Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters’ third novel, Fingersmith, is one of my favorite books—it’s a gloriously twisting piece of work and, as a lesbian Victorian novel, is quite, well, novel. In fact, Waters has made a name for herself writing about women in love in the Victorian era, although her latest two novels are set in the 1940s. (It’s probably because all three of her Victorian novels have been adapted for television or film.) Having loved Fingersmith, I picked up Tipping the Velvet, hopeful that the Gaiman Conundrum didn’t apply to Waters.
Tipping the Velvet follows Nancy Astley, a oyster girl who lives in Whitstable and enjoys visiting music halls. When Nancy sees Kitty Butler, male impersonator, perform, she falls and falls hard for her—and when Kitty invites Nancy to follow her to London as her personal dresser, Nancy doesn’t hesitate. For a while, the two live an idyllic life, until Kitty betrays Nancy, an act that sends Nancy into the seedy underworld of London, an elegant—but abusive—circle of elite London lesbians, the budding Socialist movement, poorhouses, and the streets. It’s a journey that ultimately brings Nancy out of other people’s shadows and into her own spotlight.
There is a lot of sex going on in Tipping the Velvet; it’s almost impressive. While Fingersmith was not without its tenderly rendered sex scenes, Nancy is a very sexual woman and it definitely shows here—Nancy’s time with Diana, a woman who has hired her as a sort of in-house prostitute, is especially explicit, as Diana is determined to make her reputation as a debaucher of young women (reflecting, perhaps, the notion of queer women as predators). It’s so much sex, in fact, that I feel compelled to warn for it, as I would for heterosexual relations (of which there are a few here); but remember, I’m ace—my tolerance for gratuitous sex is lower than a sexual person’s. And Waters never makes it feel gratuitous. Okay, there were a few moments where I wished Nancy would get her mind out of the gutter, but sex is how Nancy makes sense of the world around her, especially after Kitty leaves her for a man. Her sexual desirability is so mortally wounded that Nancy almost subconsciously seeks to become the most sexually desirable woman to other women; at one point, she entertains the notion of seducing Kitty as a man and, upon revealing her true identity, cruelly abandoning her. It’s wholly in character for Nancy.
Water’s writing is just as polished as in her later novels here; Tipping the Velvet feels authentic and effortless. As in Fingersmith, Waters brings Victorian London to life—in fact, she has more of an opportunity to, as Nancy stays in London longer than Sue and explores more of it, as both a boy and a woman. We visit the heights of elegance and the depths of poverty with Nancy, who has a tendency to take breakups so badly that she ends up penniless after them. But, as fine as that was, I was more impressed with how Waters explores various different expressions of Victorian womanhood, from Nancy herself to the rich Diana to the socialist Florence to the various women that Nancy encounters in her life, romantic interests or not. There are only three male characters in Fingersmith with any real impact; Alice, the fellow who helps Nancy turn rent boy, Walter, the man who comes between Nancy and Kitty, and Ralph, the brother of Florence. It gives us a much richer idea of what it means to identify as a woman and to be a woman in Victorian England, rather than the traditional notion of the upper-class stay-at-home wife (although we encounter those!). It’s fascinating.
Waters also explores the spectrum of female homosexuality through Nancy’s journey. Kitty is a fiercely closeted woman who cheats on Nancy to reinforce that she’s not some “tom”, a Victorian term or slur for a lesbian, and Nancy, after her sister Alice expresses her disgust and horror at Nancy’s love for Kitty, does something similar, trying to forcibly repress herself. Diana is presented as sexually abusive; all her kinkiness seems to be less for pleasure and more for controlling her lovers, which was what she truly desires—her circle appears to be composed of elite women who view their homosexuality as a sort of refined and depraved taste, rather than simply a state of being. When Nancy finally finds true love (as if she wouldn’t!) it’s with a woman who is comfortable with her identity as a lesbian but doesn’t let solely define her in a world that dearly wants to—the proper state for anyone, regardless of labels. By exploring both womanhood and female homosexuality, Waters makes a fairly traditional—if brilliantly and authentically written—coming of age story into something deeper and more inclusive, no matter where on the spectrums you fall. For a first novel, it’s quite a feat.
Bottom line: Sarah Waters’ first novel, Tipping the Velvet, is, I must admit, very sexual—but it works for Nancy, our heroine struggling to come to terms with her lesbian and female identity in Victorian London, who takes subconscious revenge on the lover that abandoned her by trying to become the most sexually desirable woman to other women. It’s a beautifully written novel that explores what it means to be a woman, especially a gay woman, at the time.
I rented this book from the public library.