Spoilers, surrounded by * and written in white text, can be read by highlighting the relevant passage.
Several different people have recommended Sarah Waters to me and, seeing as it’s her most famous work, I decided I should get on with it and read Tipping the Velvet. The story of an oyster girl from Whitstable who falls in love with a female music hall performer, it did not disappoint. The themes of sexuality, gender, and class were all expertly handled and I found that I was completely gripped by the setting, plot and characters all the way through.
Nancy, our protagonist and narrator, was very likeable. She was headstrong and naïve and very enterprising. There were several points in the novel where most people in her situation would have given up in despair, or gone home with their tails between their legs. Nancy, however, although she does undergo a period of despondency, always thinks of something, managing to pull herself out of the direst of situations. The novel is set over a six-year period, however, and one drawback of this is that vast swathes of time pass by very quickly and so Nancy’s character development felt slightly rushed at times. This is not to say that she changes an unrealistic amount for six years, nor that we are not shown sufficient reason for the changes to her character, only that as a reader it was occasionally surprising how much time had passed and, therefore, how much she had changed. That being said, Nancy was still believable and her strong narrative voice helped me to connect to her even more.
Another gripping element of the book was its backdrop of Victorian London. An oft-used setting in story-telling, I thought I knew it quite well, but apparently not. Tipping the Velvet was clearly very well researched. Everything from the slang to the geography to the excitement of the music hall was enthralling and believable.
Learning about Victorian lesbian society, which we never get to hear about in mainstream historical discussions, was absolutely fascinating and exciting. I previously imagined that anyone who we would now call “gay” in those days was doomed to a sad existence where they would either have to marry someone of the opposite sex, or else be alone in case anyone should suspect them. And indeed there were examples of people like this; *Kitty marries Walter*, Zena was previously imprisoned in a reformatory, and there are countless examples of men whose only outlet for their sexuality are the rent boys dotting the streets. However, Sarah Waters is sure to tell us about the vast number of people who did get to live happily with their partners – the “toms” Nancy meets at the music hall, Diana and her Sapphist friends, and the women of the Boy in the Boat are all not only happy, but also out and proud to the extent that they could be. They might not go on marches, and the threat of the reformatory still looms large, but they have accepting friends and relations and, in fact, the choice to hide is strongly condemned, though of course understandable. Even the neighbours don’t mind it too much:
“The truth is,” Annie went on, “there is such a mix round these parts, what with Jews and Lascars, Germans and Poles, socialists, anarchists, salvationists … The people are surprised at nothing.”
The lesbians of Sarah Waters’ novel have their own clubs and meeting spaces, their own customs and slang. The title itself is in fact a real-life piece of explicit Victorian lesbian slang. In no way is it a paltry or sad existence as I previously thought it must be. In a world where gay teens are kicked out of their homes and the USA has a vice-president who believes in conversion therapy, it’s incredibly comforting to know that lgbt people can have happy and fulfilling lives in the most hostile of circumstances and have done throughout history.
I had a good idea how I thought this book might end and, though I was thrown off track for a while, I ended up being right. Thanks to Waters’ masterfully-dropped hints and her obvious familiarity with good story-telling, the ending succeeded in being both expected and satisfying, giving closure to earlier parts of the story and a thankfully happy ending.
I highly recommend Tipping the Velvet to anyone, especially people looking for good novels with positive lgbt representation. The wonderful characters, setting and writing style were a joy to experience and I can’t wait to read more of her work.