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.