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Literature / Fingersmith

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The third novel by British author Sarah Waters, Fingersmith tells the story of Victorian thief Sue Trinder, who agrees to help con sheltered heiress Maud Lilly out of her inheritance, but The Plan begins to go awry when she finds herself falling in love with the innocent and beautiful Maud.

The book was turned into a popular BBC miniseries in 2005. The story was re-imagined in Korea under Japanese occupation in the 2016 film The Handmaiden.


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Novel-wide tropes:

  • Battleaxe Nurse: Nurse Bacon and her coworkers certainly fit.
  • Becoming the Mask: Both Maud and Sue.
  • Bedlam House: Sue ends up here and Maud was raised here. As the novel is set during the Victorian period when mental healthcare was...questionable at best, the trope doesn't come off as starkly here as in a more modern setting. However, the nurses habitually play games with the patients for their own amusement, and disobedience—perceived or otherwise—is treated harshly. At one point, Sue and another patient are "treated" by tying them up and repeatedly dunking them into a tank of cold water.
  • Break-Up/Make-Up Scenario: Maud and Sue
  • Britain is Only London: Averted—Sue has never been outside London, but must travel to Briar House to work for Maud, which is located in the countryside. However, she never stops longing to return to London. Conversely, Maud has never been to London, and expresses excitement about being in a real city for the first time.
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  • Double Entendre: The title.
  • The Dung Ages: London.
  • Evil Plan: It all starts with conmen trying to swindle an heiress...
  • Forgiveness: Maud and Sue, after realizing they both intended to have the other one committed to an asylum on false pretenses.
  • Gambit Pileup: What starts as an Evil Plan on the part of Gentleman and Sue turns out to be part of Gentleman and Maud's plan. Which, in the end, was all orchestrated by Mrs. Sucksby, unbeknownst to anyone.
  • Gene Hunting: Inverted and deconstructed. Mrs. Sucksby tries to exchange her adoptive daughter for her biological daughter who's been raised by a rich family (she thinks the girl will love her just by virtue of being her biological daughter — she's wrong).
  • Gray and Gray Morality: Sue and her family are all in on the plot to rob Maud and lock her up, and Maud is willing to do the same to Sue.
  • Home Sweet Home: Maud and Sue, after everything.
  • New Queer Cinema: The miniseries adaptation qualifies— neither protagonist seems to experience gayngst, for one, nor does Gentleman make much of discovering Maud's attraction to Sue.
  • Old, Dark House: Briar House, where the reclusive Mr. Lilly lives with his niece, Maud.
  • Ominous Fog: On Sue's arrival at Briar.
  • Period Piece: Set in Victorian England.
  • Pre-Climax Climax: Takes place before the midway point of the novel.
  • Psychological Thriller: Some aspect of this, given how much big pieces of the plot rely on the mental state of the characters involved.
  • Queer Romance: Maud and Sue.
  • Small, Secluded World: Briar—Sue often remarks on how it feels like it's own separate world, and Maud complains of how quiet and isolated it is during her first years there. Both girls think of Briar as a place that moves on its own timeline, apart from the rest of the world, and has a tendency to suck people in and trap them.
  • Swapped Roles: Maud and Sue, after Sue is passed off as Maud and confined to a mental hospital, and Maud becomes trapped at the house on Lant street by Mrs. Sucksby.
  • Switched at Birth: Maud and Sue.
  • Title Drop: Pretty early on Sue mentions that 'fingersmith' is a local word for 'thief'.
  • Twist Ending: Turns out Maud is Mrs. Sucksby's natural daughter, and Sue is the daughter of the noblewoman Marianne Lilly—they were switched at birth by their mothers, with the agreement that Marianne's inheritance be split between the two of them at age 18.
  • Victorian London: Location for much of the story.
  • Wealthy Ever After: Maud and Sue after the plan has played out and all loose ends are accounted for. Oh, and after they've admitted they love each other.


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