by Sarah Waters
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Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

“Oliver Twist with a twist…Waters spins an absorbing tale that withholds as much as it discloses. A pulsating story.”—The New York Times Book Review  

The Handmaiden, a film adaptation of Fingersmith, directed by Park Chan-wook and starring Kim Tae-Ri, is now available.

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum.

With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways...But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573229722
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/15/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 78,593
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.26(d)

About the Author

Sarah Waters is the New York Times–bestselling author of The Paying GuestsThe Little Stranger,The Night WatchFingersmith, Affinity, and Tipping the Velvet. She has three times been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, has twice been a finalist for the Orange Prize, and was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists, among other distinctions. Waters lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me. I was Mrs Sucksby’s child, if I was anyone’s; and for father I had Mr Ibbs, who kept the locksmith’s shop, at Lant Street, in the Borough, near to the Thames.

This is the first time I remember thinking about the world and my place in it.

There was a girl named Flora, who paid Mrs Sucksby a penny to take me begging at a play. People used to like to take me begging then, for the sake of my bright hair; and Flora being also very fair, she would pass me off as her sister. The theatre she took me to, on the night I am thinking of now, was the Surrey, St George’s Circus. The play was Oliver Twist. I remember it as very terrible. I remember the tilt of the gallery, and the drop to the pit. I remember a drunken woman catching at the ribbons of my dress. I remember the flares, that made the stage very lurid; and the roaring of the actors, the shrieking of the crowd. They had one of the characters in a red wig and whiskers: I was certain he was a monkey in a coat, he capered so. Worse still was the snarling, pink-eyed dog; worst of all was that dog’s master—Bill Sykes, the fancy-man. When he struck the poor girl Nancy with his club, the people all down our row got up. There was a boot thrown at the stage. A woman beside me cried out,

‘Oh, you beast! You villain! And her worth forty of a bully like you!’

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. And when the woman who had called out put her arms to me and smiled, I screamed out louder. Then Flora began to weep—she was only twelve or thirteen, I suppose. She took me home, and Mrs Sucksby slapped her.

‘What was you thinking of, taking her to such a thing?’ she said. ‘You was to sit with her upon the steps. I don’t hire my infants out to have them brought back like this, turned blue with screaming. What was you playing at?’

She took me upon her lap, and I wept again. ‘There now, my lamb,’ she said. Flora stood before her, saying nothing, pulling a strand of hair across her scarlet cheek. Mrs Sucksby was a devil with her dander up. She looked at Flora and tapped her slippered foot upon the rug, all the time rocking in her chair—that was a great creaking wooden chair, that no-one sat in save her—and beating her thick, hard hand upon my shaking back. Then,

‘I know your little rig,’ she said quietly. She knew everybody’s rig. ‘What you get? A couple of wipers, was it? A couple of wipers, and a lady’s purse?’

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Deliciously brazen…a smart and seductive enchantment.”
Los Angeles Times

“Oliver Twist with a twist…Waters spins an absorbing tale that withholds as much as it discloses. A pulsating story.”
The New York Times Book Review 

“Astonishing narrative twists.”

“Superb storytelling. Fingersmith is gripping; so suspenseful and twisting is the plot that for the last 250 pages, I read at breakneck speed.”
USA Today 

“A deftly plotted thriller…absorbing and elegant.”
Entertainment Weekly

“A marvelous pleasure…Waters’s noted attention to historical detail and her beautifully sensitive dialogue help to anchor the force-five plot twisters.”
The Washington Post 

“Calls to mind the feverishly gloomy haunts of Charlotte and Emily Brontë…Elaborate and satisfying.”
The Seattle Times

“A sweeping read.”
The Boston Globe

Reading Group Guide


Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby's household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, a somewhat elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud's vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be left to live out her days in a mental hospital. With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways....But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and surprises.

The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of "consummate skill" and The Seattle Times has praised her work as "gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses." Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.



Sarah Waters, 35, was born in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales, United Kingdom. She studied English Literature at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, at the universities of Kent and Lancaster. As a student she lived for two years in Whitstable, the sea-side town—famous for its oysters—in which her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, is partly set. In 1988 she moved to London; her first full-time job was in an independent bookshop; later she worked in public libraries. In 1991 she decided to return to postgraduate study, and she spent the next three years writing a PhD thesis, on lesbian and gay historical fiction. She developed a daily writing routine, and a passion for language and composition. She had articles on gender, sexuality and history published in various scholarly journals, including Feminist Review, Journal of the History of Sexuality, and Science as Culture.

But while working on her thesis, and becoming increasingly interested in London life of the nineteenth century, Waters began to conceive the historical novel that would become Tipping the Velvet. With the thesis complete, and supporting herself with bits of teaching and part-time library work, she started to write. The novel was finished in just over a year, and was published in the U.K. by Virago (1998) and in the U.S. by Riverhead (1999).

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is in the process of adapting the book into a major series with director Andrew Davies, who also directed the BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

By 1991, Waters had already begun her second novel, Affinity. This was completed with help from a London Arts Board New London Writers Award, and appeared in the U.K. in 1999 and in the U.S. in 2000. Waters taught for a time for the Open University, a national educational institution offering undergraduate schooling to mature students from a range of social backgrounds. She has also tutored on creative writing programs. She published articles on literature as recently as 1999, but now devotes herself full time to the writing of fiction. Her third novel, Fingersmith, was completed in 2001, and she is currently at work on her next book. She still lives in London, a city she finds endlessly inspiring; but she dreams, too, of returning to a life by the sea.


  • At the start of her story, Sue Trinder claims: "I was Mrs. Sucksby's child, if I was anyone's." Is this true? Why or why not? Might she still make the same claim by the end of her saga?
  • "Everything that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to leave it again looking quite another," Sue says of Mrs. Sucksby's kitchen (p.10). At Briar, she finds unbearable "two-facedness" on the part of the servants, "all on the dodge in one way or another." (p.83) Compare and contrast the two households. In what ways does each reinforce the activities of its inhabitants?
  • Deceptive appearances are a recurring theme throughout the novel. Is anything about Maud what it seems to be? What about Gentleman? Mr. Lilly? Why do you think the author chose to come at the story twice, from two separate points of view? Is Sue's perception of the situation more or less "real" than Maud's? Why or why not?
  • Sue and Maud initially appear to be almost perfect opposites: where Sue's hands are toughened by work, Maud's are smooth and childlike; where Sue is illiterate, Maud does nothing but pore over books. In what ways do the scale and nature of their differences change as the novel progresses? In what ways have they grown alike by the end of their story? How are they different?
  • Sue and Maud's relationship progresses through many incarnations. Discuss the manifestations of their relationship: how do they fulfill and surpass their roles as villain and victim? Servant and master? Caretaker and dependant? How do their transitions alter their destiny?
  • What effect has her occupation in her uncle's library had on Maud's psyche? Is she capable of distinguishing between the content of the books and her own sexuality? What does her brutal treatment of Agnes indicate? How has she evolved by the time she returns to Briar at the end of the novel?
  • Sue's imprisonment in the asylum echoes Maud's incarceration at Lant Street, as well as her earlier situation at Briar. Discuss the ways in which gender and constraint are demonstrated—and challenged—in their respective characters. In what ways is the desire for "rare and sinister liberty" (p. 210) at the heart of both Maud and Sue's actions?
  • Do you think Sue's recollection of her earliest memory ("I remember the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr. Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last.—I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.") would be altered by her experiences? In spite of all the deceptions she has undergone, does she still regard "good" and "bad" so clearly? Why or why not?
  • What does this novel ultimately say about the relationship between morality and love?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Fingersmith 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 123 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is not a book I would have ever picked up - was looking for ideas that were different and found it in 1001 Books you Should Read (?). It was unbelievable - possibly one of the best books I have read of late. Both the dialogue, descriptions (a part that I frequently skim) and plot twists were amazing. Because I read alot, it is unusual for me to be surprised in a book - at least three different times I was completely caught off guard. I actually slowed down toward the end because I didn't want to stop reading it. I have not only recommended this book to people I have actually bought it for two friends. Definitely a keeper.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    At first, this seemed to be Dickensian. Then the scene changed and "Aha!" I thought. Scary Lord of the house, beautiful maiden isolated from the world. Gothic. Right? Wrong. Yes there are elements of Dickens and of Gothics. It does take place in 19th century England, after all. However, don't think you can guess what happens or how it all turns out. I can usually figure out a plot in 75 pages or less, but not in Fingersmith. I even usually predict what will turn out to be false, but not in Fingersmith. Oh, Mrs. Sucksby how could you! Susan was like your daughter. The twists and turns of the plot will keep you engrossed, but Water's writing is excellent too. It is good enough to merit the label "literary fiction." She actually researched thoroughly what she's writing about so you get to know how life was lived then, what it was like to be a woman controlled by men
    jenpalombi More than 1 year ago
    Let me begin by saying that Fingersmith is the first novel in recent memory to incorporate a plot twist so unexpected and surprising that I actually exclaimed out loud ("I think I said "Holy Crap!" or something equally insightful. Don't judge me. it was a shocking twist.) I love that. For better or worse, I am a very difficult reader to surprise. Fingersmith actually surprised me twice. Set in my very favorite literary time and place, Victorian England, Fingersmith is a tale of intrigue full of memorable characters, an intricate and surprising plot and vivid period detail. It is truly a remarkable book. The novel is divided into three parts: the first tells the story from Sue Trinder's perspective, the second tells the story from Maud Lilly''s perspective and the third finishes out the tale, moving forward from where their stories merge. or diverge, as the case may be. Part One is arguably the best storytelling work I've read in recent memory. It is spell-binding and I couldn't put the book down. Part Two is interesting because it is essentially a retelling of Part One from a completely different perspective with the addition of lots of great (and also unexpected) background information on Maud Lilly. Part Three brings the story to fruition. but Part Three is also the reason I dropped the plot rating from 5 to 4.5. once the stories rejoin and the plot moves forward to its conclusion, the novel loses a lot of momentum. Fingersmith is like a thoroughbred. really fast and vastly superior for short distances, but lacking a bit in endurance. Part Three contained a twist or two of its own, but was essentially a waiting game with little by way of new action or intrigue. Or maybe I'm just holding it to the impossibly high standard set forth in Part One. Waters does a brilliant job of portraying life in Victorian England - both rural and city life. I'm a bit of a snob about this period. it has to be perfect. And Fingersmith's setting really was perfect. The characters are equally well-developed with a wide variety of personas, all in keeping with Victorian standards and yet each with their own idiosyncrasies and often startling secrets. The premise of the novel is absolutely fresh and thoroughly unique. I can certainly see why Fingersmith put Sarah Waters on the map, so to speak. There is no arguing the talent of an author who writes a book like Fingersmith. The Bottom Line: An engrossing and intricately detailed historical novel full of intrigue and unexpected plot twists. A must-read for fans of the genre.
    EDNurseDee More than 1 year ago
    I decided to read the book because it was on the list of 1001 books to read before you die...and I'm very glad I did! Just when I thought I had figured out what was going to happen things twisted and surprised me. I will definitely read more by this author.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    well...this book was wonderfully atmospheric (or maybe i'm just partial to mid-1800s london). it is divided into three parts, and i most enjoyed the first, and its narrator, sue. although the plot became a little convoluted and often dragged, the writing more than made up for the deficiencies.
    buffalobibliophile More than 1 year ago
    Suspense thriller and love story; fair maidens and dastardly villains; country estate and insane asylum; den of thieves and literary purists; murder and mayhem in Victorian London; Sarah Waters manages to blend it all and produce one whale of a story that had me gulping it ravenously into the night, coming up for air only when it was done. One wild caper with more twists and turns than you can imagine. The protagonist, Susan Trinder is an orphan child whose only knowledge of her mother is the London gallows she can see from her window where, she is told, her mother was hung, not long after Susan's birth. She is being raised by Mrs. Sucksby, matriarch of a den of thieves, or fingersmiths. As a teenager, Sue agrees to help Mrs. Sucksby and her friend, the wily "Gentleman," in a scheme that will leave all three of them wealthy. Maud Lilly lives with her uncle in the country at Briar Estate, where she spends hours assisting him in his library. She may enjoy wealth, but she lives a miserable existence. It is the intersection of these two lives that provides the impetus that drives the narrative forward and enables the author to engage the reader in the tangled web that she so cleverly constructs. And clever may be an understatement because just when you think you know where the plot is going, bam, it twists in a completely different direction. Twists, turns, up, down, back around until you finally come to the conclusion. Throughout the process, Waters describes the life and times of Victorian London in the starkest terms possible: "At last I wake and do not sleep again. The dark has eased a little. There has been a street-lamp burning, that has lit the threads of the bleached net scarf hung at the window; now it is put out. The light turns filthy pink. The pink gives way, in time, to a sickly yellow. It creeps, and with it creeps sound-softly at first, then rising in a staggering crescendo: crowing cocks, whistles and bells, dogs, shrieking babies, violent calling, coughing, spitting, the tramp of feet, the endless hollow beating of hooves and the grinding of wheels. Up, up, up it comes, out of the throat of London." (Page 367) Waters puts you right there in Dickens' London. Wonderful read. Very highly recommended.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is perhaps one of the best suspense novels I've read in a long time, and to think I almost put it back on the shelf. I was at first intrigued by the title and book cover, but when I glanced at the jacket and saw that the story was set in 1800's London, I almost put it back. I'm not generally into period pieces as the language can sometimes be stiff and make a story difficult to follow. That is not at all the case with this novel and I was immediately swept up with the intriguing characters (all of them!) and the plot's several layers of deception, which Waters masterfully allows to unfold. This is the first novel I've read by this author, and I will definitely be looking for other books she's written.
    TheBookFairy More than 1 year ago
    This is a remarkable book with lots of twists and turns to the plot. A very unique story with well developed characters. I highly recommend it to anyone that appreciates good historical fiction.
    VIXEN26 More than 1 year ago
    I enjoyed the book very, very much - although the ending was a little disappointing. I had expected it to end differently. This was her first book I read.
    sarafenix More than 1 year ago
    A story with any twists and turns and worth every page of it. Period pieces are my favorites.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This is one of my favorite books and everyone I have recommend it to has loved it. It has so many twists and turns ... and you rarely see them coming.
    Anonymous 14 days ago
    This book was well written and kept my interest for what would happen next. But I only gave it 3 stars because the characters were so despicable!! I didn't like any of them and hated most of them. A few characters redeemed themselves by the end of the book which ended well and that is always a plus for me in a book. The author is certainly very talented and I enjoyed the twists in the book. Most of which I did not see coming. I'm not sure I'll read works by this author again because I don't enjoy reading about homosexual relationships.
    Anonymous 4 months ago
    A great read with a plot full of twists and turns. ~*~LEB~*~
    Anonymous 9 months ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Loved it!
    LisaDunckley More than 1 year ago
    Interesting book—sort of a literary combination of a gothic novel, a Dickens story, and a thrilling tale of double crosses and betrayals. Without giving away any spoilers, the book has two narrators who describe events from their own different perspectives, and this makes it clear that all is not always as it seems. Every time you think you know what's going to happen there is a big twist. Lots of people revealing their true selves, betraying others, and an unlikely, unexpected romance. It's difficult to explain what was enjoyable about the book, without ruining it for someone who hasn't read it, so I will just say that if you enjoy Dickens, or gothic novels, or literary thrillers you will not be able to put this book down!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book....what a great story teller Waters is. With each page or chapter, I found myself going...."noooooo, don't!".... Waters gives each character such depth and the plot and story line was just so darned good. The way Waters kept bouncing from one situation, then another.....keeps the reader pretty intense. Great book and highly recommend.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    What a great book! Just when I thought I had figured out the plot it changed direction. The story is Victorian but so much more, two women, a hoodlum, an old woman and many more intriguing characters. Read this book in a day and half. Also forgot, a lesbian relationship. Victorian with sex. Can't get any better then that.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I did not see in this book what most of other readers saw. I hated it and did not finish. Too bad because it was rather expensive.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    About half way through this book, I would have given it 5 stars, hands down. However, towards the end, the book felt to drag on and the end was somewhat of a letdown. This is a BIG book, but it could have very easily been 75 pages less. I will say that there were a lot of twists and turns and several "OMG" moments while reading this book. This was my first book by Waters, and I will definitely read more. All in all, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago