Tipping The Velvet
Tipping The Velvet has become the third Sarah Waters novel I have read this year following the unforgettable Fingersmith (2003) and the decidedly less than stellar The Night Watch. (2006) Like Fingersmith, Tipping The Velvet which came before it in 1999, is set in the Victorian age and has lesbian women for its main characters. Alongside Affinity (2000) these books make up an unconnected trilogy of Victorian era novels by Waters.
Nancy Astley visits a theatre with her sister and becomes transfixed and later infatuated with Kitty Butler a male impersonator variety act. Kitty seems to return Nancy's feeling and persuades her to abandon her family in Whitstable and join Kitty as her dresser as her act moves from theatre to theatre in London. For Nancy, a complicated journey through some very different worlds is about to begin.
Waters builds a portrait of the various different worlds in which lesbianism was not so much accepted as socially tolerated or permitted from the activist working class, through theatreland and the aristocracy. I don't know but perhaps Waters elected to have the Victorian era as her setting as Queen Victoria famously refused to sign a document making lesbianism illegal by refusing to believe it existed: "Women do not do such things", by setting it at the same time, Waters apparently sets out to show that the Queen whilst not wrong in not signing her decree, was very firmly incorrect.
The novel can often be melodramatic and a bit silly, particularly the behaviour of rich "benefactor" Diana, and often of Nancy herself. There is a tendency toward the over coincidental, with encounters between Nancy and other lesbians occurring in a very "just so happened" way. Personally I really enjoyed the first two thirds which sped along for me with its cast of unusual and eccentric characters in London's Theatreland and among the wealthy ladies of St Johns Wood. For me, the last third plodded rather with its dull and worthy focus on St Florence of Bethnal Green, part of the socialist workers community. The final denouement, a socialist rally is also rather silly, as all our main characters from throughout the novel extremely implausibly all find themselves in the same place at the same time.
I would finish the review by saying that for those of you who are a bit prudish or averse to any smut for whatever personal reason, that there is a section of this novel around page 250 which is even in my very unshockable opinion quite obscenely filthy. Last night I said so to someone and they read a section of it out in the kitchen and we all giggled and tittered extremely immaturely. This is by no means damaging to my opinion of the book, the section was fitting within the overall context. But, it is my understanding that there are a lot of people who would prefer not to read highly sexual content and so the warning is included in this review.
Overall this book was much better than The Night Watch but not nearly as good as Fingersmith. 8/10