Over the last few years I’ve been slowly working through Sarah Waters’ novels, beginning with Affinity, then moving on to Fingersmith, The Little Stranger and The Night Watch, all of which I’ve enjoyed. Her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, was the only one I still hadn’t read so I was pleased to have the chance to read it as part of the Virago Book Club.
Tipping the Velvet is narrated by Nancy Astley, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her parents and sister in Whitstable, an English seaside town famous for its oysters. During the day Nancy works hard in her family’s oyster parlour but she also has a passion for the music hall and enjoys visiting the Canterbury Palace of Varieties to watch the dancers, acrobats and magicians. Nancy’s life changes forever one night in 1888 when she sees a new act at the Palace: a female singer, Kitty Butler, who dresses as a boy. Nancy is fascinated and decides Kitty is the ‘most marvellous girl’ she’s ever seen. She returns night after night to watch her performances, until eventually Kitty notices her.
The two become friends and travel to London together where Nancy joins Kitty on stage as part of her act and is transformed from Nancy Astley, oyster girl, into Nan King, music hall star. As the days go by, Nan finds her feelings for Kitty developing into love and at first it seems that Kitty might feel the same way about her. But soon Nan’s happiness is destroyed and having lost everything she sets out to start a new life, doing whatever she needs to do to survive.
As in her two later novels also set in the 19th century (Fingersmith and Affinity), Sarah Waters has created a wonderfully vivid and believable Victorian world, from the descriptions of the music halls – the songs, the costumes, the colourful characters – to the slang used on the streets of London and the portrayal of the Victorian gay and lesbian scenes. As a fan of historical fiction, every time I read one of Waters’ novels I’m impressed by the way she always includes enough historical detail to perfectly evoke the atmosphere of the period she is writing about (whether it’s the 1890s or the 1940s), while still keeping the focus on the story and the characters.
Tipping the Velvet describes a side of Victorian society that you would be unlikely to read about in the contemporary fiction of the period and explores themes such as sexuality, gender, lesbianism and prostitution. I should probably warn you that the sex scenes are very explicit – and there are a lot of them (a few too many for me, though I’m probably just a prude!) Having said that, these scenes never feel gratuitous; they are an important part of Nan’s story and add to our picture of who she is and what her life is like. Although she can sometimes be frustrating, Nan is an engaging narrator and her emotions are very real – we follow her through all her highs and lows, we experience her joy at falling in love and we feel her pain when her heart is broken. I didn’t always agree with the choices she made but I could admire her ability to completely rebuild her life over and over again in the hope of finally finding the true love and happiness she deserves.
I have now read all five of Sarah Waters’ novels and although I did enjoy this one, I think it suffered from being read last. As a debut novel it is mature and well-written and does compare well to her later work, but the others had plots that were more interesting to me personally which is why this one is probably my least favourite.
Tipping the Velvet is the latest Virago Book Club choice. I received a copy from Virago for review.