” The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy. ” (Part I, Ch.5, p.123)
Sarah Waters’s debut novel is one that plays safe by following a conventional plot that begins in 1888. Tipping the Velvet focuses solely on homosexuality in fin de siècle England. In the nutshell, it’s an exuberant, lusty novel about a lesbian adventuress, at the mercy of fate, drifting through the underworld of Victorian London.
In the 1890s, the unassuming daughter of an oyster farmer in Whitstable, Nancy Astley attends the music hall performances, where she first falls in love with Kitty Butler, a comedy male impersonator at the show. That sarah has carefully selected her heroine’s background is both smart and strategic, for Waters never flinches in depicting Nancy’s serial encounters with sensitive body parts with allusions and innuendos pertaining to oysters.
After all, there are moments in our lives that change us, that discontent us with our pasts and offer us new futures. That night at the Canterbury Palace, when Kitty had cast her rose at me, and sent my admiration for her tumbling over into love—that had been one such moment. (Part II, Ch.10, p.250)
But of course, apropos of such conventional plot, Nancy wears her heart on her sleeves too easily. From performing duo to lovers, she is smitten. But Kitty cannot afford to lose her career—he chooses to protect her reputation by escaping into marriage to a man, and the abandoned Nancy, victim of gross betrayal by her only true love, finds work posing as a male street prostitute (or “a renter”) and undergoing undreamed-of sexual permutations and indignities as the kept mistress/boy toy of lustful rich widow Diana Lethaby.
To think of all the people you have known—and yet you have no friends. (Part III, Ch.18, p.430)
Waters’s debut is indeed entertaining, full of conflicting feelings—between the desperate pleasures to which Nancy’s drawn and her equally strong desire to become a regular girl. It brings out the universal theme in LGBT literature that one desires to be loved for what and who he/she is. One minor critique is waters’s hastening attempt to fit Nancy into all the different subsections of the homosexual population, for the Nancy reader gets to know in each section of the novel seems like a different person. But that said, I still find the circumstances by which Nancy finally finds true love are unpredictable and moving. Her search for identity and love is a raucous and passionate odyssey.
472 pp. Riverhead Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]