Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

November 2, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): Set in England in the 1890s, the novel is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Nancy Astley. She comes from a working class family whose entire lives revolve around the oyster trade. They run a restaurant in a small town called Whitsable, and Nancy is forever shucking the delicacies for customers. Her greatest treat in life is to attend a nearby theater at night, where she sees a wide variety of acts — including the song and dance routine of a masher (female impersonating a male) named Kitty Butler.

Nancy is immediately taken by Kitty’s beauty, and soon becomes obsessed to the point where she goes to the theater every night just for Kitty’s act. Kitty soon notices Nancy’s presence in an otherwise empty box night after night, and invites her big fan to meet her backstage. The two hit it off immediately and become friends. Nancy actually lusts after Kitty, but Kitty gives no indication that she feels the same.

Soon, Kitty reveals that she has signed a contract to perform at a bigger theater house in London. Nancy is devastated, and cannot imagine trying to live without Kitty in her life. Kitty, who by this time has grown just as dependent on Nan, invites her to come to London too, as Kitty’s dresser. Nan readily agrees.

The two end up sharing a bed together at the boarding house, where they finally consummate their relationship. Of course this being Victorian England, they can’t openly carry on as a lesbian couple, but they do have a relationship. Nan is in heaven — until she returns home one day to find Kitty in bed with their agent Walter. Nan is devastated, but gives Kitty one last chance to salvage their relationship. Kitty chooses Walter.

From there, Nan enters a dark period. She openly dresses as a boy and earns a living as a “renter” (male prostitute), servicing other men in dark alleyways and corners. She then hooks up with a rich woman named Diana, who essentially pays for Nan’s constant sexual services. When Diana proves to be abusive and throws Nan out, she winds up with a young woman named Florence, and the two embark on what promises to be a happy relationship.

Liked:

  • This book provided an interesting look at the sexual licentiousness of the Victorian era, which is something not even hinted at in other works that I’ve read from that period. As a result, I feel I now have a more complete picture of what the London of Charles Dickens and George Eliot was really like.
  • I liked Kitty and Nan as a couple, and was rooting for them to get back together, even after Nan began dating Florence. Admittedly, it would have been hollow for Nan to actually end up with Kitty because of Kitty’s refusal to divorce Walter, but still, I liked her better than Florence.

Disliked:

  • I couldn’t believe that Nan chose Florence in the end. Florence seemed like such a dull, ugly, passionless character that I couldn’t imagine why Nan would have been attracted to her in the first place. With Kitty, Nan shared a love for the theater and nightlife. With Diana, raunchy sex was the common ground. But Florence?? What did they see eye to eye about? Nothing!! That relationship didn’t make sense.
  • There were lots of boring places in the book, which made it seem like the thing went on forever and ever. I think it only took me a week to read, but it felt more like a month. The socialism crap tops the list as THE most boring section of the entire book. Ugh, why even introduce useless politics into a story that was already flagging?
  • Nan wasn’t the most likable protagonist in history. Sometimes she was sympathetic, but most of the time she was flat-out annoying and made me not care about what happened to her. This was another reason the book felt slow/boring.

Rating:

Tipping the Velvet is obviously not the kind of book that I usually read, but I was struck by curiosity and the generally positive reviews the work received upon its initial release in 1998. Unfortunately, the novel did not live up to the hype. It was plagued by a boring plot and dull characters, and went on for about 100 pages too long. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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