Tipping The Velvet is Waters’ first novel and, in my opinion, it’s her best. From Victorian costumes to lesbian and feminist agendas, this book has it all. The characters are both outlandish and relatable (how does Waters manage that?!), the descriptions are vivid and tangible, and the whole thing together creates a literary version of pringles – the more you read the more you want to read!
The book has a lot to say about sex, using graphic language and refusing to shy away from topics which would usually cause people to blush and flee. The title, for example, is Victorian slang for cunnilingus, and there are very brash descriptions of body parts, oral sex, lesbian sex, prostitution, and the use of sex toys. For this reason, if you’re of a sensitive nature then I would advise against reading because Tipping The Velvet is certainly not for the faint of heart!
The book covers themes of sexuality, sexual identity, closeting, and sexism, with lesser themes of class and politics woven throughout. Considering this, this isn’t just an example of queer fiction, it’s an example of fantastically written fiction in general, a true gem of storytelling, and a novel which everyone should read at least once.
The novel is set in the late 1800s and is told from the point of view of Nan Astley, a young woman born and raised in Kent. Her family all work in Oysters and this work is hard and demanding, with Nan’s hands going red raw from the work. Nan falls in love with Kitty Butler, a theatre performer who sings while dressed in men’s clothing. Being from different worlds, Nan gets close to Kitty by first going to her performances, and then later becoming her dresser. Eventually, they move to London and become secret lovers, with both of them dressing as men and performing together on stage. This alone would make a decent story, a fun tale of romance mixed with historical references, but this is merely the beginning of this Nan’s tale.
“We fitted together like the two halves of an oyster-shell. I was Narcissus, embracing the pond in which I was about to drown. However much we had to hide our love, however guarded we had to be about our pleasure, I could not long be miserable about a thing so very sweet. Nor, in my gladness, could I quite believe that anybody would be anything but happy for me if only they knew.”
Once Nan seems to be settled and comfortable in her life and (secret) relationship, the book begins to pick up the pace and shake up Nan’s and the reader’s comfort zones. Nan visits home for a short spell and returns to find Kitty in bed with her manager, Walter. Kitty then reveals that her act with Nan is over and she is going to marry Walter, with him taking Nan’s place on stage. This whole section is a commentary on closeting, which very much existed in the Victorian era and still exists today – how mad is that? To think that you would have a public married life and a secret relationship with your partner (for those who were gay) is almost as maddening as the fact that there are still people today having to go through this exact thing. (Harry and Louis being the prime example!)
“With every step I took away from her, the movement at my heart and between my legs grew more defined: I felt like a ventriloquist, locking his protesting dolls in to a trunk.”
Heartbroken by this, Nan finds herself living in a run-down boarding house, where she stays wallowing in distress until her money runs out. In an act of desperation, she dresses in one of her stage costumes and is mistaken for a man by passers-by, one of which mistakes her for a rent boy and solicits her for sex. Nan decides this is a good idea and begins renting dressed as a man for men to hire, never letting anyone find out she is really a woman. During this time she meets Florence and feels a connection with her, but before they can get too close Nan is hired by Diana, a wealthy widow who throws frequent sex parties. Nan works for Diana for over a year as “Neville” and allows Diana to use her as a toy for her own sexual gratification and to entertain her guests. However, the relationship breaks down and Nan is once again on the streets.
After a while, Nan finds Florence, who’s suffering from depression and has a child. She moves in with Florence and her brother, Ralph, working as their housekeeper and eventually begins a love affair with Florence. At a political rally, Nan jumps onstage to help Ralph deliver his socialist message and is noticed by Kitty who’s in the audience. Kitty asks Nan to come with her so they can pick up their secret romance again but nan refuses and stays with Florence.
There are a lot of sexual encounters within this novel and I feel that this is an important aspect of the book. This is written about lesbians in Victorian London at a time when women were suppressed in all ways, but especially in terms of sexuality. A woman didn’t need to have sex except for procreation purposes and it was also thought that women didn’t get any sexual pleasure from the act aside from the closeness they got from being with their partner. The idea that women, who don’t get anything out of sex except what a man can give them (children), then it’s no wonder that lesbianism wasn’t documented well and was generally invisible. At the time, women were expected to be compliant and malleable, with the term hysteria being applied to anyone who didn’t fit in. This was frightening as hysteria was an actual medical diagnosis and could end up with women being committed to madhouses, be used as grounds for divorce, and could be used to effectively control women – behave or the doctor will say you are being hysterical. Interestingly, one cure for hysteria was genital stimulation. That’s right – the doctor would stimulate the genitals of the female in question either by hand or with a ‘special instrument’ (dildo) until the climax was reached, thus temporarily ridding the woman of her hysteria. Some more rich and established women enjoyed this so much that they would claim hysteria often in order to receive the treatment.
It’s interesting that we not only get the point of view of being a woman but also what it’s like to be a man.
“But there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male. I saw myself in it – in the hyphen.”
When Nan dresses in male clothes, she’s able to pass perfectly for a man and is often mistaken as one when in costume. Nan remarks often on the difference in how she is treated simply because she’s wearing trousers and braces instead of a dress.
“There were about thirty of them, I think – all women; all seated at tables, bearing drinks and books and papers. You might have passed any one of them upon the street, and thought nothing; but the effect of their appearance all combined was rather queer. They were dressed, not strangely, but somehow distinctly. They wore skirts – but the kind of skirts a tailor might design if he were set, for a dare, to sew a bustle for a gent. Many seemed clad in walking-suits or riding-habits. Many wore pince-nez, or carried monocles on ribbons. There were one or two rather startling coiffures; and there were more neckties than I had ever seen brought together at any exclusively female ensemble.”
It’s quite a plot to get through and a lot happens, but it’s well worth it! Although you might feel you need a lie down by the end!