Author: Sarah Waters
Publication Date: 5/1/00
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Blurb (GR): "Lavishly crammed with the songs, smells, and costumes of late Victorian England" (The Daily Telegraph), this delicious, steamy debut novel chronicles the adventures of Nan King, who begins life as an oyster girl in the provincial seaside town of Whitstable and whose fortunes are forever changed when she falls in love with a cross-dressing music-hall singer named Miss Kitty Butler.
When Kitty is called up to London for an engagement on "Grease Paint Avenue", Nan follows as her dresser and secret lover, and, soon after, dons trousers herself and joins the act. In time, Kitty breaks her heart, and Nan assumes the guise of butch roue to commence her own thrilling and varied sexual education - a sort of Moll Flanders in drag - finally finding friendship and true love in the most unexpected places.
Drawing comparison to the work of Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters's novel is a feast for the senses - an erotic, lushly detailed historical novel that bursts with life and dazzlingly casts the turn of the century in a different light.
Well, I definitely have never read anything like this before. I dare you to read this book's synopsis and not get curious at least a little bit. The moment I set my eyes on a short description of Tipping the Velvet on the 1001 Must Read Before You Die Books list, I knew I had to read it. Cross-dressing lesbians, kept women, music hall singers, renter "boys" - I mean, what's not to like?
First and foremost, this is a book about lesbians (my first!) and written by one at that, so as far as the relationships in this novel are concerned, they are authentic in my mind. (I don't know about you, but I just hate it when straight authors write "gay books," particularly erotica. What can they possibly know?) I found myself quite ignorant of how such relationships work. Lesbian relationships, contrary to my uneducated beliefs, can be as abusive and destructive as the heterosexual ones. And, of course, there is lesbian sex. A few fairly explicit scenes (with "equipment"!), but the book doesn't turn into an overly gratuitous trashfest.
Second, in spite of its scandalous premise, the book is historically accurate. It comes as a shock to find out that there was a whole strata of women exploring their (homo)sexuality so freely in 1890s. After reading Edith Wharton's novels where women are too afraid to even get a divorce, it is a revelation to know that there were society women who kept female lovers and organized orgies. This, however, doesn't mean that in this book women go around doing whatever they please. Waters accompanies Nan's erotic adventures with a solid social context - same-sex relationships have to be secret, women known as "toms" are stigmatized, there is a legal punishment even.
I personally found this book very interesting. An imperfect, but strong debut. It is erotic without being vulgar, well researched but entertaining, well written without being boring. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that it takes a while for the story to pick up steam. The first 130 pages are a little dull, but after that the novel is impossible to put down. Needless to say, Tipping the Velvet won't be my last Sarah Waters novel.
P.S. Due to the naked women on the cover this edition is a little challenging to read in public.