Sunday, May 20, 2007


If Peter Carey is the king of neo-Victorian novels, Sarah Waters is the queen. The undisputed queen. Waters has written a trio of 19th century novels, all great reads: Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (2000), and Fingersmith (2002).

Tipping the Velvet follows an oyster seller from a small seaside town to the music halls and theatrical world of London as she finds and loses love. Lesbian love that is – just one point among many that separate this from Dickens! But with the charging, intricate plot of a Dickensian tale.

Affinity, Waters’ second novel, is a darker story, more Wilkie Collins than Dickens. Visiting a grim Victorian London prison as part of her rehabilitation following a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior is drawn to inmate spiritualist Selina Dawes and is persuaded to help her escape.

With the musical Oliver! filling Edmonton's Citadel Theatre night after after (only until June 3!) Fingersmith is a timely read: a "fingersmith" is Victorian slang for a pickpocket. Orphan Susan Trindler, raised in a household of thieves, is sent to seduce and defraud Maud Lilly, a wealthy heiress. But once installed in the house as Maud's maid, things become complicated, and Waters cranks up the narrative tension until the book is "un-put-downable". Plus the usual masterful scene-setting, romance and melodrama.

Waters is clearly a fan of Victorian fiction. In an interview on her website she is asked “is Dickens a big influence for you?” She responds:

Yes, I'm a big Dickens fan. His preoccupations - with city life, and with the life of London and the Thames in particular; with class, with desire, with guilt, and with the gothic traumas of maturation and love - still seem enormously resonant to me, and are those I suppose of my own writing. But I get squeamish about pursuing the comparison, not just because of Dickens being a literary genius and all of that, but because he was writing about his own period: he was a chronicler of his own social age. I'm writing faux-Victorian melodrama. A genuinely Dickensian writer today would be someone like Zadie Smith.

In one of the Guardian’s “Top Ten” book lists, Waters names her ten favourite Victorian novels:

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
3. Vanity Fair by WM Thackeray
4. New Grub Street by George Gissing
5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
6. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
7. Dracula by Bram Stoker
8. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
9. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
10. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins


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