Normally, I'm a pretty open-minded person, but when I saw Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters on a Barnes and Noble bookshelf, I couldn't figure out what to think. Dildos and cross-dressing just didn't match my conception of Victorian England at all. But I'd been led to the novel by the recommendation of a friend with excellent taste who had never been wrong about a book before. So, I took a deep breath and decided I could splurge eleven dollars on the little paperback.
I'm pleased to report that Tipping the Velvet not only tells a good story, it transforms commonly held perceptions about a time and place in history. Victorian Era London, commonly viewed as a stuffy, repressed age in which sex occurred only in marriage (and then only to make babies) instead comes alive on the pages of Waters' novel as a dynamic, vibrant era, with a lot of revolutionary (and sexy) things going on behind closed doors.
The novel tells the story of one Nancy Astley, who leaves her humble beginnings in an oyster house when she falls in love with a cross-dressing, small-time "artiste" on the Victorian theater circuit, named Kitty Butler. Kitty sings and dances her way into Nancy's heart, eventually whisking her off to London. Nancy begins a relationship with Kitty, even joining her act in the fullness of time, but it's not until Kitty breaks her heart that Nancy's journey truly begins.
The book's setting of late-Victorian England comes alive in Velvet's pages. In her descriptions, Waters doesn't skimp on the gory details. The sights, sounds, and smells of the London theater district seem to waft off the page, creating a sensory experience as grotesque as it is sublime.
Waters uses the broader conflicts of the age to mirror the personal struggles of her characters. The strife between between classes, between women and a society that would repress them if it could, even between different regions within England, deeply affect the lives of the main characters without overshadowing the smaller, more intimate conflicts of the novel.
In one of the last scenes, a socialist rally draws an enormous crowd to the heart of London. Many of Nancy's old lovers attend the event. Thus, the setting (Victorian England), and the big issues of the British Empire at the time (capitalism, robber barons, women's rights, and worker's rights) force resolutions between the major characters who are all drawn to the same place at the same time. This mix of both global and personal scope ratchets up the stakes of each individual action. The decisions of the characters have the potential not only to shape the course of their own lives but to change the direction of an age.
Velvet is first and foremost a story about one young woman's journey towards sexual self-discovery, and there's plenty of sex to be found within its 472 pages. There are several lurid descriptions of Nancy's first few sexual encounters with Kitty. When the two break up, the novel only gets naughtier. During her brief career on the stage, Nancy develops quite an affinity for cross-dressing, and eventually begins another career as a "renter" (the Victorian term for prostitute), dressing as a boy and pleasuring gay men on street corners. Nancy plans to continue this career indefinitely, until she is picked up one day on the street by a wealthy woman who offers her a life of unparalleled luxury in exchange for her sexual servitude.
Nancy isn't an easy heroine to root for. She's a strange mix of naive, obsequious, bitchy and demanding. Nancy's love for Kitty, though genuine, reeks of a cloying sort of hero-worship. She's content to exist essentially as Kitty's domestic servant (she's known as a "dresser" in the theater world), making sure Kitty's tea is just the way she likes it, and keeping her sweat-soaked costumes clean and tidy.
At one point, later on in the story, a bedraggled Nancy shows up in the middle of the night at the home of a woman named Florence (who doesn't even remember her) begs to be taken in, and then whines when she is not put up in one of the nicer rooms of the house.
Throughout the book she continually tramples on the people who truly care for her, including her blood relatives and a kind woman named Mrs. Milne, and her daughter Gracie, who take her in to board with them. The fact that Waters makes us care for Nancy despite these flaws is a testament to her skill as a writer. At the end of the novel, when Nancy finally finds true love, we're genuinely happy for her, despite the years of rash actions and poor decisions it takes to get her there.
Tipping the Velvet is an exquisite book, a detailed character study of both a person and an age. I'm deciding to pay it forward and pass on my friend's recommendation to everyone I know. Head over to the closest bookstore, and start reading! (Elizabeth Rapf)