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Sexsation and the Neo-New Woman in Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (2002)

La sexsation et la néo-Nouvelle Femme dans Fingersmith de Sarah Waters (2002)
Lilia Louati


Le concept de « sexsation » de Marie-Luise Kohlke caractérise le projet de Sarah Waters d’explorer les représentations sensationnelles des vies sexuelles des Victoriens. Dans Fingersmith, elle réinvente la pornographie patriarcale riche en stéréotypes de domination masculine et subjugation féminine, illustrée dans la collection de Lilly. En défiant ces structures, elle met l’accent sur l’épanouissement sexuel de Maud et Sue ainsi que sur l’évolution de la carrière littéraire de Maud qui finit par devenir une auteure de littérature érotique, rappelant ainsi les figures de la Nouvelle Femme des années 1890. Le but de cet essai sera d’abord d’explorer comment un tel récit sexsationnel permet une révision radicale des discours patriarcaux sur la sexualité. Ensuite, nous examinerons dans quelle mesure l’intrigue de création lesbienne de Waters est redevable au roman de l’artiste des années 1890 et au roman de la Nouvelle Femme de la fin de l’époque victorienne. En mettant l’accent sur les sexualités « dissidentes » et l’émancipation de la femme par l’écriture, peut-on considérer Fingersmith de Waters comme un roman de néo-nouvelle femme ?

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1Sally Shuttleworth explains the rise of neo-Victorianism in the 1960s by establishing a link between the gradual disappearance of a previously persistent Victorian setting and the emergence of a new literary form to express this loss (Shuttleworth 253). The proximity between past and present which is manifest in neo-Victorian fiction thus reveals a desire for retrieval and recuperation. But there is more than nostalgia at stake. The neo-Victorian novel is also self-consciously engaged in critically ‘(re)interpreting,’ ‘(re)discovering,’ and ‘(re)visiting’ the Victorian past as well as the Victorian literary tradition (Heilmann and Llewellyn 4). Indeed, as a committed literary genre, it uses the Victorian perspective as a vantage point to look afresh at twenty-first century issues.

2One of the recurring themes explored in neo-Victorian fiction is that of the socio-political position of women and more specifically the construction of women’s identities and sexualities. Marie-Luise Kohlke’s concept of ‘sexsation’ encapsulates the genre’s fascination with the nineteenth-century erotic as a way to expose our era’s sexual imaginary and its link with the Victorians. A case in point is Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (2002). In this artist’s novel reminiscent of the late-Victorian female Künstlerroman, the woman writer’s growth to maturity is inextricably linked to the consumption, production, and aestheticisation of pornography.

  • 1 This term is borrowed from Richard Dellamora’s book Victorian Sexual Dissidence (U of Chicago P, 19 (...)

3The aim of this essay will be first to explore how such a sexsational narrative enables a radical revision of patriarchal discourses on sexuality. Then I shall examine to what extent Waters’s plot of female solidarity and lesbian creativity is indebted to the artist’s novel of the 1890s and to the late-Victorian New Woman novel. With its emphasis on ‘dissident’1 sexualities and woman’s emancipation through writing, can Waters’s Fingersmith be considered as neo-New Woman fiction?

Revising Patriarchal Pornographic Discourse

4The novel follows the contrasted trajectories of Susan, a criminal raised in a thieves’ den and Maud, an aristocratic young woman who has been specifically trained by her uncle to assist him in his work as a collector of pornographic works. Their paths cross in a plot of fraud, forgery and murder which leads them to help each other, fall in love and discover their lesbian identities as well as their true origins. The narrative ends with their final reunion and the emergence of Maud as a new figure of female authorship intent on re-writing/‘re-righting’ centuries of patriarchal discourse on female sexuality (Zabus 57).

5Though sexual fantasy in patriarchal discourse is often associated with asserting power over the subjected exploited female, Waters uses the sexual motif for the sake of her political and textual project of deconstructing heteronormativity. In Fingersmith, male pornography is represented as a multi-secular discourse embodied in the bibliography compiled by Mr Lilly, a Victorian gentleman whose ambition is to establish and preserve a pornographic canon for the ages to come. His gatherings with the collectors and publishers of pornographic writings parallel the Victorian cultural circles in which, as Sarah Bull’s historical study has shown, the reading of pornography was considered as a scientific pursuit. The character of Lilly is inspired from Henry Spencer Ashbee, the first Victorian bibliographer of pornographic literature and a prominent figure in what Bull names ‘the secret museum’ wherein scholars indulge in pornography under the guise of pursuing knowledge.

6Indeed, Lilly is engaged in providing material for the consumption of gentlemen and catering to their misogynistic, paederastic and sadomasochistic tastes through the regular sessions of reading pornography aloud often performed by Maud herself. Taken as a whole, the titles Lilly records, tracks down and collects form an oppressive narrative which keeps his niece entrapped and alienated from her own subjectivity and her own body, as it has more generally entrapped women for centuries.

7Interestingly, the name ‘Lilly’ connects Waters’s protagonist to Angela Carter’s Bluebeard. Both male characters rejoice in a collection of pornographic material: books for the one, and engravings and paintings for the other. Both hunt females to please their sadistic desires, by means of archiving and reading for the former, and indulging in sexual intercourse for the latter. Besides, they keep their female subjects in subservience and then dispose of them: while Lilly would have liked to keep Maud for eternity to follow in his footsteps, Bluebeard simply discards one wife and seeks another in a constant quest for sexual pleasure. Indeed, driven by perverse sexual tendencies, both Bluebeard and Lilly take pleasure in stripping females out of their ‘virginity,’ which is symbolised by the flower, physically or metaphorically. Bluebeard deflowers his young wife as they consummate their marriage in a bedroom filled with white lilies, while for Lilly, deflowering is rather symbolic: ‘The plate bears his emblem, a clever thing of his own design—a lily, drawn strangely, to resemble a phallus; and wound about with a stem of briar at the root,’ Maud states (Waters S. 214). Subjected to pornography from a very young age, Maud has thus been deprived of the innocence of childhood.

  • 2 Ashbee for example writes: ‘The sight of our red smarting bottoms and bursting pricks was too much (...)

8According to Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, pornography as a system of representation is responsible for promoting an ideology based on a number of images that reflect the ‘sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted, whether in pictures or in words’ (quoted in Sandler 912). In Fingersmith, this oppressive ideology is evident when Maud becomes haunted by the graphic language of her uncle’s forced reading sessions. Vivid book fragments insinuate themselves in her consciousness: ‘pressed her lips and tongue — takes hold of my hand— hip, lip and tongue— forced it half-strivingly— took hold of my breasts— opened wide the lips of my little— the lips of her little cunt—’ (Waters S. 277). Not only do such passages bear obvious resemblance to the highly suggestive language used in Henry Spencer Ashbee’s writings,2 but they also evince the characteristics of pornographic works in general, i.e. they present women ‘as dehumanized sexual objects, things or commodities,’ while ‘women’s body parts—including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, and buttocks—are exhibited, such that women are reduced to those parts’ (Dworkin and MacKinnon quoted in Sandler 912).

  • 3 Waters is inspired from a number of pornographic works which share the same characteristics despite (...)

9Waters insists in the ‘Notes’ printed at the end of her novel that ‘[a]ll of the texts cited by Maud are real. They include: The Festival of the Passions, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, The Curtain Drawn Up, The Bagnio Miscellany, The Birchen Bouquet, and The Lustful Turk3 (Waters S. 553). She even confirms that though Lilly is a fictitious character, his ‘statements on book-collecting echo those of Ashbee’ (Waters S. 553).

10In her study of the obscene canon, Sarah Bull demonstrates the male-centricity of the ‘forbidden works’ reviewed and circulated by Victorian scholars such as Henry Spencer Ashbee and William Laird Clowes, arguing that such discourse served to reinforce hetero-patriarchal control over female subjugates (Bull 226). Kathleen Frederickson even goes as far as labelling pornography a ‘Victorian genre category,’ for she believes the Victorians responsible for consolidating the generic and aesthetic frameworks of addressing and representing sexuality; a coda which still has its impact on twentieth-century pornographic film industry (Frederickson 304). Pornography can be understood as an ‘ideology apparatus,’ to borrow Louis Althusser’s expression, by which gender roles are dictated, assigning inferiority and passivity to women and superiority and agency to men. Thus, pornography becomes a tool of not only maintaining power but also dictating sexual hierarchies. In Fingersmith, Mr Lilly detains power in Briar since he is in sole control of the creation of the pornographic archive, while Maud is relegated to the position of reciter/ executant in front of a male audience. Her subservient position is symbolised by the gloves she is made to wear so as to protect the revered books from her touch: as she points out, she has been ‘bred to the task [of reading and cataloguing pornography] as servants are’ (Waters S. 206), and she often thinks of herself as no more than one of her uncle’s pieces of property to be ‘ticketed and noted and shelved’ (Waters S. 214).

11Tracking the emergence of the pornographic genre, Susan Gubar argues that there is a long history of pornography that stretches from the Renaissance in the writings of François Rabelais through the Marquis de Sade and to the contemporary times primarily initiated by male authors. In Fingersmith too, pornography seems to be ‘a gender-specific genre produced primarily by and for men but focused obsessively on the female’ (Gubar 713), since it revolves around Mr Lilly, Mr Huss, Mr Hawtrey and Gentleman, who use female objectification and sexuality as the means for their arousal. After a séance of reading, Maud indeed observes that ‘Mr Hawtrey claps, and Mr Huss’s pink face is pinker, his look rather troubled. [Her] uncle sits with his spectacles removed, his head at an angle, his eyes screwed tight’ (Waters S. 208). Though Maud is not physically exploited during these sessions, she is reduced to being the mere instrument of these men’s private enjoyment. Her reading performance turns her into ‘some fabulous creature . . . whom Lilly has trained, like a chattering monkey, to recite voluptuous texts for gentlemen—perhaps to do worse’ (Waters S. 220). Maud’s value as a commodity lies in her forced innocent reading of sexually stimulating texts for the libidinal pleasure of male consumers. She thus embodies a titillating and typically (neo)Victorian masculine fantasy, by being paradoxically at once virgin and whore, child and femme fatale, pure and depraved, knowing and unknowing, promiscuous and inaccessible.

12Historians have shown that in the mid-nineteenth century, the production and consumption of pornography rose proportionately to the gradual enforcement of strict policies of censorship (Gubar 727). Waters’s novel alludes to this fact by stressing the abundance of material constantly being brought to Mr Lilly by his associates, Mr Huss the collector and Mr Hawtrey the publisher. Another indication of the proliferation of late-Victorian pornographic material is the length of the volumes Mr Lilly produces: ‘a thousand pages . . . for the first volume. The second shall be greater’ (Waters S. 133). Moreover, each time a new manuscript arrives, it causes a flurry of excitement. In the following example, the eager unwrapping of the newly acquired volumes is described as a veritable striptease, causing the collectors to salivate over the concealed body of the book/woman:

Mr Hawtrey produces a package, bound in paper and string. He hands it to my uncle, who fumbles with the wrappings. ’So, so,’ he says; and then, with the book uncovered and held close to his eyes: ’Aha!’ He works his lips. ’Look here, Maud, look, at what the little grubbian has brought us.’ He shows me the volume. (Waters S. 134)

13Such passages remind the reader that, even though pornography was illicit, its wide circulation indicated ethical double standards which paved the way for what Peter Michelson calls ‘moral anarchy’ (Michelson 18). Indeed, in Briar, Mr Lilly maintains a respectable image among the servants, who believe him to be a highly educated and virtuous gentleman. As soon as Maud comes to Briar, he claims to be determined to give her a proper upbringing to turn her from a ‘naughty’ to a ‘good’ girl. But, ironically, he secretly commands her to read inappropriate, pornographic books. When Maud utters salacious words in front of a servant, claiming she learnt them from her uncle, the servant does not believe her: ‘Oh, you liar! Your uncle’s a gentleman’ (Waters S. 196). Indeed, Mr Lilly succeeds in protecting his image of gentleman insofar as no one outside his library questions his morality.

14Yet for Maud, pornography becomes inextricably associated with physical and psychological violence, because of her uncle’s often brutal behaviour towards her. Like Gubar who establishes the link between previous representations by the above-mentioned authors and contemporary images wherein women are portrayed ‘naked, caged, mute’ and even ‘mutilated’ (Gubar 715) and reaches the conclusion that pornography promotes a shocking state of female submission, and violation, Dworkin notes that it is a characteristic of pornography that it becomes a means of ‘physical injury and physical humiliation and physical pain: to the women against whom it is used after it is made; to the women used to make it’ (Dworkin 27). Indeed, as a consequence of being subjected to pornography, Maud becomes afflicted with nightmares and has to resort to sleeping draughts. At first, she internalises what she reads as documentary evidence mirroring actual sexual relationships, in which perfect female bodies are used for the goal of male orgasm and victorious ejaculation. However, Maud gradually becomes more critical as she compares women’s bodies in the books with her own real body and her maid’s. If books are full of ‘common enough obscenities’ (Waters S. 135), Maud thus slowly realises that the kind of pornography Mr Lilly aims to preserve is not only false, i.e. ideological, but also gender-biased. She concludes: ‘I understand my uncle’s books to be filled with falsehoods, and I despise myself for having supposed them truths’ (Waters S. 196).

15At this particular juncture in the plot, Waters’s novel seems to confirm Angela Carter’s view of the pornographer as women’s ‘unconscious ally,’ insofar as the pornographer helps reveal the full extent of masculine tyranny over women as reduced to bodies (Carter 22). Indeed, by focusing exclusively on male sexual pleasure, it blatantly ignores female desire, jouissance and orgasm. So, when Maud and Sue become intimate, the former is surprised to discover that a real sexual relationship entails an overwhelming euphoric sensation which ‘haunts and inhabits [her] covers [her], like skin’ (Waters S. 274). She wonders: ‘Is this desire? How queer that I, of all people, should not know!’ (Waters S. 274) Having experienced something which is absented from her uncle’s books, Maud realises the shortcomings of this pornographic discourse. She deduces that a sexual relationship involving mutual feelings must not entail a power struggle where the female party is sexually taken advantage of and denied pleasure, as is the case in her uncle’s books. In this sense, Waters’s treatment of pornography both dramatises women’s struggle against repression and the hardship of attaining sexual equality and liberation. As Maud experiences an alternative model of sexual relationship with Sue, she is energised to break free from the shackles of objectification she had become accustomed to through her reading.

16As a system of representation principally produced by and for men and having women as its object, pornography is as controversial today as it was in the Victorian age. In her re-imagination of women’s oppression through Victorian male pornography, Waters explores sensational representations of the Victorians’ sexual lives in order to establish critical links between Victorian and contemporary sexual practices or discourses, and eventually recover ‘the ‘hidden’ sexual history of the period’ (Kaplan 51). Not only does Waters look into ‘women’s role in the male-dominated marketplace in which these publications were and have since been created and circulated,’ as Nadine Muller points out (Muller 115), but she also examines the possibility of women’s creative agency as producers and consumers of a different kind of pornographic imaginary, thus suggesting that pornography is in fact a vital contemporary feminist issue.

17Interestingly, by articulating her critique of pornography and sexuality with a reflection on the act of writing, the novelist contributes to the reactivation of the figure of the fin-de-siècle New Woman writer. The rest of this essay argues that the sexsationalism of Fingersmith consciously builds on the legacy of first-wave feminism as exemplified in late-Victorian New Woman fiction.

Fingersmith as a neo-New Woman Novel

18A major transgressive icon of the 1890s, the New Woman is embodied in a number of memorable fin-de-siècle female heroines who question traditional gender roles, promote sisterhood among women, proclaim women’s control over their own bodies, reject normative sexuality and assert their right to shape their own lives. Importantly, New Woman narratives often follow women’s struggles to make their voices and ideas heard through their art or their writing, as is the case with Mary Erle in Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman (1894), Hadria in Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus (1894), Elizabeth Caldwell Maclure in Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book (1897) and Hester Gresley in Mary Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage (1899). In fact, the emergence of the Victorian woman as an author/artist figure has been identified as a recurrent trope in 1890s novels written by female writers. Interestingly, in the eyes of the Victorians, the figure of the New Woman was often conflated with that of the decadent aesthete, as both equally challenged gender binaries. As a sexual dissident and the heroine of a neo-Victorian Künstlerroman, Maud thus bears resemblance to the fin-de-siècle New Woman. Moreover, her sexual emancipation enables her self-awareness as a female writer as well as her financial independence: like 1890s female New Woman novelists who secured an unusually prominent position in the literary marketplace and achieved commercial success, popular appeal and (sometimes) critical recognition, Maud is eventually able to make her ‘living’ as a professional writer and as a woman writing about women from the point of view of women. In 1894, William Stead defined New Woman fiction precisely in those terms:

The Modern Woman novel is not merely a novel written by a woman, or a novel written about women, but it is a novel written by a woman about women from the standpoint of Woman. Many women have written novels about their own sex, but they have hitherto considered women either from the general standpoint of society or from the man’s standpoint, which comes, in the long run, to pretty much the same thing . . . But in the last year or two, the Modern Woman has changed all that. Woman at last has found Woman interesting to herself and she has studied her, painted her and analysed her. (Stead 64)

19Among the few fin-de-siècle writers who openly celebrated the sexually audacious side of the New Woman, the short-fiction writer George Egerton (the pen name of Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) and the lesbian poetesses known as Michael Field (pseudonym for Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper) stand out. Like them, Waters’s Maud articulates a new poetics rooted in female sexuality. If Waters chooses not to include any extract from male pornography (except through indirect or intertextual references), it is significant that she offers long passages in which Maud and Sue alternately and explicitly describe their lesbian encounters and shared sexual ecstasy, as in the following paragraph:

[Sue’s] lips are cool, smooth, damp: they fit themselves imperfectly to mine, but then grow warmer, damper. Her hair falls against my face. I cannot see her, I can only feel her, and taste her. She tastes of sleep, slightly sour. Too sour. I part my lips—to breathe, or to swallow, or perhaps to move away; but in breathing or swallowing or moving I only seem to draw her into my mouth. Her lips part, also. Her tongue comes between them and touches mine. And at that, I shudder, or quiver. For it is like the finding out of something raw, the troubling of a wound, a nerve. She feels me jolt, and draws away—but slowly, slowly and unwillingly, so that our damp mouths seem to cling together and, as they part, to tear. . . . I feel it as a falling, a dropping, a trickling, like sand from a bulb of glass. Then I move; and I am not dry, like sand. I am wet. I am running, like water, like ink. I begin, like her, to shake. (Waters S. 279)

20Because such highly sexualised passages are narrated in turn by Sue and by Maud, they serve to emphasise reciprocity and the shared nature of their experience. But in Maud’s case, they also insist on lesbian sexuality as the source of her creativity, through the allusion to the flowing of ‘ink’ and the ‘tearing’ of paper/mouths.

21Interestingly, Maud’s slow acceptance of her lesbian identity is repeatedly linked to her gradual journey towards writing. The narrative follows the different stages of her sexual awakening, as she moves from rejection and denial to exploration and, ultimately, mutual recognition and nurture. First, her embrace of Sue is barely a thought: ‘I would like to touch [Sue], to be sure that she is there. I dare not. But I cannot leave her. I lift my hands and move and hold them an inch, just an inch, above her—her hip, her breast, her curling hand, her hair on the pillow, her face, as she sleeps’ (Waters S. 269). Then, it becomes more specific, as her sexual imagination is fired up by textual reminiscences from the pornographic works she has been made to read:

I think of the books I have lately read, to Richard and to my uncle: they come back to me, now, in phrases, fragments . . . I feel my legs, very bare inside my gown. I feel the point at which they join. . . . The warmth of her limbs comes inching, inching through the fibres of the bed. (Waters S. 277–278)

22Fittingly for a future novelist, Maud’s sexual awakening is simultaneously a linguistic experience, a ‘feel [for] words.’ As her interior monologue becomes longer and takes up more narrative space, the description become more physical, until Maud accepts her newly-discovered feelings, takes one of her uncle’s books and admits that it ‘is filled with all the words for how [she] want[s] [Sue]’ (Waters S. 551).

23Interestingly, Maud’s characterisation reverberates Hélène Cixous’s conception of ‘l’écriture féminine’ highlighting how feminine writing celebrates the female body much like New Woman novelists whose art exhibits traces of this experimental writing. For instance, Marina Cano connects New Woman fiction to French feminism by examining two of Mona Caird and Olive Schreiner’s novels through the lens of feminine writing. Similarly, I argue that Waters transforms the female body from a male to a more female medium of expression emulating nature. As if in a cinematographic production and by means of narrative focalisation, Sue’s gaze like the lens of a camera minutely follows Maud’s movements describing the different parts of her body as reflected in the light of the fire.

Then she moved away from the fire, for me to put her into her nightgown. . . . She stood shivering, . . . and my fingers were cold and made her jump. They grew warm, though, after a minute. . . . Her corset was long, with a busk of steel; her waist, as I think I have said, was narrow[.] Her hair, inside its net, was fixed with half a pound of pins, and a comb of silver. . . . I saw her bosom, her bottom, her feather and everything[.] Her hair was good, and very long let down. I brushed it, and held it, and thought what it might fetch. (Waters S. 82)

24The passage has a special musicality which echoes the varying sounds of fire through the alliteration and alternation of the sounds /s/, /ʃ/, /ɡ/ and /h/; soft voices which mimic the burning of wood and its hissing sounds, while at the same time focusing on a fluid imagery. Cixous herself suggests that flowing styles have a more female tone than traditional discourse. In fact, though it is an external focalisation, the simultaneous stress on the different senses of sight, touch, hearing—and later on, taste and smell—breaks with patriarchal realist tradition often organised around binary opposition between body and mind, exterior and interior, man and woman, and so on. Waters’s style puts to the fore the female body seen as a whole by Sue’s female eye, using the authoress’s female language. Keeping in mind Maud’s coming into writing, it seems that the novel, through form and content, conveys how Maud’s mind and body have finally ‘caught fire’ and echoes Cixous’s assertion that ‘woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies’ (Cixous 875), because their sexual pleasure has been repressed and denied expression.

25While male pornographic writing often decomposes the female body into parts meant for sexual pleasure—lips, tongue, breast and vagina as in Ashbee’s text—Maud’s whole body becomes alive inside the text while bringing life to its lines at the same time. In her erotic texts, writing the body for Maud becomes a form of jouissance as there is harmony between the artist’s ‘libidinal body and the creative urges of her mind, suggesting that feminine writing—a writing recreative of the female body—is born from the dynamic fusion of the two within a natural setting’ (Heilmann 2000, 81). For this reason, Maud is often associated with flowing ink notably in the last chapter of the narrative.

Her hands were bare, her sleeves put back, her fingers dark with smudges of ink. (Waters S. 543)
Her hands did not tremble. They were bare, and marked, as I have said, with spots and smudges of ink. Her brow had ink upon it, too, from where she had pressed it. (Waters S. 547)
Maud stood very still, her hand upon the desk. I wiped my eyes. Then I looked again at the smears of ink on her fingers. (Waters S. 549)
Her fingers left more smudges of black there. I still couldn’t bear it. I quickly reached and stopped her wrist; then wet my thumb and began to rub at the flesh of her brow. I did it, thinking only of the ink, and her white skin . . . The smudge stayed black upon her brow; and after all, I thought, was only ink. (Waters S. 551)

26In these excerpts, Waters equates the female body and the female text through ink; both become one, thus demonstrating the fusion between body and writing. In Fingersmith, female creativity is encoded as natural and spiritual; it is a non-deductive essence of the female body.

27Because the female body’s desires have long been repressed, its description in Fingersmith focuses on the different senses of sight, touch and smell that translate its fluidity. Waters often resorts to a rich lexical field that accords well with Cixous’s conception of the female body/writing; ‘overflow, luminous torrents, burst, these waves, these floods, these outbursts, ebullient, infinite woman’ (Cixous 876). Indeed, in Sue’s words, Maud ‘[is] soft and smooth as butter. Too soft, [she] thought her. [She] imagined her bruising. She was like a lobster without its shell’ (Waters S. 53). She also imagines her like a statue with no clear borders. ‘She was as pale as a statue on a pillar in a park. So pale she was, she seemed to shine’ (Waters S. 82). Indeed, when an object is associated with a bright light, it often turns into a holographic apparition lacking a fixed shape and clean lines.

  • 4 The term is borrowed from anti-feminist Eliza Lynn Linton’s essay ‘The Wild Women as Social Insurge (...)

28In parallel with this sexual and textual awakening, the narrative also tracks Maud’s evolution as a scholar and a figure of authority. She starts from the margins of the library, then moves to assist her uncle in the rewriting of his pornographic bibliography, and ultimately dethrones him when she becomes a writer in her own right while he and his books are simply excluded from the narrative. The narrative dramatises her position within the sphere of the library through spatial markers. As a child, she is ordered by her uncle to remain at a clear distance from his desk and books for fear of ‘spoiling them’ (Waters S. 76). He has ‘a desk and a stool for [her] close to the pointing finger on his library floor’ (Waters S. 190). As she grows up, her desk is moved a bit closer. She recalls: ‘One day I arrive at my uncle’s room to find my little desk removed, and a place made ready for me among his books’ (Waters S. 193). In the final stages of the novel, the narrative eventually portrays her as she usurps her uncle’s place literally, by sitting at his desk, as well as figuratively, by assuming the literary vocation. Such a trajectory distinguishes Maud from stereotypical Victorian heroines, who are usually confined to the private domestic sphere, aligning her instead with the more rebellious social and political ‘insurgents’4 imagined in late-Victorian New Woman fiction.

29Admittedly, Maud’s scholarly journey takes place not in the public sphere but in the private space of the domestic library. In her investigation of ‘New Woman strategies,’ Ann Heilmann reflects on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s metaphor of ‘room as tomb,’ in order to argue that confining and burying female sexuality and/or creativity induces an implosion of madness. Mr Lilly’s library initially serves to confine and entomb Maud. However, it is also a space where she acquires poetic and artistic knowledge (biased as it is) and where she forcefully realises her urgent need for freedom. Caught as she is between enforced silence or male pornographic indoctrination, Maud’s existence is reduced to a choice between two occupations which deny her subjectivity. Thus, in her re-imagination of the library, Waters turns this locus into ‘an emblem of the womb, the locus of individual and artistic rebirth and self-realisation’ (Heilmann 2004,105), a process of transformation which requires both time and strategies. At first, Maud simply fears the materials her uncle subjects her to: ‘The books fill me, at first, with a kind of horror: for it seems a frightful thing’ (Waters S. 195). Then, she develops a critical distance as she observes that they are ‘filled with falsehoods’ (Waters S. 196). Finally, the books lose their hold on her and she becomes immune to them: ‘The restlessness turns all to scorn. I become what I was bred to be. I become a librarian’ (Waters S. 196). Arguably, this narrative arc suggests that Maud must assimilate the tools by which she is confined, in order then to succeed in dismantling them and resurge as her own creator for the purpose of subversion—a subversion which eventually occurs in the same space of knowledge, the library. Predictably, the ending portrays her in the library sitting at her uncle’s desk. The former tomb has become the locus for the symbolic birth of a literary career and the rebirth of a liberated Maud.

30Maud ultimately takes on the identity of a writer of pornography and fully assumes pornography as a primordial part of her existence claiming that ‘[my uncle i]s dead. But I am still what he made me. I shall always be that. Half of the books are spoiled, or sold. But I am here’ (Waters S. 549). Hence, Waters does not call for the obliteration of the memory of male pornography, but advocates a female re-invention of this genre to create another form of female text. In the narrative, Waters establishes implicit comparisons between two different sorts of pornography. Whereas the uncle’s books propose objectifying representations of women always from the domineering perspective of a male gaze, Maud’s revision of pornography offers a corrective by gesturing towards what Katherine Miller calls a ‘tradition of female erotic literature [which] promises to include: a loving relationship between two consensual partners, as opposed to the female victimization, objectification, and exploitation encouraged by male-dominated pornography’ (Miller 11). Arguably, Maud is no longer a mere cog in patriarchal discourse, but an active producer of a different kind of pornography. The utterance ‘Look how I get my living’ entails action, activity and labour. Such labour produces a personal liberation as well as a fundamental critique of sexual ideology, for, as Susana Onega argues, Maud ‘crosses the boundary from morally unbounded and monstrous consumer and enforcer of sadomasochistic pleasure and pain to active agent in the demystification and liberation of all forms of sexuality from patriarchal constraints’ (Onega 2015, para. 24). Indeed, through her re-appropriation and re-vision of the genre and its transformation into a literary mode by which females can express their own desires and sexual fantasies, Maud deconstructs a whole literary tradition initially and principally produced by and destined for men, and initiates a female feminine mode of pornographic writing no longer founded on women’s pain, but on jouissance.

31Though Waters’s novel was published in 2002, it remains strikingly relevant and topical in the #MeToo age. Indeed, Maud’s final act as an intervention into pornographic discourse arguably constitutes the most thought-provoking feminist issue of the novel today, having both a ‘moral’ and ‘educational value’ (Onega 2015, para. 25). For decades, pornography has been the cause of disagreements between feminists ranging from pro- to anti-pornography writings, especially in the 1970s and 1980s in what came to be known as ‘the sex wars.’ Claire O’Callaghan claims that ‘Waters uses such perspectives [the divide among feminists over their approach to female sexual representation] to provide her own deconstruction of heteropatriarchal representations of lesbianism in pornography’ (O’Callaghan 560). Waters’s neo-Victorian plot draws its strength also from reminding us that pornography is not simply a contemporary issue. In fact, it was a burning topic that first-wave feminist New Woman writers equally tackled. Indeed, late-Victorian anti-feminist journalists, such as Hugh Stutfield, identified New Woman novelists as ‘the physiologico-pornographic school’ and he rejected their writing as ‘erotomaniac fiction’ because it ‘describ[ed] at length their sensations in various interesting phases of their lives’ (Stutfield 836). Fingersmith itself has been the object of much debate because of its sexsationalism and focus on both lesbianism and pornographic discourse. Nonetheless, Waters insists in an interview that Fingersmith ‘ultimately tries to at least gesture towards the possibility that women could write their own porn themselves’ (quoted in Dennis 43). Melanie Waters comments on this potentially positive development in relation to third-wave feminism:

By describing sexual experiences and fantasies in their own words, but in an established pornographic rhetoric, it might be argued that the authors of these works successfully utilise the tools by which anti-pornography feminists claimed women were oppressed in order to subvert the gendered power differentials that were suspected to underlie this oppression. (Waters M. 261)

32In the same vein, Nadine Muller argues that what makes the strength of Waters’s text is its transformation of the masculine genre of pornography and its ‘suggestion [of] the appropriation of something previously employed for another purpose and/or in another context’ (Muller 127). Indeed, the latter is aware of the (Victorian) past as both masculine and patriarchal, and conscious that locating a matrilineal heritage which invests in a female mode of pornography is rather a difficult task. Hence, from the angle of a matrophor, a ‘recovery of the “foremothers”’ is eventually revealed to be not possible, and Fingersmith is effectively ‘motherless’ (Muller 123). Yet, in the context of third-wave feminism, and building on the neo-Victorian commitment to interrogate the relationship between past and present, Fingersmith highlights a central concern about devising new constructive ways to use and transform the past and to adapt it to present experiences for the same—and evolving—purpose of voicing female concerns. Instead of focusing her attention on the origins and circumstances of a matrilineal past, Waters is more concerned with questioning the impacts of this masculine history on her present sisters and future daughters. As a writer who is aware of the different kinds of obstacles women authors face in general, and especially when writing erotica, Waters is intent on challenging and subverting a long masculinist literary lineage. As a neo-Victorian novelist, she does so by building on and reactivating a neglected Victorian tradition of feminine writing, of which the New Woman novel constitutes a decisive moment.


33While Waters’s novel evinces the typical ‘sexsational’ elements that Kohlke considers characteristic of Neo-Victorianism, it broadens and sharpens the reflexion by stressing the importance of female creativity in (sexual) identity formation. This results in Waters’s construction of a specific type of neo-Victorian heroine, the subversive Neo-New Woman protagonist, who is inspired from British New Woman writers and fictional New Women of the 1890s. Interestingly, like her late-Victorian forebears, Waters’s Neo-New Woman novel has been criticised for being too commercial. Yet, in its exploration of lesbian desire and creativity and in its revision of pornographic representations, Fingersmith effects a powerful deconstruction of patriarchal discourse on female sexuality, masculinist writing and male authorial figures. More importantly, it offers a compelling alternative female erotic, articulated by her female protagonists, and especially by Maud, a Promethean figure who steals the creative fire from her uncle in order to author her own t/sexuality, her own Cixousian écriture féminine.

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1 This term is borrowed from Richard Dellamora’s book Victorian Sexual Dissidence (U of Chicago P, 1999).

2 Ashbee for example writes: ‘The sight of our red smarting bottoms and bursting pricks was too much for Annie and Rosa, and they were inflamed by lust, so throwing themselves backward on the bed, with their legs wide open and feet resting on the floor, the two dear girls presented their quims to our charge, as with both hands they held open the lips of their delicious cunts, inviting our eager cocks to come on’ (Ashbee 261).

3 Waters is inspired from a number of pornographic works which share the same characteristics despite being published in different periods and contexts (both French and English): The Festival of the Passions (1818), Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749), The Curtain Drawn Up (1788), The Bagnio Miscellany (1830), The Birchen Bouquet (1770), The Lustful Turk (1828).

4 The term is borrowed from anti-feminist Eliza Lynn Linton’s essay ‘The Wild Women as Social Insurgents,’ 1891.

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Lilia Louati, « Sexsation and the Neo-New Woman in Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (2002) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lilia Louati

Lilia Louati is currently a teaching and research assistant (ATER) in the English department of the University of Toulouse II, France and a Ph.D. student in Anglophone Studies. Her research focuses on Victorian and neo-Victorian studies. Her thesis is entitled ‘Neo-Characterisation of the Victorian Female Protagonist in Contemporary British Sensation Fiction’. She passed the CAPES in English in Tunisia in 2015 and occupied the position of secondary education teacher for three years. She received her Master degree in English Literature in 2018 from the University of Sfax, Tunisia. She worked as a temporary teacher in Toulouse for two years.

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