Book Review: Tipping the Velvet-Sarah Waters



A double act is always twice act the audience thinks it: beyond our songs, out steps, our bits of business with coins and canes and flowers, there was a private language, in which we held an endless, delicate exchange of which the crowd knew nothing.

Tipping the Velvet is definately a rare find among popular literature. Being one of my first novels I’ve read with overt homosexuality within the women community, I applaud Waters for addressing a delicate subject during a time when lesbianism was not accepted. Set at the end of the 19th century Victorian London, the novels introduces us to Nancy Astley who lives in Whitstable where her family are the owners of an oyster restaurant. When Nancy (later Nan) is not working, she likes to frequent the music halls-it is here where the plot of the novel begins to unravel.

Nan meets Kitty Butler who is a stage performer in one of the music halls she visits. Kitty Butler is what they call a masher-a women dressed in men’s clothes singing/acting an array of songs, mostly about love or a girl. Nan becomes enamored with Kitty and they begin to develop a close relationship.  Kitty encourages Nan to join the stage with her, and soon they become a duet act. Both Kitty and Nan move to West End to expand their masher duet and they become a performing success. Their relationship becomes even closer and they grow into romantic lovers. Nan herself is going through a transformation as she discovers herself more, “I had glimpsed a truth about myself, and it left me awed and quite transformed.” Bound by the restrictions of a culture that did not except lesbians (or “toms” as the novel uses), Nan is constantly trying to free herself and the feelings that develop for Kitty.

I felt as though I was bound and fettered with iron bands, chained and muzzled and blinkered. Kitty had given me leave to love her; the world, she said, would never let me anything to her except her friend.

Kitty’s fear of discovery lead her into marrying a man, leaving a broken and devastated Nan. The rest of the novel is Nan’s journey through London where she becomes  more of a “male” and even impersonates one. We get to see the high and lows of Nan’s progress of self recognition through the contact of the various characters she meets. Tipping the Velvet  illustrates the vast homosexual community during the 19th century that was typically secret or unrecognized.

Sarah Waters does a fantastic job shedding a light on and writing about a rarely discussed topic during the Victorian era. The novel is filled with contrived words such as “gay”,”fag”, “queer”, and “fruity” to describe things that are not of homosexual nature. I thought she used these words a bit too much as it seemed every page was filled with innuendos or a subliminal nod to the lesbian community, making it excessive. The characters are believable although I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of them. Most of the novel is solely about Nan’s “coming out” to society and to herself, and instead of focusing on the the resilience of London to the gay community, Waters creates a London where most of the characters are gay.

I really enjoyed the novel as it definately opened my eyes up to understanding homosexuality during the Victorian age. Parts of the novel were a bit slow and unrealistic, and I had trouble getting into it. However I do like Waters’ writing and want to read her other works. I only gave this book three stars on Goodreads. Tipping the Velvet didn’t knock my socks off but I suppose it was a satisfying a read. In other words, I wasn’t “wowed.” I would recommended this novel to those who enjoy  books set in a distinct time period or who like reading about controversial subjects.

What’s your favourite “saucy” read?


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