It is not very often that I find myself up until 3am on a week night and it is even more rare when the cause of my insomnia is a book. Enter Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. Not for many years have I been so enamoured by a story that I carried my companion around constantly, snatching any passing minute as a moment to delve into this Victorian tale. The story follows Nan Astley, a young, passionate oyster-girl from Whistable on a journey of self-discovery through London during the end of the 1800’s. During her time at home, Nan visits the musica hall with her sister and one evening watches an act that changes everything. Kitty Butler is a male impersonator who captivates Nan’s heart with her handsome features and bravado. Nan soon becomes obsessed with seeing Kitty perform and visits the music hall alone for weeks, before eventually meeting her and becoming her dresser. In the following weeks, Kitty is invited to perform in London and asks Nan to join her on the adventure.
In London, the two girls become ever closer and eventually admit their feelings for one another. However, things are not quite all they seem. Nan visits her family at home and decides to return early to surprise Kitty, only to find her in bed with her male manager, Walter. Distraught and heartbroken Nan flees the house and moves in to a squalid boarding house where, using the male costumes she stole, she begins the life of a rent boy. During this time, Nan meets socialist Florence Banner, but is prevented the chance of meeting her properly. One evening she is instead hired by a wealthy widow, Diana. Nan moves into her lavish home under the name of “Neville” and becomes the object of Diana and her wealthy friends. Although initially enjoying this attention, Nan soon grows frustrated with her new life and eventually rebels. Diana kicks her out and Nan desperately wanders the streets in search of Florence.
Tipping the Velvet is a saucy, exciting, passionate novel that captivates the atmosphere of Victorian England. Waters engages you right from the first page and hits you over the head with senses. From the sea in Kent to the fog of London, there is not an atmosphere or setting that Waters cannot capture. Her text is daring, confident and sensuous leading to a truly addictive read. Nan is refreshing protagonist who does not shy away from her own desires, and is confident in exploring her own sexuality. There a scenes of true brilliance and wit that help to elevate this novel into a new genre all of its own. Although it does re-appropriate a lesbian history to the Victorian Era that is virtually undocumented, Tipping the Velvet can be forgiven for its sheer, palpable erotic tension that drives home the narrative of women loving women. A truly remarkable read and one that you will not be able to put down.
By Nicola Borasinski
For more information on Sarah Waters check out her website: http://www.sarahwaters.com/