The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters
The Victorian underworld, dastardly plots and vintage porn: Sarah Waters reveals the inspiration and untidiness behind Fingersmith, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
A perennial favourite among readers since its publication, the novel was turned into a two-part BBC drama in 2005 and, a decade later, adapted by the Korean film director Park Chan-wook as The Handmaiden.
For this exclusive video interview with Jo Hamya, Waters has unearthed the notebooks, drafts and jottings that led to the the writing of that bestselling novel. She takes us through the Fingersmith archive, detailing her writing methods, giving insights into researching Victorian slang and pornography, and reflecting on the legacy of the book.
Watch the video, read what Waters had to say and browse her archive materials below.
‘[This] notebook I kept right from the very beginning, which in the first half is research notes. And the back is more sort of thoughts from the very beginning of the novel, figuring out the characters, figuring out the stories. Some of these will have will have stayed with me right to the end of the book, and others will have fallen away as I as I wrote. This was of course pre-internet - I think this would have been 1999. These days, practically all of this, I would just, you know, Google, basically in a couple of minutes. But I’m always interested in other writers as a reader, as well as a writer. I’m interested in other authors’ writing processes and getting a glimpse of what’s produced a book. And you know, it’s just an interesting insight into into the untidiness, I think, that goes into writing a novel.’
Fingersmith was a word I'd come across before starting the novel - it was a word for pickpocket, but also for midwife. And the collision of those two ideas just felt absolutely right for the book.
‘So this was kind of a starting point for the book, really: making a long list of thieves’ slang. Most of these words I never used in the end, just because there are so many of them. But you know, they’re lovely things: “to fig out”, to dress one’s best; a “fencing crib”, which is a fence shop…all the really juicy stuff. And I just was kind of in love with all these words, really. And then it was just a question of finding the ones that felt right for for the novel, for Sue.
This was my third novel with a Victorian setting. So I already had a kind of grounding, but this was set in the 1860s, which was much earlier than the first two. So I had to get to grips with the new decade. And I think the very first bit of research I did was I went through this whole wonderful dictionary of historical slang by Eric Partridge, and just basically, gloriously copied out every word that I liked. And I mean, there’s how many pages in it? Well over 1,000, I think.
So that gave me a sort of grounding in, you know, thieves and the Victorian underworld. It’s kind of underworld that Dickens writes a bit about. The ones I’ve asterisked are ones that I particularly liked. “Jink” for money, “Jenny Linda”, which apparently was slang for rhyming slang for window - winder, Jenny Linda.
Fingersmith was a word I’d come across before starting the novel, which was a word for pickpocket, but also for midwife. And just the kind of collision of those two ideas, what you could do with fingers and the places you could go into, you know, with fingers, just felt absolutely right for the book.’
‘This is a page that’s devoted to… “porn refs”, I’ve called it. This was me going to the British Library, looking at 19th century, or earlier, pornography, or books about pornography steering me in the direction of books with lesbian content. Books that might be useful for the novel, basically.
When you’re looking for lesbian history, as I’ve tended to do with my novels, or just the history of love and romance between women, you know, kind of intense relationships between women, when you look at the 19th century in particular, you’re really looking at fragments and hints. So that’s, I mean, in some ways it’s frustrating. In some ways, it’s liberating for a novelist. It’s frustrating for a historian, but for a novelist, of course, it gives you a license to fill in the gaps, to make things up. Part of your role as a novelist, I think, is to imagine yourself into those spaces in history.
But what I found was that when it came to looking at Victorian pornography, it was full of depictions of lesbian sex, some of it very jolly. It’s very male authored, you know - it’s completely male authored. And these scenes with women having sex with each other… often a man will step in and take over, as is often the case in pornography even now, and the women’s stuff is a bit titillating. It’s a bit of an amuse-bouche or something, and then the man shows them how it’s done.
So I wondered how women might have negotiated that, you know, as readers in the 19th century, and I wondered what I could do with it, as somebody interested in lesbian history. Here was this lovely representation of lesbian sexual fun. And could I not do something with that myself?
I was looking specifically for pornography that had a lesbian content. I started really with histories of pornography, studies of Victorian pornography, and found my way towards material that had any sort of lasting content. And then I just kind of copied out big chunks of it. I copied out the lesbian bits, basically. And the British Library has a great collection of Victorian pornography - I was researching this book at the old British Library. And you had to sit at a special table in those days if you were reading rude books so that they could keep an eye on you, which was a bit funny. But anyway: I spent quite a lot of time at that desk.’
209,504 glorious words. That's insane, it can't really be that long, can it?
‘So this is me working out the word count: 7 July 2001. And I’ve got a feeling this is probably from right at the end, these are all various documents that the text is in. 209,504 glorious words. That’s insane - it can’t really be that long, can it? So I think this may even be right at the very end.
I do actually like to keep track of word count as I’m writing. I find it quite useful. I tend to write in chunks of about 10,000 words, which will often become chapters. And I sort of know how much you can, or I can, cover in that. It’s kind of like, I don’t know, two substantial scenes and sort of linking stuff. And so if I’m hitting that target, if I find I’ve hit that for what feels like a chapter, that’s a good sign. And if it’s longer, or if it’s longer or shorter, that’s probably not a good sign. You know, it does seem to work like that with me. So I’ve always tried to keep an eye on on word count, definitely.’
‘In some ways, it feels no time at all since I was writing Fingersmith. And then in other ways, it does feel quite a long way off. And of course, I had this intense experience with Fingersmith. I then went on to have one with another few novels and the novel I’m writing now. So it’s, it does feel quite a long time away. And it was a very different stage in my career, you know, it’s very, very different now I’m an established writer. But here, I was still feeling like a young writer, still sort of learning my craft, but feeling like I’d kind of landed somehow in the right place. So it’s nice to reconnect with that excitement. And that verve. It’s a novel that has a lot of fun in it. And I like remembering that.’
Author Jo Hamya explains the background to interviewing Sarah Waters
Correspondence with Sarah Waters about an archive for Fingersmith, her third novel and the first of her books to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, began in early August of 2021. ‘I’ve had a look through my old files,’ she emailed, ‘and while I don’t seem to have any early drafts or annotated manuscripts, I do have a small pile (about 30 items) of bits of paper, some of them literally backs of envelopes, of the “thoughts / notes / things to be sorted out” variety; and I also have the notebook (about 40 pages) in which I made research notes, took down lists of Victorian words etc. I’m assuming some of these would be of interest?’.
It’s somewhat difficult to summarise Fingersmith to the uninitiated reader — both because of its scope, and because of its riotous plot twists, which are half the book’s fun. Waters blends Victorian-era underground life, sensation novel tropes, and period-specific pornography over the course of the novel, which follows thief-turned-con-artist Sue Trinder as she poses as a maid for the heiress Maud Lilly with the hope of stealing the latter’s fortune. The first third of the book alone sees Sue falling in love with Maud while she persuades her to elope with Richard Rivers (addressed as ‘Gentleman’), who plans to section Maud once they are married and make off with her money. Things spiral anarchically from there.
A couple of weeks after my initial email exchange with Waters I walked through a residential square in South London, where Georgian-looking terraced houses clustered around a gravelled recreation ground. At regular intervals the branches of trees bowed down in front of doorsteps. For our first meeting, Waters wore a button-down shirt, jeans, Birkenstocks. We went straight through a narrow corridor and down to her kitchen. At one point the flight of stairs diverted towards a well-kept garden, and, though at basement level, each window further down was suffused with green. In the kitchen: flagstone floors, exposed brick, sage and blue paint on the cupboards and the walls. On a large wooden table a blue A4 notebook with the letter ‘F’ circled in the top right corner, and a plastic folder with loose sheets inside, were laid out for me.
Waters’ notes for Fingersmith, much like her home, are an extremely enjoyable place to spend time. The pronoun ‘we’ features heavily, the handwriting loops but stays neat, and one does not get the sense that something is being rigidly mapped out. Instead, these backs of envelopes and old manuscript pages are a place for possibility. Often, plot development is framed as a question of what to revisit in different ways rather than the task of finding a linear narrative to adhere to. Rings of tea and coffee marked some pages, water stains blurred maps and there was arithmetic involved in keeping track of plot. Ink switched from black to red; then turned to pencil. Research was done mostly at the British Library, back when it was still on Great Russell Street, Waters told me. She spent a lot of time copying down references into her notebook: Stephen Marcus’ The Other Victorians; Henry Spencer Ashbee’s pornography collection, housed at the BL; general research on clothes, streets, transport and food from the era. She referred to books on country houses and servant life, asylums, locksmithing and lock-picking, book-collecting, baby-farming, executions.
On revisiting Fingersmith, what strikes you as much as the novel is the cult around it. After seeing Waters that first day I met with a friend who gasped wordlessly at the fact that I had just been given a behind-the-scenes tour for the book that had housed their LGBTQ+ identity before it was ready to be shown to others. Another grinned and put it more straightforwardly: ‘Oh man. That book made me a baby lesbian. It’s still my favourite.’ Their responses were no less passionate than those aimed at the novel’s craft: it takes a lot to retell a story three times in one book as Waters does, and to generate a sense of shock in each version. Perhaps this challenge is why other creatives have relished repurposing it: as a 2005 BBC adaptation with Sally Hawkins, as a 2015 play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as a 2016 Korean psychological thriller directed by Park Chan-wook. Each version complements the intense pleasure readers have taken in gossiping about the novel as a collective fan base, savouring each detail even now, almost two decades after publication (at the time of writing, Fingersmith will feature on series 3 of BBC2’s ‘Between the Covers’).
Later in October, the gravelled recreation ground in front of her house flecked russet with leaves, I returned to Waters in South London with a production crew so that we could capture her talking about the archive material for a wider audience. Filming took place in her study. In the resulting video, she speaks brilliantly about reimagining the conventional tropes of a period novel, researching Victorian-era slang and porn, and what testimony even hastily made notes on scraps of paper can pay to the process of writing. What I remember most from that day: Waters smilingly removing a poster with ukulele chords from behind her desk so that we could see the books behind it. Waters worriedly pushing oat biscuits and dark chocolate towards me after noticing I hadn’t eaten all day. Waters sliding a box with a pile of papers on top firmly out of the camera’s view, saying, ‘that’s all for the next book’. And the reassurance that the author of a novel as beloved as Fingersmith deserves every bit of adulation that comes her way.