Review: Tipping the Velvet

It’s Friday night and I’m pretty exhausted, so this isn’t really a proper review; instead, some notes on a novel I really loved recently.

Tipping the Velvet is the first novel by established historical novelist Sarah Waters, which should tell you most of what you need to know.

Namely, that here be VICTORIAN LESBIANS.

Our Heroine is Nancy, an oyster-girl from Whitstable, Kent, who falls in love with a woman from the theatre: Kitty, a cross-dressing singer. After a suitable period of wistful sighing on both sides, Kitty whisks her off to London, there to become a star – and to embark on a journey through Victorian London’s hidden queer scene in search of a place she can find acceptance.

As in Waters’ wonderful Fingersmith, the romantic suspense, especially in the first half of the novel, is incredible. I don’t often ship couples in novels, because I don’t often stumble across fictional romances that convince me – but the mixture of desire and shame and repressed sexuality that Nancy feels for Kitty is irresistible.

The novel’s quite episodic: Nancy moves through a variety of roles as she moves through London (I have a feeling that she does so west to east, but I may be wrong). There’s a lot of emphasis on how she uses clothing to perform these various roles, which I found pretty interesting: she spends time living as a man, first on the streets of London and then in the home of a sadistic, wealthy lesbian widow. That, and her brief career on stage as a cross-dresser alongside Kitty, makes her clothing choices throughout the novel extremely loaded. To take just a couple of examples: she starts dressing as a man on the streets (as opposed to on the stage) because she can move more freely in the city and attract less attention when she does so; she begins a brief career as a rent boy when she’s wearing the uniform of a specific regiment whose members are known for such activities. Clothes in this novel tend to be catalysts: they can be both empowering and restrictive. There aren’t that many authors who acknowledge this everyday reality, and I found it fascinating.

This attention to the detail of how people perform cultural meanings extends beyond clothing: Waters evokes the sounds and smells and tastes of London settings from the West End theatres to Smithfield Meat Market. It’s detail that gives Tipping the Velvet great verisimilitude – it feels solidly researched and true to how a Victorian person in Nancy’s position might have lived. That’s important from a storytelling point of view, but it’s also relevant to the novel’s political project, which is that of queering Victorian history: imagining a lifestyle that’s been erased by popular culture and by centuries of gatekeeping by straight white cis men. (Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims that the queer elements of Tipping the Velvet are not actually based on historical research – it’s a testament to Waters’ writing how much this surprises me.) I love the way that we discover this history, this queer culture that we never imagined might be there, alongside Nancy: as she’s drawn into this hidden side of London, so are we. And so, when Nancy finally does find safety and acceptance and people who will love her in the way she wants to be loved, it’s a relief for us too. I almost cried when I finished Tipping the Velvet. It is more lovely than I can say.

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