In Tipping the Velvet, author Sarah Waters tells the story of Nancy Astley, a young Victorian woman who leaves her seaside village and the family business for the footlights of London’s music halls. But there’s a twist that makes this story unique: Nancy begins her theatrical career as dresser for Kitty Butler, who performs dressed as a man. Eventually Nancy becomes Nan King, and part of a popular double act with Kitty. And Nan and Kitty fall in love. Nan is comfortable with her new-found sexual identity (but at the cost of severed ties with her family). Kitty, however, can’t admit it to anyone else, and ultimately not even to herself. The resulting tension has long-term effects on both Nan and Kitty.
Over the course of the novel, Waters takes Nan from the music halls and mean streets of London up to the very highest levels of society. Her message seems to be, “lesbians can be found in all walks of life, and they’re really just like everyone else.” Waters’ description of love between women is refreshingly candid, and shown to be pretty much the same as heterosexual love. She also skillfully handles the stigma and fear associated with homosexuality in the Victorian era.
These themes were probably enlightening to many readers when this book was published in 1998. In 2012, I found it all a bit heavy-handed and predictable. At certain points in the novel, Nan would find herself surrounded by a new community of people, made up of mostly women. I knew almost immediately where Waters would take the story. Unfortunately, it took Nan forever to discover the lesbians in her midst. I also wasn’t terribly impressed with Nan, who seemed to discard people right and left if they were no longer convenient, and would later have sudden epiphanies about how much those people actually mean to her.
In the end, the book was mildly enjoyable and pretty good considering it was Waters’ debut novel. However, I recommend Fingersmith as a better example of her talents.