Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the velvetAlthough 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!

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16 Responses to Tipping the Velvet

  1. “Fingersmith” is probably the novel I like most by Sarah Waters. But I was lucky to read all the books in order of publishing, so started with “Tipping the Velvet” (when it was translated in French, and then in English). I did not feel it was a first book. I felt the author had “a voice of her own” sinc her beginnings and that she has been refining it since.
    Thank you for this review of a book that has been a little forgotten after more recent success. As you say, it is a non condescending description od a segment of the Victorian world, and though graphic, not salivating or titillating.
    I have enjoyed the book and your review makes me think of re-reading it: I can’t think od a greater compliment of your skills as a reviewer. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I totally agree that this doesn’t feel like a first novel at all. I was really surprised, since I liked Affinity less than her other books and assumed she would still be finding her footing with this, but that wasn’t the case at all.

  2. I liked Tipping the Velvet and you’re right – it doesn’t get as much love as the other books, but it’s still fantastic!

  3. Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a magnificent adaptation this summer of “Fingersmith,” and, given my love of Victoriana, I wondered why I haven’t read Waters sooner. And then I remembered “Crimson Petal and the White,” the “Dickensian” novel of its season that I loathed, the book that almost put me off all “Dickensian” novels ever since–I did get sucked into reading “Drood,” but that was a special case…

    But “Fingersmith” got the Victoriana right (at least in adaptation), and your reviews (and Jenny’s, too–since this is now the ONLY book blog I read or trust) remind me to start somewhere in Waters’s oeuvre. And I understand that almost anywhere I start will lead me to a good place.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Judith Flanders’s Victorian social histories, and find them fascinating. I don’t know how much non-fiction you read, and your TBR shelf is probably groaning under the weight of those unread books, but throw on a few of hers (The Victorian City, Inside the Victorian Home) for good measure. And I’ll add “Tipping the Velvet” to my overburdened stack…

    • Teresa says:

      I’d love to see Fingersmith on stage–I understand there’s a stage version of Tipping the Velvet as well. I avoided Waters for years partly because of Crimson Petal (that and a review that gave me the impression that her books were mostly smutty). I was wrong to do so because she’s so wonderful. If you specifically want to try her Victoriana, this one or Fingersmith are the best of those. (Affinity is good, but less good.) But I have a soft spot for The Little Stranger. Really, though, you can’t go far wrong.

      Funny you should mention Victorian social history because I just checked Ruth Goodman’s How to Be Victorian out of the library. I don’t know if I’ll get to it before it’s due, but I’ll keep Fladners’s books in mind if I decide I want more.

  4. Kristen M. says:

    Eva and I were talking a little in instagram comments the other day about Sarah Waters and about how even her “worst” books are still fantastic. We all rate them personally but it doesn’t mean that any are bad! I did a bit of mental comparison when I was reading The Crimson Petal and the White earlier this year (which I would almost say I hated at times) between that book and Sarah Waters’ Victorian books and you are exactly right. They touch some of the same themes but Waters makes everything human and beautiful even within the flaws while Faber’s book was just trashy.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s so true about her “worst” books. Affinity is probably my least favorite of her books, but it’s still incredibly good–better than most Victoriana.

      I’m so glad I’m not alone on Crimson Petal. That book annoyed me so much.

  5. Jenny says:

    I read this book quite a long time ago now, and I still remember how much I loved it. I would agree with Kristen that all her books, even the ones I don’t like as much, are really good. I read The Paying Guests over the summer and ran out of time to review it — but I just fell into that book. Maybe it didn’t make my top two of hers, but I still thought it was wonderful.

    • Teresa says:

      I wondered if you had read or were planning to read The Paying Guests. I agree that it’s not as good as her others, but it’s still excellent. And hearing her talk about the research that went into it when she was a Politics and Prose made me appreciate it even more. (And it made me less cranky about long gaps between her books. The detailed research takes time!)

  6. I should reread Tipping the Velvet. I remember being really angry with it because I didn’t like Florence, and I wanted Nancy’s life to end up somewhere more interesting than boring self-righteous old Florence when I put the book down. But maybe I’m mistaken and I should give ROTTEN FLORENCE another try.

    (I have also been substantially bothered for years by a reference in that book to a sex act they call a “Robert Browning,” but a Slang Expert I consulted on Twitter told me it was just an error by Sarah Waters and there wasn’t any sex act named after Robert Browning. Phew. Sweet lamb Robert Browning. Bless his heart.)

    • Teresa says:

      Aw, I liked Florence, but I can see how she could seem self-righteous. I thought she and Nancy complemented each other nicely because Nancy needed someone to help her see beyond herself, and Florence needed someone to help her loosen up and take a break.

  7. Melody says:

    I discovered Sarah Waters only with The Paying Guests. I really enjoyed how she made the characters and time period come alive. My local bookshop had The Night Watch in stock, so that’s in my queue. I haven’t heard much about it, but figured if it was as good as the other then I’d be a happy camper.

  8. Linda says:

    Tipping the Velvet is my favorite Sarah Waters novel! I still haven’t read The Night Watch though, but hopefully soon. My least favorite is probably The Paying Guests, which I have some very conflicted feelings about.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s such a great book and doesn’t feel like a first novel at all. Even knowing how great Waters is, I was surprised at the level of accomplishment. The Paying Guests is not nearly as good, I agree, but it’s still better than most fiction out there.

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