t live in Victorian times, for more reasons than she can count.