Although I’ve read and enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’s other books and consider her one of my favorite authors, I went into Tipping the Velvet with low-ish expectations. Not many people seem to list this as their favorite Waters novel, and I figured that her first novel would be the one where she was still figuring out how to be a novelist. I was wrong. It’s excellent, and although it doesn’t surpass The Little Stranger and Fingersmith in my estimation, it comes close.
Set in the late 19th century, Tipping the Velvet is the story of Nancy King, a young woman from Whistable who has spent her first 18 years helping in the kitchen in her family’s oyster parlor. She has a sweetheart and expects nothing more than to marry and stay in Whistable. That changes when she sees Kitty Butler dressed as a man and singing in a music hall. Without even realizing that a woman could fall in love with another woman, Nancy falls in love. Kitty seems to return the feeling, and when Nancy decides to accompany her to London as she attempts to launch a career there, the two couldn’t be happier.
Their happiness only grows when Nancy ends up joining the act, enjoying the feeling of men’s suits and the attention of her fans but Kitty’s love most of all. The happiness doesn’t last, and soon Nancy is on her own, friendless and lacking family and doing whatever she can think of to survive. For the next few years, she lives in squalor and in luxury and has to figure out how she can love truly and honestly.
When I was reading this, I kept remembering how much I disliked Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, which seemed to revel in degradation and filth. That book struck me as looking down on the Victorians for their prudish attitudes about sex and excrement. Waters is just as explicit as Faber, perhaps even more explicit when it comes to sex. (It’s been a long time, so I don’t remember the details from Faber.) But I never got the sense that she was writing from a feeling of superiority. Nancy writes about what happens to her not to be titillating but because she needs to tell her story.
Nancy herself is not entirely likable. She is at times remarkably selfish. Her selfishness, in fact, nearly leads to her undoing. When people make her life difficult, she lets them go. She prefers the easy path, the comfortable one. But her selfishness also gives her strength because it makes her unwilling to live any more of a lie than she has to. Her goal is to be who she is and enjoy whatever pleasures she can have, and as a lesbian in the 19th century, her path cannot be easy. Waters places Nancy in different quarters of lesbian society of the time and lets us see many different ways that these women lived, sometimes even fairly openly. But full openness is nearly impossible for Nancy, and she’s vulnerable to abuse and tremendous pain.
Although much of Nancy’s suffering is specific to her place and time, the pain (and pleasure) of growing up and figuring yourself out transcends place and time. Nancy’s choices, regarding who to love and how to live, are colored by her time, but everyone has to figure these things out. For me, the best moments of the book occur when Nancy realizes her own guilt, not for her sexuality, but for her selfishness. That, to me, is the most profound journey of self-discovery in the book. That’s what makes this book so great.
And now that I’ve read all of Sarah Waters’s books, I’m going to be waiting even more impatiently for her next one. It can’t come soon enough!