Queer Sex in Literature: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)

Well-written sex in literature isn’t always easy to come by. Finding well-written queer sex is, unsurprisingly, harder still. Sarah Waters’ 2002 historical crime novel Fingersmith, however, is perhaps one of few instances which comes close. Through narration from the dual perspectives of its protagonists, Fingersmith follows Sue, a petty thief from the Victorian slums of […]

Rowan Christina Driver
13th February 2023
Image Credit: Pixabay
Well-written sex in literature isn’t always easy to come by. Finding well-written queer sex is, unsurprisingly, harder still. Sarah Waters’ 2002 historical crime novel Fingersmith, however, is perhaps one of few instances which comes close.

Through narration from the dual perspectives of its protagonists, Fingersmith follows Sue, a petty thief from the Victorian slums of London, and the wealthy but solemn heiress Maud as they become entangled in an elaborate scheme to con the latter out of her own fortune. Neither, however, expect anything deeper to be thrown into the equation.

One scene in the book – and it is just that, one scene, making it even more poignant – depicts the first sexual encounter between the two characters. It’s gentle, yet it has a somewhat clumsiness to it that encapsulates the naiveté of the young women. What begins as a seemingly innocent, euphemistic conversation regarding “what it is a wife must do on her wedding night” inadvertently becomes an intimate moment of juxtaposing tenderness and passion as the pair recognise a sudden physical layer in their relationship. Waters is vivid in her imagery, but not graphic, giving us just enough explicitly to set the scene without venturing over the blurred lines into mere smut. “You pearl”, says Sue – it is simple, yet it is beautiful, and within the narrative of Fingersmith, it does precisely what it needs to.

Waters never once teeters into oversexualisation, as is often the case regarding portrayals of queer women

The real finery of it, though, is that it isn’t just sex. In almost all her works, Waters demonstrates a knack for constructing zealously turbulent tales laced with intricate complexities, and the nature of Maud and Sue’s relationship is no different. It is an “emotional entanglement” of a “mutual tumble into love”, Waters wrote in an afterword for the novel’s 20th anniversary last year. Within a frankly quite dark neo-Victorian gothic plot of deceit, poverty and patriarchy, Waters delves into themes of illicit desire and female sexual awakening in such a wonderfully crafted manner that is rarely seen, particularly when it comes to same-sex relationships. She details simple affection between the characters while they each undergo exploration of an uncharted emotional territory, never once teetering into oversexualisation, as is often the case regarding portrayals of queer women.

And even if the promise of a well-written sex scene isn’t enough, the twists and turns of the plot are nothing short of sensational. While I won’t divulge spoilers – there’s some real jaw droppers in there – it is safe to say that Fingersmith is an absolute must read.

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