Book Review: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

by | Book Review

Set in England during the 1890s, Tipping the Velvetis a coming-of-age narrative about a young woman named Nan who falls in love with a male impersonator. On the surface, they become a singing and dancing double act, basking in their glittering career on stage. Behind closed doors, however, their attraction prevails, and their lesbian love affair begins.

This is a story of girl meets girl, a gay historical fiction novel narrated in the first-person by Nancy “Nan” Astley. From the very beginning, Nan tells us how she has just begun to fall in love with a girl called Kitty Butler. A girl who sings while dressed in men’s clothing at a nearby theatre. Then, before you know it, Nan is Kitty’s dresser, her friend, and then, her lover. And that’s when the novel really begins.

This book starts extremely slowly. Waters deliberatively sets the scene by piling on the descriptive details, lacking any conflict for at least a quarter of the novel. But this is done with a skilled expertise that is gripping and entertaining from the very first sentence. So much so that the description of the sights and sounds made me reminisce sitting in a theatre and enjoying a good show. Eventually, the conflict begins as does the heartbreak and that’s when the novel picks up pace, going through a whole plethora of events before you even realise it.

As for the characters, Nan, the protagonist, and narrator of the novel is an engaging, complex and incredibly well-thought out individual. She is extremely unlikeable, so much so that you might even find yourself hating her. She is selfish, she is mean, but she is also good at heart, and that’s what makes her so interesting and fascinating to follow and read about. She, like everyone, has had her fair share of bad experiences as a prostitute but that’s what makes her worthy of our sympathy and empathy and of the happiness she deserves.

Tipping the Velvet is also laced with a variety of themes that any feminist can get their teeth into – identity, cross-dressing, gender roles and of course sexuality. But there’s also lust (a lot of lust, the sex scenes had me blushing), betrayal, scandal, violence, redemption and of course, love. Waters successfully uses her language to bring Victorian England to life, exploring every aspect of London life, from the nitty and gritty to the sexually active to the violent life of prostitutes. It’s a London many can identify with but from a much more interesting perspective – that of the Victorian gay experience.

It is inevitable not to talk about the sex scenes in this book, as the title itself is slang for cunnilingus (there’s even a strap-on dildo which is detailed brilliantly). But it is the sex scenes that make the novel all the more entertaining and extreme as try as you might, you will not be able to put it down. For me, the sex was another part of understanding these two women and their experiences of love and sexuality. This is a perspective we are rarely given in fiction, never-mind from an LGBTQ+ standpoint.

Ultimately, Tipping the Velvetis a LGBTQ+ love story worthy of pride month as without a doubt, it will put you on the edge of your seat and it will make you reach for the tissues when you reach the heart-breaking moments of Nan’s life. If like me, you thrive on the exploration of Victorian society, especially from a lesbian perspective, Tipping the Velvetwill be right up your alley. At its heart, it is a coming-of-age story dealing with the importance of understanding your sexual identity and experiences.

You can buy the book here.

Words and photo by Lucy Lillystone. Blog: Local Bibliophile.

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