Having read all of her other books, I finally got round to reading Sarah Waters’ début novel ‘Tipping the Velvet’ this week. This picaresque coming-of-age tale set in the 1890s sees Nancy Astley, an oyster-girl from Whitstable run off to London with music hall performer Kitty Butler who later becomes her lover and co-star on the stage. When her career comes to an abrupt end, Nancy journeys through London exploring her sexuality and experiencing plenty of love, lust and heartbreak along the way.
Although much of what has been written about ‘Tipping the Velvet’ focuses on the presence of (shock horror) lesbian characters, the fact that Sarah Waters is a master of good old-fashioned storytelling must not be overlooked. She knows how to weave an intriguing plot with believable characters. As with all of her other books, the level of historical detail is impressive and blends into the story effortlessly without being either overwhelming or irrelevant – and that even goes for the detailed descriptions of Victorian sex toys.
‘Tipping the Velvet’ sees Waters attempt to depict all aspects of life as a lesbian in 19th century London. The result is that Nancy’s journey from shy naive provincial oyster-girl to music hall performer to rent boy to kept woman is more than just a little improbable. Does it matter? Not really. Dwelling on the fact that Nancy conveniently encounters lesbians in Victorian London about as often as most British people come across rain is missing the point of what is essentially a fun and racy read. Although I preferred ‘Fingersmith’, which in my view had a better plot, ‘Tipping the Velvet’ is still an entertaining page-turner and an excellent début from one of Britain’s best novelists.