Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet presents the story of Nan Astley, a young girl who moves away from her family to follow Kitty Butler, a male impersonator with whom Nan has secretly fallen in love. Although this sounds like a standard Bildungsroman plotline, Tipping the Velvet is far from the conventional coming-of-age story. Nan’s journey takes her from the London stage to the back-alleys, to becoming first a rent-boy and then a mistress, to the abandonment of her family, and finally, to becoming embroiled in the socialist cause.
Little is known about lesbian culture in the Victorian period (the novel, published in 1998, takes place during the 1890s) and so the sub-culture that Sarah Waters presents is largely fictionalized. Yet the novel’s portrayal of history is an extraordinarily convincing one. The novel vividly evokes Victorian London, and demonstrates a Dickensian ability to provoke the senses of sight and smell, especially in its descriptions of the city’s more squalid districts. The vibrancy with which the city appears is perhaps due to the power of the narrative voice, as Nan, herself a stranger to London, acts as the eyes and ears of the reader. Her voice engages the reader straight from the outset:
Have you ever tasted a Whitsable oyster?
Nan’s voice feels confessional, and the sense of honesty which emerges from her tone enables her to appear a sympathetic character, even though she is frequently revealed to be slightly selfish and often thoughtless.
In addition to Nan’s exploration of her sexuality, the novel’s primary theme is the question of identity. Nan herself takes to the stage as a male impersonator, and frequently dresses in costumes to fit her changing identity throughout the novel. By dressing as a man, Nan feels a sense of empowerment; she is fascinated by the admiration her altered appearance elicits in others. She fashions herself anew through the adornment of costumes, until life itself becomes her stage:
But all performers dress to suit their stages, I recalled. And what a stage was this – and what an audience!
For a more Gothic evocation of the Victorian era, I would highly recommend Sarah Waters’ Affinity. I intended to write a post about the novel once I finished it, but it would be difficult to discuss without spoiling the plot, and it’s far too brilliant a plot to run the risk of spoilers!