Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet

Written by: Sarah Waters

Published in: 1998

Synopsis:  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.

Challenges: LGBT for Book'd Out's Eclectic Reader Challenge

“Being in love, you know... it's not like having a canary, in a cage. When you lose one sweetheart, you can't just go out and get another to replace her.”

I started reading this months and months ago after Alice gave me the longest list of Lesbian Lit ever written and this was the only book from that list in my library. But even though I was enjoying it I took ages to get anywhere with it (I blame the chapter length, they make stopping and starting ridiculously difficult) and eventually had to take it back to the library unfinished. I then, for whatever reason, took about two months to finally borrow it out again. But eventually, EVENTUALLY, I managed to finish my first Sarah Waters and now feel very up to date with the lesbian goings on in Victorian London.

This book is about two things and the two things rather inform one another. Firstly, the book is about Nan(cy) - Whitstable oyster girl turned stage performer turned rent boy, turned sex slave, turned housekeeper - and secondly, the book is about the various types of lesbian relationships during the Victorian era. As Nan navigates London and the careers and lifestyles unique to it, we navigate the same path, if Nan is in the dark then so are we. We remain unaware of exactly how extensive the lesbian or "tom" lifestyle is in London until Nan learns such things, and while she throws herself into aspects of the lifestyle (which we'll get to) she remains pretty naive until the final third of the book.

The book is broken up into three sections, and as this is something of a coming of age novel, they loosely map the critical moments in Nan's young adulthood. When we meet her she's on the typical Whitstable career path for Victorian females. She's got a sweetheart, she works in her parent's oyster shop and she'll probably be married and pregnant within a year or two. A trip to the theatre changes this when she witnesses Kitty Butler on the stage, cross-dressing and performing as a male. Nan is immediately drawn to Kitty and after spending night after night at the theatre she finally begins a conversation with Kitty and eventually becomes her dresser and then her performing partner in London. This section is all very sweet and awkward and full of blushing and stolen glances, and when Kitty and Nan finally start a relationship it's wonderful.
“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.”
But, alas, things quickly sour when Nan realises that Kitty is terrified of people finding out the truth of their wicked and naughty ways and ultimately breaks Nan's heart. After Nan runs from Kitty she becomes a rent boy (no need to expand on that) before finally becoming a sex slave for Diana. This section is filthy! I mean, this shouldn't come as a surprise since I described Nan as a sex slave, but woah, Waters does not hold back with the scenes between Nan and Diana. And I'm not exaggerating when I call her a sex slave, because that's exactly what she is. She's "paid" in new clothes and accessories but she has no life of her own. Her movements are resticted, she can't leave the property and she's treated like a performing animal at Diana's parties.
"My dear, I have said: you should have pleasure for your wages! You should live with me here, and enjoy my privileges. You should eat from my table, and ride in my brougham, and wear the clothes I will pick out for you - and remove them, too, when I should ask it. You should be what the sensational novels call kept"
The second section, torrid sex scenes aside, is also kind of heart breaking. Though Nan seems to accept that her sexuality isn't something she can change, she also seems to have resigned herself to see it through Kitty's eyes. So while there are elements of self-empowerment and pleasure in choosing to be kept by Diana, it also seems like Nan is punishing herself for her proclivities. It's as though she believes that lesbians can't have a regular love life and since her sister and Kitty see it as something to be ashamed of she'll prove just how extreme it can be, whether it's actually what she wants or not.

The third and final section is probably my favourite of the three. After living a pretty rough 5 years, Nan is left with nowhere to turn. Luckily she finds Flo who is perhaps one of the loveliest characters to ever be written. After 18 months being spoilt and abused, life in the working class comes as something of a shock to Nan, but she quickly gets used to cleaning house and looking after little baby Cyril. It's in this section that Nan realises life as a lesbian isn't all secrets and sex slavery, and that she's not as unique as she thought. This section is about stability, growth and perspective and it's wonderful to watch Nan navigate her way around.

The book is very well written. Sarah Waters has a gorgeous way with words, bringing life to Victorian London and the excitement of the theatre and the complexities of a lifestyle looked down upon at the time. Though as much as I loved the characters and the actual narrative, I could have happily read 300+ pages of Sarah Waters describing the sights and sounds of Victorian London and the surrounding towns.
"Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent - the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere - the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and of tobacco and of hair-oil, all combined. It was a scent which as a girl I loved uncritically; later I heard it described, by theatre managers and artistes, as the smell of laughter, the very odour of applause"


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