Tipping the Velvet

Sarah Waters – Tipping the Velvet Review

As “one of the best storytellers alive today” (Independent, n.d.), Waters’s writings are confident, precise and sensuous with irony and wit (Observer, n.d.). Her books are largely influenced by her academic background and her research about the 19th-century pornographic literature and her PhD thesis (1996) on lesbian history played inspired roles in her debut Tipping the Velvet. Her first three novels: Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999) and Fingersmith (2002), are all with lesbian protagonists in the Victorian era. The Lesbianism did exist during that era based on the facts of lesbian romance in historical settings (Meuwese 2018, 15). There are not many canonical works that describe lesbianism in great detail, lesbianism is still a part of history and can be studied in the form of texts (ibid., n.d., 15). In TTV, Waters describes the gender identities and class perceptions in that era by providing perspectives on Victorian lesbian narratives. Ithas three parts and nineteen chapters with the first-person female narrator: Nancy Astley.

This is a “lively, gusty, highly readable” feminist novel (Observer, n.d.) and lesbianism is a kind of attitude: The story mainly happens in London from 1888 to 1895, which is in the late Victorian period that the first-wave feminism was happening in the West. The city’s past Victorian ambience and societal structure are exposed from Nancy’s eyes to the readers. In this book, three different scenarios of feminism which reflected on lesbianism are respectively presented: The male impersonator performance in the music hall; The pornographic display and philanthropy in the upper-class ladies’ club; The socialist feminist activities among the working-class. This is also a bildungsromannovel: ‘A novel in which the chief character, after a number of false starts or wrong choices, is led to follow the right path and to develop into a mature and well-balanced man’ (Garland 1997 in Jeremiah 2008, 135). From the age of 19 to 25, Nancy finally has a simple and positive life with an honest and respectable lover after the first two sorrowful and unhealthy relationships. Different life stages show how Nancy’s gender awareness and sexual orientation changed. And how diversity and complication of the era and the metropolitan corrupted Nancy before she finally grew up.

In part one from chapter 1 to 7, Nancy is only a normal girl and lived in an oyster business family for eighteen years in Whitstable until meeting Kitty Butler, a male impersonator from the music hall. She thinks Kitty is “the most marvellous girl” (Waters 1998, 12). On the one hand Nancy starts feeling queer, shameful, secret and aching, but on the other hand she felt awake, alive, desired, a “particular passion” and “a kind of self-pleasure” (ibid., 17, 38, 57, 37, 56, 98, 22, 38). She follows Kitty to London as her dresser for a period of time. One day, when being accidentally noticed wearing a man’s suit and looking perfectly like a real boy, she joins Kitty’s career and becomes another stage male impersonator. On the same day, two girls secretly start their romantic relationship. This duo of male impersonators quickly become very popular in London. However, Nancy’s family always see her queerness from a negative side. Especially her elder sister Alice, to whom Nancy clarifies the lesbian nature of the relationship, believes Nancy was “wrong”, “shameful” and “misled” (ibid., 134). Finally, the relationship ends with Kitty’s betrayal because Kitty could not endure being publicly considered a lesbian.

Feminism in part one reflects on the form of a stage male impersonator. Women are normally restricted in a “family unit” and were forbidden to participate in drama shows since the late seventeenth century both in Western and Eastern countries (The Paper, 2019). In TTV, the Victorian male impersonators actively imitate common men’s manners: “The constable’s amble, the coster’s weary swagger, the smart clip of the off-duty soldier” (Waters1998, 86). They are very similar to today’s drag kings: “Female-bodied individuals performing masculinity” (Rupp, Taylor and Shapiro 2010, 276). Comparatively speaking, in the Victorian Age, this drag performance can be thought of as bravery and “challenge the biological basis of gender and the fixed nature of sexual identity” (Taylor and Rupp 2006, 12) in an irony and a decent way. Through the drag performance, Nancy gradually realised her gender is constructed and nurtured by the society where she is.

In part two from chapter 8 to 14, after Kitty’s betrayal, Nancy is “hidden, lost” and “has cast off all friends and joys” (ibid., 184). Heartbroken Nancy chooses to be a cross-dressed street renter and serve men oral sex. She feels more confident when wearing a man’s suit and walking on the street. Because London only favours “sweethearts and gentlemen” (ibid., 191) and if a girl walks alone without holding a baby or a bundle then she will be gazed at (ibid., 191). She realises “whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad…as a boy” (ibid., 123).  During her street renter life, she met a socialist activist Florence, who seems not to feel queer about Nancy’s strange suit and behaviour that makes Nancy want to know more about her. However, Nancy missed their second meeting due to interruptedly being picked by a rich widow as well as a feminist philanthropist Diana. Nancy is “kept” as her boy and tart. She lets Nancy wear a dildo during the sex. They go to an upper-class ladies’ club where the members are lesbians and male impersonators. In the club, “they were dressed…distinctly” (ibid., 212), and Diana is also busy with feminist charity issues: She writes letters to other feminist friends, sends books to girls in prisons and edits Suffrage magazines. In her huge and luxurious villa, Diana lets Nancy impersonate historical celebrities who normally have a sexual implication, such as Hermaphroditus or Antinous, and displays them to the homosexual visitors. This relationship lasts one year and Nancy feels joyful but empty. She is eventually cast off by Diana because she tries to defend the dignity of a maid Zena and makes Diana feel insulted in public.

Waters moves the drag performance from the music hall to the upper-class ladies’ club in part two. Before the end of the nineteenth century, women usually did not have the right to join a club as men often did (The Paper, 2019). With women’s awareness developing, private ladies’ clubs became increasingly popular under that patriarchal society. In TTV, not only do the members enjoy drag performance but also are keen on feminist philanthropy, which reflects that gender inequality exists in every class in late Victorian London (ibid., 2019). For example, the story of Downton Abbey that tells the female are not allowed to inherit titles from their father due to the “strict male-only version of primogeniture” (Pints of History, 2013). The rich upper-class circles work for feminist magazines that focus on fighting for women’s suffrage and improving the legal system in the UK.

In part three from chapter 15 to 18, Nancy tries her best to find Florence, who lives in the East End with her elder brother Ralph and a baby Cybil. She offers Nancy shelter in her home for a one night’s stay. Florence and Ralph are both socialist activists. When they are busy with working outside at daytime, Nancy cleans the house thoroughly and prepares delicious meals thus Florence may Nancy stay longer. Gradually, Nancy becomes a housewife and a babysitter in this small family, and two girls become more confiding with each other. One day, Florence told Nancy the truth of Cybil: His mom is Florence’s lover and dies of childbirth. Two girls realise they both are lesbians and share each other’s past. They go to a lesbian pub to meet their peers. Nancy finds the crowds mostly “dress as they please, and live as others care to find them” (ibid., 417), which is different from the upper-class impersonating club. In the end, Waters arranges a large socialist demonstration in Victoria Park. Ralph is asked to address a public speech Why Socialism. Nancy jumps on the stage to help him when he is trapping in nervousness. Her charismatic speaking makes the whole speech a triumph. Kitty also goes to the demonstration and begs Nancy to restart their relationship. Nancy refuses Kitty and finally realises Florence is her forever and true love. The two girls kiss in the park and do not care about anybody’s watching.

Socialist feminism among the working-class comes to the stage in part three. This concept believes women’s liberation is through the elimination of economic and cultural sources that are oppressed by patriarchy (Ehrenreich 1976, 6). Thus, we can see Florence and her circle are busy with working for cripples, immigrants and orphaned girls. They help them find jobs and houses, integrate into societies. Even if many people at that time don’t think women have much say on these issues and no need for it, they encourage women to join women’s unions or cooperative guilds for local labour movements. Part three is full of hopeful and powerful ambiences: Feminist movements occur around Nancy and subtly affect her gender identity. She finally grows into a mature woman who can confidently face her sexual orientation, publicly challenge the patriarchal society and warmly show her carings to the vulnerable. 

Although the back cover of the book sorts it as a ‘fiction’ only, TTV is an inevitably wonderful feminist novel that takes lesbianism as an attitude. Ittells the tale of a Victorian female protagonist meeting three homosexual relationships that represent three feminist scenarios, and how her sexual identity and psychological status change with the flow of her adventures.The testimonials on TTV’s back coverclearly present many keywords that navigate the readers to a feminist map: ‘Tom’ here means the lesbian (Waters1998, 131); ‘Queer’ was first used for “homosexual” in 1914 (Meuwese 2018, 29); ‘Demi-monde’ links to the women who like living a pleasure-seeking life in an improper way, and it also implies mistress and prostitute; Winterson and Butler are both feminist scholars. Sapphic comes from Sappho, an ancient Greek female poet who is famous as the first lesbian poet. Moll Flanders is a novel about a woman’s adventurous life. What’s more, the Virago Press itself is a publisher focuses on feminism, which always aims to “put women centre stage” and to explore excellent or hidden women’s writings in the world (About Virago, n.d.).

As a feminist novelist with a solid academic background, Waters has flexibly arranged plentiful details in her book relating to the truth of gender, literature, society and history, etc., which achieved TTV an encyclopedia to understand feminism from the perspective of homosexuality. I so much love this book and highly recommend it to you all.

Yuyang Ding.

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