Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters debut novel is a rich and hugely entertaining picaresque romp through the lesbian world of Victorian London.
Following the literal and metaphorical journey of Nan Astley from her sheltered family life in the seaside town of Whitstable to treading the boards in the music halls of London, Tipping the Velvet is a novel about self-creation and discovery, the fiction of making yourself up.
It is 1890 and Nancy Astley lives with her family in Whitstable, working in the family oyster parlour. Visiting the Canterbury Palace, she becomes smitten with male impersonator Kitty Butler, who soon notices her young admirer and takes her on as her official ‘dresser’.
“When I see her,” I said, “it’s like – I don’t know what it’s like. It’s like I never saw anything at all before. It’s like I am filling up, like a wine-glass when it’s filled with wine. I watch the acts before her and they are like nothing – they’re like dust. Then she walks on the stage and – she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet… She makes me want to smile and weep, at once. She makes me sore, here.” I placed a hand upon my chest, upon the breast-bone. “I never saw a girl like her before. I never knew that there were girls like her…”
Before long, the pair are lovers and are whisked off to London by agent Walter Bliss where they become a highly successful double act, their closeness on stage mirroring their secret closeness in the bedroom. Nancy changes her name to Nan King and is so happy in her relationship with Kitty that she cannot imagine anyone not accepting their love.
We fitted together like the two halves of an oyster-shell. I was Narcissus, embracing the pond in which I was about to drown. However much we had to hide our love, however guarded we had to be about our pleasure, I could not long be miserable about a thing so very sweet. Nor, in my gladness, could I quite believe that anybody would be anything but happy for me if only they knew.
Her happiness is short-lived though and a denunciation from her sister and Kitty’s own shame about their relationship will shatter not only Nan’s career, but also briefly, her life.
Nan’s story is told in three parts – all exploring different stages of her life and her sexuality. Over seven years, she loves and loses Kitty; struggles to survive by disguising herself as a young man hustling for paid sexual encounters and becomes the ‘kept’ lover of the wealthy but selfish Diana Lethaby.
It is only when she reaches her lowest point that she starts to discover her true self and her true love, working as a housekeeper for socialist charity worker Florence Banner.
Tipping the Velvet is terrifically entertaining. It is sharply paced, barreling along through colourful and detailed depictions of 1890s London and featuring even more colourful characters. Even the slightest of players is wonderfully sketched, creating a Dickensian world that is vivid and enthralling. The world of music hall is particularly well portrayed.
Nan’s emotional journey, from her wish to be a regular girl through to her need for ‘desperate pleasures’, is highly charged and erotic, but not as explicit as one might imagine it could have been.
It is a lovely touch to have Nan start life working in an oyster parlour – the imagery of those shellfish aphrodisiacs saturating the whole novel. Oysters are neither male nor female and can change sex throughout their lives. Wait long enough and they will produce a pearl.
Undoubtedly Tipping the Velvet is a lesbian novel – probably the most outright lesbian works of Waters oeuvre – but it is also so much more. It is a love letter to Victorian London, wonderfully evoking all aspects of London life from the back alleys of Soho to the most expensive boxes at the Opera House. It is written in a filmic manner, with the sights and smells of the London streets springing to life through Waters’ sure hand as she confidently presents the hidden history of lesbian life.
The book is let down slightly by the ending, which tries a little too hard to tie up all the loose ends and is particularly hard on the feckless Kitty, but as an exploration of love and a call for acceptance of all kinds of relationships, it succeeds wonderfully.
A double act is always twice the act that the audience thinks it; beyond our songs, our steps, our bits of business with coins and canes and flowers, there was a private language, in which we held an endless, delicate exchange of which the crowd knew nothing. This was a language not of the tongue but of the body, its vocabulary the pressure of a finger or a palm, the nudging of a hip, the holding or breaking of a gaze…It was as if we walked before the crimson curtain, lay down upon the boards and kissed and fondled – and were clapped, and cheered, and paid for it!
Tipping the Velvet is a wonderfully evocative historical novel – has anyone seen the TV adaptation? I’m keen to check it out.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 221
Number Remaining: 525
20 Books of Summer: 2/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!