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Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

What was it like to be a lesbian in late Victorian London? Sarah Waters gives us some idea through her character Nancy Astley, who grew up in her parents’ seaside oyster restaurant and becomes enamored, at age 18, with a cross-dressing performer, Kitty Butler, at the local theater. Nancy soon becomes Kitty’s dresser and then, once they move to London, her co-star. Nancy and Kitty begin a hesitant romance which they are desperate to keep under wraps. Kitty, especially, does not want to admit to being a “tom”– the slang word for a lesbian at that time.

Tipping the Velvet is told in the first person by Nancy, but from the vantage point of 20 years later, so we get a sense of what life was like for her in the moment, as well as the wisdom and distance of maturity. Here is a paragraph from the first chapter:

The Palace was small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with my oyster-girl’s eye—I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, the crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids, painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent—the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere—the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and tobacco and hair-oil, all combined. It was a scent which as a girl I loved uncritically; later I heard it described, by theatre managers and artistes, as the smell of laughter, the very odour of applause. Later still I came to know it as the essence not of pleasure, but of grief.

I don’t want to give away the intricate plot of this novel, but let me just say that the story is broken into three parts, and in each part Nancy experiences a vastly different aspect of lesbian life in London, complete with different characters and settings. Through the seven years covered by the novel, Nancy must decide what kind of person she wants to be. She must make decisions on her own, with maturity, instead of just allowing circumstances to dictate her life.

Tipping the Velvet, first published in 1998, was Sarah Waters’ first novel. I reviewed her latest (The Paying Guests) in an earlier post, and was enthralled with her deft and detailed characters and their intriguing story. This novel, although an earlier effort, does not disappoint. While I found a few of the scenes to be overly long, and the ending to be a bit contrived, for the most part readers will find carefully drawn characters, detailed settings, eloquent prose, and a plot with plenty of emotion and action. Waters has been compared to Charles Dickens because of the richness and variety of her characters and her complex stories.

Tipping the Velvet has been adapted for TV and stage. The photo above is from Sarah Waters’ US web site.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

I’d never heard of Sarah Waters until very recently, and now I’m astonished that this enormously talented woman-centered author wasn’t already a favorite of mine! Now that I’ve read one book, I’m sure to read more by her.

The Paying Guests almost feels like three novels in one. It takes place over the course of several months in 1922 near London, with the same characters, but the book’s feel shifts from a light domestic drama to something much more intense and dark as the novel progresses. The plot of the novel takes a long time to get going, yet I was interested enough in the characters and their minor conflicts to keep reading. At about 200 pages, the plane is ready and fueled, and the story takes off.

The novel starts as a married couple arrive to live in rented rooms at the decaying home of Frances Wray and her mother. Frances is a single woman who frets about cleaning and cooking. But soon it comes out that she is not single by choice: she has given up her woman lover because the relationship upset her mother. She befriends Lilian, the wife. Their growing closeness is the subject of the first part of the book. In the second part, Frances and Lilian find themselves in a complicated situation and face a moral dilemma. The third part involves the consequences of their decision.

In an essay in The Guardian, Waters states that the novel is about “the negotiations that must be made by a passionate relationship as it braves the tangle of courage and cowardice, generosity and meanness, splendid ambition and awful misjudgment that constitutes ordinary life.” Waters succeeds in making 1922 feel “ordinary” – details of post-World War I life in London are worked in naturally, and I hardly felt I was reading a historical novel, so convincing was the setting. She also succeeds in making both Frances and Lilian ordinary in a complex, nuanced way. Their actions are believable and understandable given the situations they find themselves in.

My only complaint is that although the novel is over 500 pages long, when I got to the end I did not think the story had been resolved. I felt as if Lilian and Frances still had big decisions ahead of them. But perhaps that was by design: it is left to the reader to speculate on what they will do next, given what we know of their personalities and situations in life.