Title: TIPPING THE VELVET
Author: Sarah Waters
Release Date: 1998
Publisher: Virago Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads
How do I even begin to describe and review this mountain of a book, on which tomes of literary analyses have been written? Tipping the Velvet has been, alternately, described as a bildungsroman, a picaresque novel, literary smut, lesbian fiction…and I would say that all those descriptions are very, very accurate. It was a very rich, intense read, and also a rather raunchy and bawdy one.
Tipping the Velvet is styled as an autobiographical narration of one young woman’s coming of age in London. Nancy Astley, Whitstable-oyster girl, finds herself captivated by male-impersonator Kitty Butler, and leaves her home to join Kitty in London, where she soon joins Kitty on the stage. There is no traditional plot, such as it is; like a picaresque novel, this is mostly a series of loosely connected events. This, I will admit, tempered my enjoyment slightly; I’m a fan of the traditional plot structure. Without it, Tipping the Velvet seemed to drag on quite a bit in some places. However, this flaw is easily excused when one looks at the novel’s other qualities.
Sarah Waters has said that this is a “re-imagining” of of Victorian London rather than a recreation; that is, this is not so historically accurate as I had hoped. Waters has said that there is precious little evidence of such a flourishing lesbian underbelly to 1890s London, and that she has built up her version of the time period from little snatches of evidence. It’s disappointing, to be sure; I was rather under the impression that I was reading a historically accurate and well-researched recreation (given Waters’ Ph.D in 19th century gay and lesbian fiction). In hindsight, had I been a more critical reader I may have noted all the winks and nods Waters gives that point towards various embellishments.
The historical accuracy in this novel comes in the form of rich, vivid, sensory description of 19th century London; Waters brings to life the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of the city, from music-halls to pubs to slums to socialist union houses. I felt like London had come to life before my very eyes, and I found myself aching to walk the streets of the city to look for the remnants of history that Waters describes with such care and detail. 19th century London itself becomes a character in its own right, as Nancy navigates its various neighborhoods and social spheres and becomes a different person in each one.
Nancy’s malleability as a character is off-putting and makes her rather difficult to like. She flits from one life to another with relative ease, casts her family aside and never thinks of them, and is on the whole rather self-absorbed and with little self-awareness of the fact. She is, however, a compelling narrator, and her distinct voice engaged me from the very first page of the novel. Her character is also refreshing; no shame regarding her love for other women or her desire to dress up like a man. There is no tortured coming out story here; from the start Nancy acknowledges her love for women and is scornful of those who don’t accept her. Her open embrace of non-normative sexuality and lifestyles is what contributes to her eventual split from her first lover, who is fearful of losing herself to such predilections. As time goes on Nan embarks upon a sexual awakening, going from shy, hesitant sex in the dark with Kitty, to prostitution while dressed as a man, to playing mistress to a predatory wealthy woman who engaged in abusive behavior.
The sex is always explicit, and it’s revelatory. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like this novel; its contributions to the canon can hardly be understated. It was probably a bit too raunchy for my tastes, however, verging very close to erotica at various points (apparently Waters read a lot of 19th century pornography when studying for her Ph.D). I found myself exhausted that so much of Nancy’s life revolved around sex and sexual encounters. Not that I necessarily wanted something more chaste, or that I wasn’t giddy to finally read a depiction of lesbian sex in literary fiction, but there is just something I can’t articulate that made me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps it seemed that the eroticism was given more weight than actual love between the women? I’m not quite sure.
For all that, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this novel in all its incredible detail; I hardly have the words to describe how much 19th century London comes alive here. Despite the loose plot structure of the story it was nearly always compelling and intriguing, exploring class, gender, and sexuality through the eyes of a sexually brazen young woman who is unashamed of her desires. I will also say, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, that the novel ends quite happily and provides the appropriate amount of closure, allowing Nancy to acknowledge how much she values her openly lesbian lifestyle and to settle down with a woman she loves.