Right now, the big literary story is Fifty Shades of Grey. I can’t say that I’m all that interested in reading the series for three main reasons: 1- I heard it started off as Twilight fan fiction. Shudder. No thanks. 2- I heard it’s just poorly written. And 3- if I want to read steamy books, I stick with my historical romance, thank you very much. But, regardless of all that, I have a pretty good idea of what the series is about and what the big draw is. So, while reading my last book, Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters, I think I was fair in characterizing it as Fifty Shades, but for lesbians in late 19th century London.
I’ve read most of Waters’ books now, and I really enjoy her as an author. When I picked up Tipping the Velvet, all I knew of it was that it was about an actress in 19th century
. In fact, the story is about Nancy, the daughter of an oyster house keep who, as a teenager, enjoys seeing variety shows at the local theater. One night, London sees an act that will change her life – Kitty is a singer, but she dresses and acts as a young boy on stage. Nancy quickly becomes enamored with the glamour of Kitty and visits the theater nightly. She and Kitty become friends, and when Kitty is offered a chance to perform in Nancy London, she takes with her as her dresser. While in town, Kitty and Nancy begin a love affair that doesn’t end well. From there, Nancy Nancy finds herself lost, both metaphorically and physically in . Resorting to various forms of prostitution, London quickly finds herself a kept mistress to a wealthy woman. In the end, Nancy falls in with a crowd of activist/socialists and begins yet a third new life. Nancy
There are a lot of interesting quirks to this book. The first is the repeated use of the terms ‘gay’ and ‘queer.’ It’s a cheeky inclusion in the book that Waters’ clearly enjoys. In the modern lexicon, both terms have a homosexual connotation. However, in the lexicon of the 19th century, the first means to be happy and the latter means to be odd in some way. Waters never uses them in the 21st century connotation, but uses them frequently enough to remind you that this is a Sapphic tale.
is clearly a lesbian, there is no generally accepted space for this lifestyle in the era of the story. It is heartbreaking to see Nancy trying to find happiness with the various women in her life, all of whom have a different perspective on their own sexuality. Some are clearly uncomfortable being ‘different’ for the rest of society, others openly embrace it, but Nancy is the only one in the tale to be living her life regardless of anyone else’s impressions of the gay lifestyle. Nancy
There are several passages where
’s sexuality displays fluidity. I’m of the opinion that you live your life to make yourself happy (regardless of your sexual orientation), but Nancy engages in a form of heterosexual sexual activity that is clearly intended to be hurtful to various people. Waters never consciously taps into the idea that women who are heartbroken will often engage in detrimental sexual activities to bolster their self-esteem; this is clearly what Nancy is doing, but she never acknowledges that fact to herself and the consequences that always seem to follow such actions is never clearly addressed by the author. Nancy
All in all, this was not the book I was expecting to find when I started reading it. It is, however, an interesting (if not graphic in some passages) tale of a relatable and engaging character. Though straight myself, I fully appreciate the ‘queer’ slant on history (and no, that’s not a slam – there’s branch of history that calls itself ‘queer history’). For those with an open mind, I highly recommend this books – it’s well written, the characters are engaging, and the plot never lags. For those that have no appreciation for the variety of flavours that make up humanity, I recommend you skip this book. I, however, will be going back to Sarah Waters for more of her books in the future.