Hoist that dollymop’s sail

John Sutherland

  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
    Virago, 549 pp, £12.99, February 2002, ISBN 1 86049 882 5
  • The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
    Canongate, 838 pp, £17.99, October 2002, ISBN 1 84195 323 7

Have you ever tried to write a Victorian novel? Here’s a beginning, with apologies to Sarah Waters and Michel Faber (and a nod to George MacDonald Fraser):

London, 1860. November. A pea-souper billowing up from the flotsam bobbing in the Thames. The gas lamps already blearing. Good things of day begin to drowse. The rookeries are emptying, and their birds of prey making wing to the West End.

Dollymops, cracksmen and gonophs are on the prowl.

Susan (up from Mrs Sucksby’s kitchen in the Borough) and Caroline (one of Mrs Castaway’s girls in St Giles) will hunt together tonight. Caroline is on the game, an alley-cat who’ll lift her chimmy for two bob (and a tanner for Mrs C). Sue has been brought up ‘by hand’ by Mrs Sucksby to be a palmer, a pogue-hoister, a dipper, a flimp: what in Borough argot they call a fingersmith.

Tonight, though, she’s a mutcher – a predator on drunks. Caroline will button for Susan – lure some tipsy greenhorn into a dark alley. One tap with the cosh then it’s off with his unmentionables to the translators. Mrs Sucksby will fence the wipers, the repeater and the pins.

No great risk. The garrotting panic and legislation against footpads is still two years away. It’s Liberty Hall on the London streets in 1860.

They walk down to St James’s. Nothing. Normally Caroline’s had her nancy jiggled two or three times by now. Reeling out of the Minor Club come a couple of swells. ‘Why,’ says Caroline, loud enough to be heard in Green Park, ‘if it ain’t Captain Flashie, VD – I mean VC.’

The swell, a military man with magnificent moustaches, turns to his pal and says, just as loudly: ‘Hoist that dollymop’s sail, Speedicut, and you’ll be pissing fish-hooks for three months. Got the chats out of your bush yet, Caroline?’

‘I’d rather be a martletop and steal snot rags from buses than do you, you toff bastard,’ she shouts back, good-naturedly, as he tosses a sov in the gutter. ‘Bet it’s snide,’ she shouts at their backs as they saunter off to Kate Hamilton’s place.

The girls amble on to the Arches – where, at last, they spy a four-square rig reeling out of a bar: kerchief, diamond stud and all. ‘Shop!’ whispers Caroline, ‘our first customer.’

Not as easy as it looks, I discover; even if, like Waters, you have a PhD in Victorian literature and the necessary cribs to hand. It can’t have been easy either for Faber, who reportedly spent 12 years writing and researching his (appropriately massive) novel. Some think it time well spent. Faber’s American publisher, Ann Patty, prefaces her edition of The Crimson Petal and the White with the declaration: ‘Dear Reader, You hold in your hands the first great 19th-century novel of the 21st century. In my 25 years this may be the most magnificent, courageous novel I have ever published. Magnificent because it can only be called a great novel, a tour de force, a novel that truly stands beside the Victorian classics.’ Admirers of Fingersmith might contest these superlatives. But, whichever is judged better (Waters has my vote), the fact that Faber has made it into the middle ranks of the New York Times bestseller list and Waters has been shortlisted for the Booker confirms that the neo-Victorian low-life, high-filth novel is doing well. To add to the buzz, Andrew Davies’s three-part adaptation of Waters’s first novel, Tipping the Velvet, has just been shown on TV. Waters’s tale of lesbian prostitution in the 1890s attracted publicity chiefly for the casting of Diana Rigg’s daughter, leather dildos and the practice alluded to in the title.

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