Monday, 16 April 2018

Gothic Adaptations: Fingersmith


On Wednesday 18th April we’ll be meeting to discuss the adaptation of Sarah Waters’ neo-Victorian melodrama, Fingersmith (2002). Ahead of the session Hannah Moss thinks about the ways in which the novel is itself an adaptation…


Take two orphaned heroines of uncertain origins, place one amongst gang of thieves and the other in a Gothic country house presided over by a domineering patriarch… It’s a familiar recipe! Fingersmith (2002) certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the early Gothic novel along with the sensation fiction and theatrical melodramas of the nineteenth century. In many ways this is a novel about adaptation, as Sarah Waters effectively takes all of our favourite ingredients and then adds an unexpected twist to create something new.

(Cover for Sarah Waters' Fingersmith)
Sarah Waters’ neo-Victorian melodrama evokes the sights, sounds, and spectacles of Dickensian London as she weaves together the narratives of her two heroines, Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly.  Sue is an orphan whose mother was hanged for her crimes and, as a consequence, she has been raised by Mrs Sucksby, a baby farmer who is the matriarch of a group of petty criminals. When a gentleman rogue of their acquaintance, known simply as ‘Gentleman’, offers Sue the opportunity of making her fortune, she is drawn into a plot to swindle an heiress out of her inheritance – or so she thinks!

Maud Lilly, the seemingly naïve young ward of old man consumed by his passion for collecting rare books and prints, is to be their target. Gentleman has already infiltrated their home posing as an artist and connoisseur who can help Mr Lilly compile a book of mounted prints. By working as Maud’s lady’s maid, Sue is to facilitate meetings between Gentleman and her mistress by chaperoning their drawing lessons. Once married, and Maud’s money is safely in his hands, Gentleman intends to dispose of his new wife by having her committed to an asylum. So far, so familiar.

Much of the action even takes place in Lant Street, Southwark – the very place Charles Dickens lived as a child, during the period when his father was being held in Marshalsea debtors’ prison nearby. Waters plays with the idea of adapting Dickens from the outset. At the opening of the novel Sue, the Fingersmith or thief of the title, recalls how as a child she was taken to the theatre on a pick-pocketing mission, but it is the stage adaptation of Oliver Twist being performed that leaves a lasting impression. Unable to separate fiction from reality, the scene where Bill Sykes brutally beats Nancy to death alarms Sue to such an extent that she screams out:

I don’t know if it was the people getting up – which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes’s feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me.[i]

The menacing figure of Sykes haunts Sue, but it is never is it explained to her that it was only a play. Instead, Mrs Sucksby claims that Sykes, a Clerkenwell man, would never step foot in the Borough: ‘She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco’.  (Waters, 2002: 6). Sue believes the stories she is told even if they go against what she sees with her own eyes – and so Waters artfully sets-up what will be an important theme of the novel as a whole. What’s more, the embedded theatrical melodrama mirrors its frame text in that these are the characters who populate Waters’ vision of London. For example, Sue lives with Dainty and John – a couple whose abusive relationship to a certain extent replicates that of Bill and Nancy.

(Richard Rivers, charming Gentleman/conman in the BBC adaptation)
As for Gentleman, well he has a long lineage when it comes to Gothic villains: a handsome, supposedly aristocratic criminal who plans to marry a woman for her fortune and pack her off to the madhouse - where’ve we seen that before?! If my own research into art in the novel has taught me anything, it’s never trust a man who offers to give you drawing lessons! Maud certainly thinks of him in terms of his literary archetypes and antecedents: ‘I think of him, Macheath-like, counting off a set of vicious faces – Mrs Vixen, Betty Doxy, Jenny Diver, Molly Brazen – until he finds the face he seeks … Suky Tawdry’(Waters, 2002: 240). He’s aligned with the captain of the band of thieves in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), as well as the manipulative Vicomte de Valmont in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), but neither picture fully encapsulates Gentleman’s brand of villainy. Gentleman may not be the aristocrat-turned-artist he presents himself as, but neither is he a criminal mastermind. The reader comes to realise that he, like both Sue and Maud, has been drawn into play a role in a larger plot without knowing the whole story.

(Maud Lily from the BBC adaptation)
Waters delights in making literary allusions, drawing on the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Bradden, and then subverting them. Mr Lilley at first appears like another Mr Casaubon – a crusty old scholar working on a seemingly endless task – but his magnum opus is not what it seems. What the servants assume is a dictionary is actually an annotated bibliography of pornographic works. Then there are the twinned blonde heroines, Sue and Maud, who look so much alike that there’s bound to be a plot afoot. Their appearances converge as their identities merge, and in both cases it is an innocent appearance that masks corruption. Nothing is what it appears, and everyone is engaged in a performance.

It is proof of Waters’ skill as a writer is that she can essentially repeat the same story from another character’s perspective and still hold the reader’s attention. She effectively adapts her own work. As novel in ‘three acts’, the first part is narrated from Sue’s perspective before dramatically shifting to Maud once it is clear that Sue has been tricked, and then back again. Without giving too much away, Sue is basically drawn into a staged reality, just like with the play. Fingersmith leaves the reader questioning how much anyone can ever know, especially when something witnessed by one character does not match up with what another claims to have seen.

(Sue Trinder, Maud Lily, and Richard Rivers from the BBC Adaptation)
When Fingersmith was adapted for television in 2005, Waters expressed her concerns in a Radio Times interview with the rather apt admission that ‘it’s a bit like handing your baby over to possibly unscrupulous guardians. […] Maybe they’ll decide to turn your Victorian melodrama into a science-fiction epic, a musical, Fingersmith on Ice…!’[ii] Thankfully no producer has actually succeeded in bringing Fingersmith on Ice to fruition (as yet) and the BBC dramatization scripted by Peter Ransley and directed by Aisling Walsh remains pretty faithful to its source text. The switch in perspective is handled well using voice over work, but Cramming a 600 page novel into just 3 hours of television is no easy task. It was inevitable that certain cuts would have to be made and, for Waters, this understandably makes for a rather strange viewing experience: ‘the drama sometimes moves with, to me, a dizzying swiftness. I find myself squinting at the edge of the screen, as if I’ll be able to see the deleted action taking place, just off-camera.’[iii] On screen, Waters’ teenage blonde heroines have become brunette twenty-somethings, but Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy present a captivating love story. For me, the only problem watching this adaptation when you’ve already read the book is that you know what twists and turns are coming, and watch with a knowing eye, looking out for the clues that characters misread. For example, I invariably found myself looking to see if it was clear that Maud looked genuinely scared of Gentleman all along, as opposed to nervously coy of his attention.
If Waters was concerned about how the BBC would treat her ‘baby’, you have to wonder what went through her mind when she was approached by Park Chan-wook, wanting to transform her neo-Victorian melodrama into an erotic psychological thriller set in 1930s Korea.

(The Handmaiden, 2016)
In an interview with BBC Radio 4[1] Waters describes her fascination with The Handmaiden (2016) and how she takes pleasure in being able to recognise her characters even when the film makes departures from her text. The move from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea inevitably changes the focus from class to culture; there’s an unmistakeable tension between the coloniser and the colonised present in The Handmaiden, driving the characters to pretend to be what they are not. For Waters, the excess characterising Park’s directorial work is entirely appropriate for her homage to the novel of sensation. By all accounts The Handmaiden (2016) is a stunningly beautiful visual experience, but there is a paradox in terms of the male gaze. A novel about women being trapped by men, and how women can appropriate or subvert the structures imposed upon them, essentially becomes a male authored text in the hands of a male director. Waters has acknowledged this, stating: ‘Though ironically the film is a story told by a man, it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.’[2] But do we experience the story differently?

We’ll have plenty of time to consider the politics of adaptation during our discussion on Wednesday 18th April. Join us in Seminar Room 1, Jessop West from 4-6pm, or Tweet us your thoughts.  

Hannah Moss is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring the figure of the female artist in Eighteenth-Century literature. In her spare time she can often be found cataloguing rare books in country house libraries.



[i] Sarah Waters, Fingersmith, (London: Virago, 2002), p. 4.
[ii] Sarah Waters, ‘Gains in Translation’, Radio Times, 2005, p. 28.
[iii] ibid


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