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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.

Novel-wide tropes:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Gentleman. His pretensions of sophistication and foppery and his fixation on style earn him plenty of sneers of this sort from the rough-around-the-edges thieves he comes into contact with. He also takes a lot of interest in the details of training Sue to become a maid.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Heteronormative Crusader: Gentleman uses homophobia to help get Sue committed, telling the doctors that she made unwanted sexual advances on Maude (it was consensual) and they react in horror, convinced this means she's mentally ill.
  • The Ingenue: Both of the main characters play with this trope a bit. Sue doesn't appear to be this on the surface, understandably as she grew up among rough-edged thieves so can hardly be described as a purely innocent naif, but it's established that Mrs. Sucksby made a point of keeping Sue away from the worst aspects of the east-end criminal life and was overall rather protective and sheltering towards her for her own purposes, as it turns out, meaning that compared to many of those surrounding her she is a lot more inexperienced, naive and trusting. Maud, meanwhile, appears to be the stereotypical innocent "pigeon", but gradually turns out to be a lot more savvy, hard-edged and damaged than you'd expect. Most particularly, Maud is subject to numerous forms of abuse from her uncle, was raised in a mental asylum, and turns out to be plotting with Gentleman to betray Sue — none of which Sue expects. Furthermore, much to Sue's shock and embarrassment, Maud ends the novel writing pornography to support herself.
  • Irony: Early in the book, Sue expresses contempt for servants over how devoted they become to and emotionally invested they get in the lives of their masters. She ends up falling in love with the woman whose maid she is posing as.
  • Marrying the Mark: This is the con Gentleman and Sue are planning: Sue, posing as a maidservant, convinces the sheltered heiress Maud to marry Gentleman, who is then going to commit her to a Bedlam House and split her money with Sue. Things don't go as planned... or rather, not as planned by Sue.
  • 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.
  • Parental Abandonment: Both Sue and Maude's birth parents were absent in their lives. Both of their fathers were never around to begin with. Sue lost her mother due to being hanged for murder. Maude's died later though it turns out this wasn't her actual birth mother, who switched her with Sue.
  • Period Piece: Set in Victorian England.
  • 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.
  • Spanner in the Works: The plan to swap Maud and Sue to live their 'true' lives might have worked, as Sue is shown starting to genuinely believe that she is Maud having suffered a breakdown after being treated as such in an asylum, until Charles comes to look for Gentleman and his recognition of Sue assures her of her real identity.
  • 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.
  • 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: The 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.