Book Review: Tipping the Velvet


In the window of a shop on the Gray’s Inn Road I saw a little card: Respectible Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger, and an address. I gazed at it for a minute or so. The Respectible was off-putting: I couldn’t face another Mrs. Best. But there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male. I saw myself in it – in the hyphen.

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

During university, I enrolled in a group study program, where I got to spend six weeks in London and Oxford, studying contemporary English literature and the history of the British Empire. For the literature segment of our course, our professor had chosen all works by female authors, set in London, touching on themes of immigration, sexuality, and race, and how they relate to the London of today.

One of these works was Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. If you haven’t read Fingersmith, I would highly recommend it. Its gloomy atmosphere and the working class Victorian background has a Dickensian feel, but its plot is full of unexpected twists and turns. Fingersmith is one of those few novels where I actually gasped aloud while reading.

Like Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’s debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, is set in Victorian London. The protagonist, Nancy Astley, is a naive young woman who moves to London after falling in love with a male impersonator, Kitty Butler. Like many a Victorian hero before her, Nancy is forced to work all sorts of odd (often dehumanizing) jobs in order to survive, all the while coming to terms with and exploring different aspects of her sexuality. Again, think Dickens, just with a cast of characters that is mainly female and lesbian. Waters explores a variety of different lesbian characters from a range of classes and backgrounds.

Although sexuality is obviously a huge focus for the novel, Tipping the Velvet, discusses other themes prevalent in Victorian literature, especially the rise of the working class and the poor living conditions for migrant workers in London. While Nancy’s story includes the rollicking and somewhat unbelievable aspects of a bildungsroman, the poor treatment she endures from men, upper-class clients, and landlords is sympathetic and realistic. Still, what makes Nancy a likeable character, despite her sometimes questionable choices, is her willingness to take risks, adapt to her environment, and always work hard and employ her creativity to survive.

One complaint I had about Fingersmith was that it was sometimes too slow, too repetitive, especially at the beginning. Meanwhile, the plot of Tipping the Velvet moves quickly, while employing Waters’s talent for vivid description. When reading, I could really picture Nancy trudging through a polluted London in the late nineteenth century. With many contemporary novelists I feel like their debut novel is imbued with an inimitable sense of energy, and I feel that’s the case with Tipping the Velvet.

YES OR NO?: YESTipping the Velvet is a tightly woven story that never gets boring. However, since female sexuality is a large focus of the book, some of the scenes do get graphic, although I personally didn’t find anything to be offensive. Overall, a solid and entertaining read.


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