I’m happy to say that Fingersmith proved riveting until the end, largely thanks to its cunning plot – so twisty it’s hard to comment on – and the resourcefulness of its anti-heroines. I would call them anti-heroines, though, rather than heroines. Both Susan aka Sue and Maud can behave like perfect cows. Their reluctant and, for them both, inconvenient love for each other is engaging, but partly because it fitfully renders them capable of thinking of someone else but themselves. Sue has one more person she cares for – her foster-mother Mrs Sucksby – but Maud’s is not an affectionate nature. She is the hardest to warm to, the festering lily to Sue’s weed. But though there is a refreshing frankness to Sue’s selfishness, it is no less real than Maud’s. Both girls can sweep aside comparably innocent characters or use them for their own ends without any qualms to speak of. They don’t become noticeably mellower either as the story progresses. But they are good at getting out of scrapes, I’ll give them that.
The portrait of the villain, a rogue nicknamed Gentleman, is typical of the tricksiness of the novel. From the moment he appears and proposes an unspeakably vile plan to Sue and the band of thieves she lives with, you think that he will represent the true force of darkness in the book, compared with whom Sue will seem almost guiltless. In a novel where almost everyone is on the make, though, you soon have reason to wonder whether Gentleman is indeed the worst character around. Be that as it may, he’s not particularly appealing, and though his ostensible role at first is that of the fortune-hunting seducer, he behaves – when off-duty – more like a Sikesy thug than like a Wickhamish smoothie. My villain-loving heart remained unmoved, though there was fun to be had from Gentleman’s patent lack of interest in either of the two girls, which makes for an unusual triangle relationship.
Normally, I’m not that fond of the use of anti-heroes and anti-heroines. I don’t much see the point of them. After all, a hero can have all sorts of weaknesses and humanising faults and still be a hero. An anti-hero tends to be like a bumbling hero, but without the conscience part. He tries to make his way, while not considering others, and fails. Which makes him fall between two chairs, in my view: why should the reader care for someone who has neither the good qualities of a hero nor the charisma of a villain? There is a similar problem with the anti-heroine: just look at the awful Madame Bovary.
Of course, there is a definition problem. What separates a bumbling hero from an anti-hero? What separates an anti-hero from a villain in distress, a type of villain for whom I am an absolute sucker? Is Pip in Great Expectations a hero or an anti-hero? Is Bulstrode in Middlemarch a villain in distress or an anti-hero? After all, in spite of his shady past, he doesn’t really wish the protagonists of Middlemarch any harm (except possibly Farebrother, and he is a minor character), and rule one for a villain tends to be that he should constitute a threat of some kind to the story’s nicer characters.
For my part, I’d call Pip a hero, and Bulstrode a villain in distress. The difference between a hero and an anti-hero is, for me, a question of fundamental decency. If a character has a core of decency, then no matter how matter how many mistakes he makes, I’d still see him as a hero. Much has been made of Pip’s supposedly “snobbish” behaviour, but only because he makes so much of it himself. He is most ashamed about his own state of mind at different stages: his crimes are for the most part “thought-crimes”. Had he been an anti-hero, he would not have had these qualms.
As for the difference between an anti-hero and a villain in distress, it is harder to define. I should say that it is not a question of success rate – most villains fail to reach their aim, just as anti-heroes do, because the story demands it – but a question of the potential of success. Anti-heroes are natural losers: they can certainly wreck people’s lives, but not by design. They merely mess up (and can prove irritatingly self-pitying and unrepentant when they do). Whereas villains, even the ones who get into trouble and become picturesquely anguished, are and remain a credible threat: they’re carnivores who might very well lick their wounds and rise again, if they are not redeemed in time. A temporary set-back certainly won’t keep them down for long.
I realise that the anti-heroines of Sarah Waters don’t quite fit into this pattern. They’re not losers, but on the other hand they can’t be called villainesses, as the whole story is about them, and the biggest threat they constitute are to each other. They’re not, in my opinion, good-hearted enough to be called heroines. Maybe the main thing is that in this context, and much thanks to the central love story, they work.