Sarah Waters – Tipping The Velvet

Posted on | November 1, 2010 | 11 Comments

Sarah Waters' Tipping The VelvetYay! I’ve finished all of Sarah Waters’ novels. That’s the first thought that crossed my mind after I finished this book, and it was immediately followed by a pang of disappointment, for now I have to wait for her next book to be released, before I can lose myself in one of the wonderful worlds she masterfully creates.

Tipping The Velvet is Sarah Waters’ debut novel, and it’s quite impressive. Set in Victorian England, this is a coming-of-age story written in first person, where the narrator is Nancy Astley, or simply, Nan.

Nancy is a small-town girl, who helps out in her family’s business to do with the famous Whitstable oysters. She’s naive, innocent and loves the theatre, and so, she often attends shows at a nearby music hall, where she is smitten by the ‘masher’ (a girl dressed as a man) – Kitty Butler. The two soon meet, and a warm friendship strikes. So, when Kitty finds an agent and moves to the capital, Nancy goes with her as her dresser. However, soon enough, she swaps her skirts and dresses for the trousers, and joins Kitty’s act on stage – as a masher as well. Soon enough, Kitty’s and Nan’s act are popular and the two are raking in the money. The two girls are attracted to each other, and so, we are introduced to the first of many lesbian relationships in this book.

However, there’s a twist and a turn, and Nancy’s life in London changes drastically, as she moves from lifestyle to lifestyle, partner to partner, in search of something. We discover the darker smuttier side of Victorian London, and while I don’t want to give too much away, I have to admit, it was a hell of a ride. Cross-dressers, rent-boys and lesbians made appearances, and through them, we discovered how prominent lesbianism was, some two hundred years ago with both – the rich and poor. And, we also discover how people considered it to be taboo, much as it still is in some parts of the world today. And, as we all know, homophobia is rampant!

That said, some parts of the book made me look away. Okay, I know that doesn’t make sense, but let me try and explain: I tend to look away from the screen during an overtly steamy scene, just because… well, I don’t know… I don’t know where to look? Some of the sex scenes in this book are extremely descriptive and long, and I just didn’t know where to look, and it’s much harder to look away while reading… Am I being weird? Is this out of the ordinary?

The story is interesting – who doesn’t like reading about the dark underbelly of the Victorian age? And the writing is incredible – but that’s something I’ve come to expect from Sarah Waters anyway. It’s an ambitious debut novel – it covers a lot, and is racy and gripping – and she pulls it off in an inconceivable fashion.

However, it is with a vague sense of deja vu that I admit that I didn’t think this book was a patch on Fingersmith either. Something to this effect almost seems obligatory, as I post my thoughts on Waters’ books. I think I might have to re-read Fingersmith, just to see if I’ve imagined how good it was, or if I’m holding her other books to unrealistically high standards.

What’s your favourite book by Sarah Waters? I guess Fingersmith’s mine, with The Night Watch being the least favourite.

Do you have any other recommendations for books set in Victorian times? The more I read, the more drawn in I am.


11 Responses to “Sarah Waters – Tipping The Velvet”

  1. charley
    November 1st, 2010 @ 2:27 am

    If only I had looked away while reading Portnoy’s Complaint! I’m currently reading The Little Stranger, which I’m liking well enough, so I’ll keep Tipping the Velvet in mind.

  2. Erin
    November 1st, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    I get like that with long sex scenes too!

    I’ve only read The Fingersmith of Sarah Waters’s novels. I know everyone loves her books, but I wasn’t impressed with The Fingersmith! Tipping the Velvet sounds interesting, though I’ll probably read The Little Stranger next.

  3. Steph
    November 1st, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    Haven’t read any Sarah Waters, if you can believe it, but I think this is the one I would start with (simply since it’s her first book!)… But your reaction to not having any more books by her to read, I completely understand! I just talked on my blog about how I hoard Jane Austen books, because I can’t stand the thought of not having any new reads by her! And unlike Waters, it’s unlikely she’ll have anything new coming out ever again… ;)

  4. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    November 1st, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    Your first sentence sums up my reasons for avoiding the rest of Sarah Waters books – I’d hate to run out of them! I haven’t read this one yet – I’m saving it :-)

    If you are after a similar book then I highly recommend that you read:
    The Harlot’s Progress: Yorkshire Molly by Peter Mottley
    Hardly anyone has read it, but I think it is fantastic and deserves a much wider audience.

  5. Hector
    November 2nd, 2010 @ 12:58 am

    You might enjoy Book Drum’s illustrated profile of Tipping the Velvet. Sarah Waters herself described it as “awesome”:

    All the best


  6. Bellezza
    November 2nd, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    I’m just reading my first Sarah Waters’ book, The Little Stranger. I know so well of the joy of accompishment and the pang of disappointment in having completed all of a favorite author’s work. I am just lovint The Little Stranger, so I have more to anticipate.

    A recommendation for you, if you haven’t read it yet, is Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue. Loved it!

  7. Bina
    November 2nd, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

    Heh, this is exatly why I’m trying to pace myself with her works :D I read Fingersmith and The Night Watch and I know it’s a bit unpopular to say, but I loved The Night Watch more.

  8. Jo
    November 3rd, 2010 @ 12:26 am

    I still have two left to read, this one and affinity. Like you Fingersmith is by far my favourite, but I think I prefer The night Watch to The Little Stranger.
    I have sometimes wondered though if that is just because it was the first book of hers that I read. Looking back, I do seem to have a soft spot for the book that introduced me to a favourite author.

  9. Claire (Paperback Reader)
    November 7th, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    I started with Tipping the Velvet in ’06 and then proceeded to read all of Sarah Waters’ novels in order, which means I only compared the latter two to the masterpiece that is Fingersmith. My least favourite so far is The Little Stranger.

    I second Bellezza’s recommendation of The Victorian Chaise-Longue – I can’t remember if you have read it. I also suggest The Yellow Wallpaper, The Awakening and Maria: or, the Wrongs of Women (NOT Victorian, far from it).

    I love the exploration of madness of women in literature and also the look at Victorian society’s underbelly, which is why Fingesmith worked so well for me.

  10. Birdy
    November 25th, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    I loved Fingersmith too. Can’t wait to read this one.

  11. Willa
    December 8th, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    Thanks for the review – this one (and all the other Sarah Waters that I haven’t read) is on my TBR.

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