From the very beginning of Fingersmith, the reader is placed in the midst of beggars and thieves in Victorian London's Borough area. The house Susan Trinder has grown up in carries more than a whiff of damp and Charley Wag, the resident dog. The matron of those four walls is Mrs. Sucksby who earns a small income by taking in abandoned babies and then selling them on. To make her job easy, the babies are dosed with an opiate, which isn't always an exact science, with sometimes devastating results. Then again, infant mortality is far from rare.
Susan has always been treated by Mrs. Sucksby as something of a cut above. Her hands are fairly unchafed, her hair is brushed to a sheen, and her clothes are decent. With the introduction of a villainous character called 'Gentleman' we learn there's a reason behind the effort. Over forty miles away, in a depressing manor called Briar, another young lady lives with her uncle. Her name is Maud. These two seventeen year-old girls with completely different lives will be drawn together in a scheme so depraved, and yet so brilliantly orchestrated, that readers are never quite sure who they can trust.
One of the many aspects of Waters' writing that I find so appealing is her ability to educate without making me feel as though her research is being exhibited. A quick mention of arsenic being used in the dyeing process, and its dire effect, was something I learned about this summer in an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum called Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present.
"'Hi! Hi!' says Mrs Sucksby. 'Miss Lilly is a lady! I want her spoke to like one. You put that lip in.' Dainty has begun to put. 'That's better. Miss Lilly, how about we take the gown off and try the green and silver? Only a touch of arsenic in that green - won't harm you at all, so long as you keep from sweating too hard in the bodice.'"
I also came across something called 'bloaters' that sent me straight to Google...it's a lightly-smoked herring. Maud's uncle gifts her with a book called The Curtain Drawn Up which turns out to be a bit of Victorian porn, published in 1919. It also tells you something about what drives Maud's uncle and the atmosphere at his country pile. I also discovered that Mrs. Sucksby's house on Lant Street - is a street once occupied by Charles Dickens and another literary landmark to add to my next trip to London.
Because this is a book of twists and turns, it's impossible to mention anything more about the plot without spoiling the suspense for future readers. Friday night with my book group is going to be full of rousing discussion and so liberating for finally being able to talk openly about characters' motives, wrong-doings, and perseverance. There's a section of the book that is set in an asylum so I'm counting on an emotional discussion about the ease with which men could dispatch women to such vile institutions.
Fingersmith is highly recommended!