- Masquerade in Fingersmith
In the last decades, intertextuality has been used to question issues of gender identity and desire, and, in a lively dialogue with theoretical debates within feminist thought, has come to define women's writing. An early example of such intertextuality is the rewriting of the female subject in Angela Carter's spectacular novel Nights at the Circus (1984). Fevvers, the self-proclaimed bird woman found at the door of a brothel, hatched from an egg, raised by prostitutes, and trained by the witch-like anarchist Lizzie, wanders around the world, traversing alternative communities, ideologies, and the world of fiction, while exploring the feminine experience in relation to her indeterminate female body symbolized by her alleged wings and searching for a place and language for the new woman. The figure of the woman writer in confrontation with the literary heritage is ubiquitous in contemporary women's writing; a recent example is Kate Atkinson's Emotionally Weird (2000), a postmodern novel that produces its new woman by rewriting and questioning the realist novel. Unlike most of their fictive predecessors in the realist novel, who begin as single women and end up in socially appropriate, acceptable heterosexual marriages, the female protagonists of postmodern fiction strive to break free of both their biological roots and the marriage institution and stage female experience in the discursive field. While exposing the inadequacy of traditional literary forms and their implicit gender norms, this figure of the woman writer in search of a language offers a viable, desirable form of female existence instead.1 Sarah Waters's 2002 Fingersmith is another example of a novel whose playful discursive production of the woman writer illustrates the [End Page 109] stakes involved in rewriting the female subject in the postmodern novel. Maud Lilly, the fictional woman author in question, cuts the umbilical cord to her biological origins and weaves literary cords with fellow female writers and readers in a new sexual topology, expressing lesbian desire through linguistic masquerade. Offering herself as a signifier, as the object of a discursive investigation open to new configurations, this female subject constructs herself by rewriting inherited male narratives that have proved oppressive and limiting for feminine desire and language.
Fingersmith is a Künstlerroman, in which the fictive writer, Maud, as well as the author, Waters, create their novelistic discourse by subverting the plots of male writers. The novel articulates its woman writer through multiple masquerades, beginning with the imitation of two key works of the Victorian era: Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist and Wilkie Collins's sensation novel, The Woman in White.2 By subjecting the inherited narrative forms to a dizzying number of reversals, doublings, and masquerades, the novel ends up displacing all identity categories, and, in a nod to Judith Butler, exposes them as indeterminate and the effect of performative acts. According to Butler, gender and identity are learned performances; neither stable nor natural, they are socially and discursively constructed through reiterative acts and regulatory practices. Butler challenges the notion of an original, authentic gender identity or sexuality that gay identity or sexuality either copies or from which it deviates. Waters draws on Butler's understanding of gender and the construction of identity as the imitation of an imitation, in other words, as discursive constructions that do not rely on an originary, natural, or in any sense imperative form of identity and sexuality. Thus in Fingersmith the lesbian woman writer materializes through reiterative acts whose apparent original is revealed to be the copy of another copy, leaving imitation and masquerade as the only possible forms of identity.
The novel's masquerading effect hinges on the fact that a known lesbian author, namely Waters, is imitating the heterosexual writers Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Waters's impersonation of Charles Dickens, which earned her the title "lesbian Charles Dickens" in Kirkus Reviews, ensures that the trope of mirroring accrues significance in the novel. Waters's postmodern novelistic language—a type of stylizing language, in Bakhtin's terms—mirrors the Victorian heterosexual male novelists' language while testing its validity for exploring female experience and transforming [End Page 110] the language whenever it proves inadequate. The fact that we...