Unearthing lesbian desire

The first kiss between Sue and Maud in Sarah Waters’ best-selling novel Fingersmith is visually suggestive and subtly erotic. ‘I kissed her again. Then I touched her. I touched her face. I began at the meeting of our mouths […] I had touched her before […] but never like this. It was like I was calling the heat and shape of her out of the darkness––as if the darkness was turning solid and growing quick, under my hand’.

The raciness of this passage doesn’t surprise – the novel, among other things, revisits sensation fiction, a genre popularised in the 1860s and known for eliciting intense physical responses from its readers. But its open and frank depiction of same-sex desire does; here, the characters are both female – Maud Lily, a gentlewoman, is kissing Susan Trinder, her maid. The scene is set in the late Victorian period, an age commonly thought of as sexually repressed and prudish.

The novel centers on what we discover are the linked stories of Sue and Maud. Sue, 17, has been raised by Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs. Since her mother was hanged at the gallows, she has lived in the Borough, an area of South London and a place of petty thieves and criminals. Here, Mr Ibbs deals in stolen property and Mrs Sucksby runs an illegal ‘baby farm’ out of unwanted babies (which she placates with the use of gin).

The novel opens with a recognizably Dickensian scene: the Borough is visited by one Richard Rivers, or rather, Gentleman – a thief and impostor who has a sordid plan to make the family rich. Maud is a wealthy and educated young lady living in a countryside manor called Briar which she shares with her controlling uncle. She is destined to inherit a large fortune when and if she marries. Gentleman’s plan is to seduce her, ‘jiggle’ her and marry her, only to then dump her in an asylum where she will hopefully be forgotten. Sue is to pose as Maud’s maid, gain her trust and persuade her to marry Gentleman. If successful, Sue will receive half of Maud’s fortune. She agrees to the plan without thinking twice, believing it is truly what her dead mother would have wanted.

The novel is more than just a thriller; it’s a love story – sexy, passionate and erotic, and it dares to go where the Victorian novel was either unable or unwilling to venture. It returns to the Victorian novel in implicit critique, injecting lesbian sex and desire into its pages. Fingersmith is ultimately about how and why we read the past. History isn’t stable or fixed – it’s open to interpretation. Here, we are invited to imagine what history might have looked like had its literature represented those other voices, those of the marginalised or suppressed.

Historiographically speaking, stories about lesbians are difficult to find. In Waters’ PhD, exploring gay and lesbian historical fiction from 1870 to the then-present, she reveals the enduring sense among lesbians of the paucity of archetypes from history and literature for their own sexuality. Pessimistically, she asserts that ‘like a ghost indeed, the lesbian past grows increasingly insubstantial the nearer one draws to it’. Tracing a so-called lesbian genealogy is a task mined with a number of historiographical challenges. ‘Perhaps there is no “it” to be recovered,’ Waters writes. Tracing lesbian desire is “tricky”. ‘There isn’t much in the way of novels and stuff like that…you have to look for evidence of lesbian life. You have to look at other sorts of things, like medical writing, or diaries, letters and poetry to some extent,” says Waters. So it is that she must read, as it were, ‘for the shadows at the margins of the page,’ as one critic has aptly put it.

Paradoxically, this presents the writer of fiction with a great opportunity. The discursive vacuum created by the lack of historical “proof” of queer desire leaves open a space in which the imagination can take root and flourish. Where no evidence exists for lesbian desire, Waters instead invents, cleverly exploiting the boundary between fact and fiction. Fingersmith renders visible what the historical record does not; fiction thus triumphs in its capacity to indulge fantasies both empowering and consolatory.

But in actual fact, lesbian narratives are often neither empowering nor consolatory. In recent times, we have witnessed the appearance of a rash of lesbian novels, films and TV shows, many of them cheerless and only some celebratory. But Waters, aware of the narrative conventions by which these works operate, consciously flips them on their head, offering us the example of a loving relationship between two women as opposed to the narrative of female victimization, objectification and exploitation that we find in other works of fiction. Fingersmith incorporates and redeploys these plots as part of a deliberate exercise in historical and literary revision. Sex and love between women is subversively depicted with sensitivity, and challenges earlier articulations of lesbian desire which were more focused on romantic friendship, as it features, for instance, in the novels of Lilian Faderman.

This subversion is evident in the novel’s many aspects. For instance, the plot’s loose ends are tied together by a woman, Mrs Sucksby. She is ‘a sort of female Mag-witch’, Waters says. Elsewhere, as in the sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) (from which Waters’ novel draws inspiration, among others), a man would traditionally have resolved the plot; unruly women are put in their place, both patriarchal and heteronormative control are reinstated. But in Fingersmith Susan and Maud are able to create an agreeable existence together at Briar. They reject their inheritance, and this rejection is an implicit rejection of the model of reproductive heteronormativity on which it relies.

Furthermore, there is no controlling male figure lurking in the background as in other Victorian novels – Maud’s uncle and owner of Briar, Mr Lily, drops dead upon learning of his niece’s escape. Briar is thus reclaimed as a site for a tradition of lesbian desire.

That said, the novel is wary of projecting onto history a fairy tale of female and lesbian triumph. Waters’ story, though fantastical, is rooted in reality. Susan, Maud and Mrs Sucksby’s plight is positioned within a matrix of constraints. These aren’t simply those of gender and sexuality; indeed, more than anything, the novel points to economics rather than gendered oppression as that which governed the period. The novel highlights the lengths to which women had to go to to circumvent the rules governing the transmission of money and property in the nineteenth century. Such a struggle costs Mrs Sucksby her life and she is sent to the gallows for her crimes.

Similarly, Maud and Sue’s relationship does not thrive against all odds, it is merely relegated to the margins. Overall, their happy ending is tempered by sadness; having renounced society and the company of others, they live in isolation and exist outside of time, like ghosts. Susan wanders the corridors of Briar ‘as a ghost might walk,’ and when she weeps, she weeps ‘as a ghost would: silently’. In some sense, the figure of the lesbian, which haunts Victorian literature only in the shadows, is spectralised once more.

Literary critics have observed that retrospective lesbian narratives such as Fingersmith seem incapable of approaching erotic relationships via anything other than an anachronistic model of timeless “true love”. However, for lesbians wanting to find traces of their desires throughout history and literature, Maud and Susan’s story is a meaningful one. Waters states that ‘for lesbians anxious precisely to see history made accountable to their marginalised desires, the past might be best represented as a series of romances’. Indeed, as Eve Sedgwick points out, ‘lesbians and gay men’s sense of constituting a gap in the discursive fabric of the given renders them eager for a form of ontological reassurance that historiography does not always provide’. There is a definite place for the imagining of lesbian desire in the interstices of historical narrative. Fingersmith belongs to a tradition of affirmative lesbian representation that tells us what we can’t know by imagining it. Ultimately, fictional representations of lesbian lives allow lesbians, past and present, to speak.

Image: Anna Sastre

CamillaCamilla is a Canberra-based writer and Editorial Assistant at Feminartsy. 


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One Comment

  • Erin commented on June 4, 2016 Reply

    This was such a great article! I have read Fingersmith twice and am thrilled by your insights here, truly a great book.

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