Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
“Lavishly crammed with the songs, smells, and costumes of late Victorian England” (The Daily Telegraph), this delicious, steamy debut novel chronicles the adventures of Nan King, who begins life as an oyster girl in the provincial seaside town of Whitstable and whose fortunes are forever changed when she falls in love with a cross-dressing music-hall singer named Miss Kitty Butler. When Kitty is called up to London for an engagement on “Grease Paint Avenue, ” Nan follows as her dresser and secret lover, and, soon after, dons trousers herself and joins the act. In time, Kitty breaks her heart, and Nan assumes the guise of butch roue to commence her own thrilling and varied sexual education–a sort of Moll Flanders in drag–finally finding friendship and true love in the most unexpected places.
I love discovering “new” authors, authors and books that I had never heard of. I came across this book at a church book sale in Park Slope earlier this year. I had no idea what to expect when I read this, but by the end of it, I was enthralled with the author and this book, just as Nan was enthralled with Kitty.
This is essentially a love story. It focuses on Nan and her love affairs with women in Victorian England, and how each of them effect her life. At first, Nan is just a simple girl from the country who becomes enamored with Kitty and her lifestyle and career. She truly becomes Nan’s first love, because Nan becomes so blinded by her love for Kitty, that she does not see how Kitty is actually stifling her. You experience Nan’s naivety as you go along in the book and you want to scream out at her when she makes bad decisions. Like when Nan essentially becomes another woman’s trophy girlfriend? mistress? pawn? not sure how to categorize her. Either way, you know that no good will come of it but you know that Nan has to go through this experience (the bad and the good) to come out of it a better person and woman in the long run, one who is ready to have a relationship based on mutual love and understanding with another woman.
Nan thinks she knows how to set her course, but in reality she doesn’t. She is constantly learning from the people she encounters and lives with, and from those that she brushes off. And even though things do not end well with Kitty, she is always somewhere in the background of Nan’s life. And in a way, Kitty’s absence thrusts Nan into this new world and life with no guidance. Nan does not know what to do, so she does what makes sense for her at the time, be it dressing up as a man and going off to alleys with strange men, or setting up shop at a woman’s lavish residence living as a shell. She does what she needs to survive.
There is a happy ending, but the journey is just so grueling for Nan.
I had no idea what the title meant until the phrase was mentioned in the book. Yes, there are some steamy scenes in here. But why shouldn’t there be? Any romance/love story has them! So I wouldn’t view this as a lesbian romance or lesbian fiction. It’s just fiction. That’s all.
The author writes about a time and place and people and events that most probably didn’t know existed back then. This Wikipedia article gives some great insight into the book and the author
There was a BBC miniseries made of this and I already put it on my Netflix so I’m curious to see how the book translates to the screen.
If I come across the author’s other books, I will definitely be checking them out. I enjoyed this one immensely.