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'Tipping the Velvet' - Review

Tipping the Velvet is a novel that details the coming of age adventures of Whitstable born oyster-girl Nancy Astley in Victorian London. Nancy is content with her life as an oyster-girl until she meets Kitty, a male impersonator performer at her nearby music hall. A whirlwind romance between the two follows suit and eventually leads to Nancy moving to London - away from her family and her small-town origins. While she starts off at Kitty’s dresser, Nancy soon finds herself performing on the stage alongside Kitty in a cross-dressing double act. The story follows Nancy’s life both on and off the stage, intertwining ideas of performance with that of gender and relationships.

Enamored with London and all its variety, Nancy finds her place amongst the lights of London and its music halls. Based on the bildungsroman genre, the novel tracks Nancy’s personal development as she navigates through the city and its many different underworlds. London also gives her the confidence to dress and act ‘as a man’ and establish her own sense of identity. Her ability to play with gender roles also offers Nancy a fluidity or freedom in the city, since it is through cross-dressing that Nancy is able to avoid much of the routine sexual harassment women had faced in particular during the late nineteenth century. It is also through her many guises that Nancy is able to perform to different class stereotypes, with her class position sometimes altering as drastically as her costumes.

Following the success of Walters’s first three novels, all presented within a Victorian context, she has since been labelled one of the founders of the neo-Victorian genre and I can definitely see why. Her descriptions of Victorian London are incredibly detailed, full of grit and dark alleys, and, despite her books being fiction, there is a real basis of historical research to her writing. The brewing political undercurrents of the period also feature within the book through a rising socialist movement of the working classes and the women’s suffrage movement led by those of middle-class. All of these features contribute to the novel’s aims of providing a voice to the different underdogs of Victorian society, be that through their sexuality, class status or gender.

My one issue with the novel is with the presentation of the protagonist, Nancy. While she embraces her gender fluidity, there are very few points within the book where she plays an active role in her destiny. Here, it seems that Waters is commenting on the lack of agency women had during the Victorian period. Throughout the novel there are many references to the First Wave of feminism which began in the nineteenth century, where there were campaigns led by suffrage movements to address legal issues that denied women citizenship, most notably women’s right to vote. It was neither Nancy’s decision to enter a career in the music halls, nor was it initially her idea to dress up in a suit to perform as a man. While I understand this presentation of Nancy from a historical point of view, it can be difficult for the reader to consider her their heroine, since she is portrayed in a very passive way, merely adapting to the different relationships she enters into. At times Nancy also seems narcissistic and selfish, opting for materialism over genuine relationships which can sometimes make her hard to empathise with. The lack of a deep-rooted personality change in Nancy makes it difficult to support the argument that her flaws are intended as a foil for her character development.

Tipping the Velvet is a novel that revisits the Victorian period through same-sex relationships and gender politics. This is a narrative genre that largely evaded such issues, until Astley's publication in 1998. The novel explores themes of same-sex relationships, music hall performance, cross-dressing and class divisions but ultimately this is a story of girl meets girl. Waters gives a pioneering voice to the queer experience of the nineteenth century. As a result, I believe that this book is essential reading for those interested in queer history or historical fiction. While there is little historical documentation of lesbian relationships in the period, Sarah Waters manages to sensitively delve into what it could potentially have been like for members of the LGBTQ+ community at the time, whilst also enabling her reader to critique this from a modern-day perspective.

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