20 October, 2010

disabling queerness: Fingersmith

Before I start, there are two kinds of ASD (or generally mind-disabled) characters, besides those who are actually canonically identified as having ASD. There are people like Pete Campbell where I sincerely think that if they were a real person born in 2000, they would be diagnosed with ASD. Then there are people like River Tam from Firefly, who obviously doesn't literally have ASD or schizophrenia, because we know that her ASD/schizophrenic traits come from emotional trauma and brain injury. If I write something "reading" River as a person like me, I'm not trying to deny the canon of the show, but just saying that functionally, she is kind of like people with certain disabilities, and can be identified with/claimed by us.

The character Maud Lilly, from the book and movie Fingersmith, is the second kind of character; she comes off as being like a person with ASD because of her life experience. Although this isn't the reason I love the book and movie--they're just incredibly fantastic and creative--it is probably the reason I find the love story so affecting, because Maud's experience of infatuation is so much like mine.

If you are interested in watching the movie or reading the book Fingersmith, you should probably know that there's a big twist and it has to do with exactly what this post is about. I knew the twist beforehand and I still love the book and movie, but if you want to be surprised, you should stop reading here.

Okay. (I'm talking about the book, but the movie doesn't change any of the facts--it just doesn't focus in on Maud's adolescence and sexuality as much as the book.)

So Fingersmith is a gothic novel about a 19th-century teenage pickpocket, Sue, who is hired to scam a sheltered girl named Maud. Maud lives with her uncle in the country and would inherit a lot of money from him if she ever got married--but it seems like she never will get married because she's so isolated. Gentleman, a con artist, is planning on marrying her and then getting her labeled as "mad" and put in an institution so he can have her money.

Sue's job is to be Maud's maid, become friends with her, and do anything possible to get her to fall in love with Gentleman and elope with him. Sue narrates in the movie, "When I saw her I thought: 'This is going to be easy.'" Maud is very stiff and soft-spoken and has nightmares every night (during which she begs Sue not to leave her alone). Sue has grown up taking care of babies and young children, so despite her plans to hurt Maud she has an instinctive protective reaction to Maud's anxious, childlike nature.

Maud is "developmentally delayed"--I don't use this as a euphemism for intellectual disability, but as a term for something that most disabled young adults have, both because of disability and as a result of being sheltered and not learning to be independent. Maud is young for her age. She does not understand how to do a lot of things that most people her age know how to do.

Sue becomes very attached to Maud, and ends up kissing and having sex with her because Maud claims not to know how to have sex. But she doesn't know how to stop what she's doing, and the con continues as planned. In the days after Maud and Gentleman have gotten married, but before Maud is institutionalized, Sue becomes more and more distraught and depressed about betraying someone she loves, someone who is so innocent. Then Maud steals Sue's identity, and Sue is institutionalized as Maud Lilly. Sue realizes that Maud was actually working with Gentleman to scam Sue.

The twist of the story is that Maud isn't a "pigeon," the term Gentleman uses for an easily manipulated person. This is already a "fuck yeah" moment for disabled readers. But what's even cooler is that Maud wasn't faking very much. She really is developmentally delayed and she really does have nightmares, and she really is very stiff and impaired when it comes to other people. Nonetheless, she is calculating and capable of doing evil.

The unevenness of Maud's abilities, the fallacy inherent in categorizing her as "childlike" or "adultlike," is encapsulated by her knowledge of sex. In the second part of the book, which is narrated by Maud, we learn that her uncle collects pornographic writing and images, and she has been his secretary since she was a child. The servants in the house don't know what her uncle's library consists of, and became unsettled by Maud because she would use sexual terms at a young age; this led to her losing their motherly support, after which she began to bully and harass them. Her uncle's friends are attracted to Maud when they visit the house and she reads porn to them--they think of her as sexy, impure, and probably available, though of course she's never even kissed anyone. After Maud has scammed Sue and is living in London, she tries to get help from one of her uncle's friends, but he refuses to associate with her because of her reputation.

Maud can't be categorized as a virgin or a whore; she is physically and emotionally untouched, but seen as damaged goods because of her intellectual knowledge. To me, the most beautiful passages in the book are those describing Maud's attraction to Sue--her surprise at realizing that something she's very intellectually familiar with could actually happen to her; that sexuality isn't the boring, mildly disgusting thing she always thought it was.

After putting Sue in the institution, Maud realizes that she is in love with Sue and wants to save her. But it's very difficult for her to do anything because she has no common sense or understanding of how to move around in a city. I won't summarize the rest of the book, but don't worry, everything turns out awesome and there are some more twists. I basically just want to talk about what a great mind-disabled character Maud is. She comes off at first as being completely guileless and unable to do anything. Then we find out that isn't true at all and she's a force to be reckoned with, but her disability doesn't just disappear; there really are things she can't do. And she's neither good or evil, she's both, just like all the other characters.


  1. Wow, that does sound like a fascinating book. Thank you for the description. As soon as I get through the other 12 books (or so...ahem) that I have lying around in varying parts of my book-strewn home I will have to make a point of reading this. I'm torn, of course, because it would probably be quicker to watch it, but most of the time I prefer to read a story. I have a perfectly functional imagination after all. Anyway. Thanks!

  2. You should just do both. I watched the movie before I read the book and they were both awesome. It's on YouTube.


    Go, go, go! it's just the best possible way to spend any free time.

  3. Oh, my gosh! So it is (on YouTube, I mean). I think I'll have time on Wednesday while I'm waiting around for the condo inspector to come and tell me my smoke detectors aren't working properly (argh!). Thanks! Onward!

  4. This book sounds very, very awesome. Such is the problem, of course, with book reviews: I don't have a lot of time to devote to novels so if I do read a book it's very rare and because I'm very interested but usually why I'm interested is because of a book review that gives away an important plot point.

    Ah well...

    Of course, I also forget to actually read most [all] of these books. I should really make a list.

    ... and make time.

    I'm not good at making either of those things.

    1. You should find some time to read THIS book or watch the movie. I saw the movie and I finished crying. It's really beautiful and tender!!!!

  5. The book keeps you hanging on every word...
    I didnt know it was possible to have a beautiful well-written lesbian love plot in a novel till I read this one... finally a romantic couple in a novel that I could relate to.
    The TV series was wonderful and the intimacy was palpable. Superb acting.

    Sarah Waters is gifted.

  6. My life experience has been painfully similar to that of Maud. Therefore, all I pray now is that I may soon earn and deserve the kind of love that Sue and Maud feel for each other.