Jan 14, 2010

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet

Set in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, Tipping the Velvet is the story of Nan King’s incredible journey from Whitstable to London; of her transformation from an oyster girl to a music hall star to a… well, I won’t give it all away. It all begins when Nan sees a singer by the name of Kitty Butler perform at a nearby music hall. Kitty sings dressed as a boy, and is, as Nan puts it, the most marvellous girl she has ever seen. Nan returns to see her day after day, and the two become friends. When Kitty is offered a chance to perform in London, Nan leaves everything behind to follow her as her dresser, and thus irrevocably changes the course of her life.

Early in the story, Nan says that she feels like her passion for Kitty is making her glow from the inside; and that she fears that everyone will see this light and know what’s in her heart. Nan’s love for Kitty does light her up, but not in the manner one initially expects: it makes her visible; it causes her to flourish, to discover her body, her identity, and her sexuality. And this is only the beginning of her transformation, which is as astonishing as it feels natural. Tipping the Velvet is a bildungsroman in the truest sense of the word. We watch Nan rebuild herself, her world, and her life, not only once but again and yet again, until, like a fairy tale heroine, she arrives to her true home.

I can hardly believe that this was Sarah Waters’ debut novel. Nan’s voice feels so authentic, and the writing is so lovely, so bold, so precise and masterful and deliberate. I was particularly taken by Waters’ very careful use of words such as “queer” or “lewd”—nothing is done accidentally. In addition to this, Tipping the Velvet is perhaps thematically richer and wider in scope than the other Sarah Waters novels I’ve read so far (not that I didn’t love them all, of course).

Tipping the Velvet deals with sexuality; with gender identity; with class and social inequality; with prostitution; with the fringes of Victorian society; with the world of Fabians and socialist and trade unionist and other revolutionaries; and with love and longing and fear, and wanting to live as if you belong in the world (which everyone should be entitled to). I love the fact that this book shows us a different facet of this time period than Waters’ other Victorian novels do; I love the fact that it’s a romp, as Waters called it: it’s fun and sexy and daring and it involves cross-dressing and bohemian artists’ lives and Victorian strap-ons—but not just.

One of my favourite scenes was when Nan, recovering from a difficult personal period, decides to go out for the first time in months, and try to make London her own again. At first she does so dressed as a girl, and this proves impossible. She is watched at every turn, and the city seems hostile and ready to devour her. She returns the following day dressed as a boy, and the difference is astonishing. Only as a young man is she able to claim the city for herself. Tipping the Velvet also offers similar commentary on class—on the presence and absence of status and money, and the gigantic difference these make in what you’re allowed to do and how much you can afford to bend the rules.

Another thing this book does is deal more directly with the consequences of homophobia than Waters’ other works. Not that it wasn’t there in Affinity or The Night Watch or Fingersmith—sadly homophobia is an unavoidable part of all her queer characters’ lives. But Tipping the Velvet tackles it head on, and shows us how living in secret and shame, how having to hide, how rejecting that part of yourself can suffocate you; can poison even love.

Finally, I loved the ending. I was afraid, somehow, that Sarah Waters had only written one happy ending, and that I should prepare myself for the worst. But—well, I’ll only say it was complicated, and bittersweet, and perfect for those very reasons. Tipping the Velvet is an amazing journey—daring, colourful, unforgettable and intense. Oh, why did it ever have to end?

(Also—I spent the whole month of December going on and on about how much I wanted, nay, needed this book, and the result was that not one but two people listened: my boyfriend and my lovely Secret Santa, Alessandra. If you’d like my extra copy, just include the word “queer” in your comment. I’ll put your name in the metaphorical hat and announce the winner by the end of the week.)

A few of my favourite passages:
Like the freckles, it made her – not unremarkable, as I had feared to find her; but marvellously, achingly real. Hearing it, I understood at last my wildness of the past seven days. I thought, how queer it is! —and yet, how very ordinary: I am in love with you.

I let my hand drop; she kept her fingers upon my lips, then moved them, very slowly, to my cheek, my ear, my throat, my neck. Then her features gave a shiver and she said in a whisper: ‘You won’t tell a soul, Nan—will you?’
I think I sighed then: sighed to know—to know for sure, at last!—that there was something to be told. And then I dipped my face to hers, and shut my eyes.
Her mouth was chill, at first, then very warm—the only warm thing, it seemed to me, in the whole of the frozen city; and when she took her lips away—as she did, after a moment, to give a quick, anxious glance towards our hunched and nodding driver—my own felt wet and sore and naked in the bitter December breezes, as if her kiss had flayed them.

His pleasure had turned, at the last, to a kind of grief; and his love was a love so fierce and so secret it must be satisfied, with a stranger, in a reeking court like this. I knew about that kind of love. I knew how it was to bare your palpitating heart, and be fearful as you did so that the beats should come too loudly, and betray you.
I had kept my heart-beats smothered; and had been betrayed, anyway.
And now I had betrayed another, like myself.
Other opinions:
Flight Into Fantasy
Jenny's Books
A Striped Armchair
books i done read

(Let me know if I missed yours!)


  1. This was such a good gripping and intense read. By chance I was watching Fingersmith last night!

  2. This was my first book by Sarah Waters, four years ago now. I loved what she did with gender - did you see any echoes of Nights at the Circus? I think I need to watch the mini-series for the first time.

  3. I think I need to just have a Sarah Waters month and actually read all five books of hers that I have purchased.

    This sounds wonderful, but we all knew it would be, because Sarah Waters is just fabulous.

  4. I hereby commit to reading this for my GLBT Challenge experience. So all I have to do to enter your giveaway is type the word QUEER in my comment? ok... QUEER! :)

  5. I just started on Fingersmith last night, and I'm already hooked. I love the Victorian setting: dark and queer. This is the first glbt book I'm reading, as far as I can remember, and I have a lot of expectations!

  6. As with every Sarah Waters book, this sounds amazing. I have only this one and Affinity left to go, though, so I'm reluctant to read through all of them so quickly!

  7. perfect review Ana!! You just stated every single reason why I loved this books so much, and why it will always be just a step ahead of all her other books I've read. I especially loved the first and the last part (ohhh the last part, and ohhhh the ending... wonderful!) while the middle part was at times very uncomfortable, but incredibly gripping nevertheless.

    I watched the mini series, but seriously, I wish I didn't. Except for the singing parts (which added a lot to the book, since we don't get to hear the songs at all, and as it turns out, where written especially for the Tv series) the acting was dreadful and the plot changes very disappointing.

  8. this is my absolute favourite Sarah Waters books. As much as i have loved her others, this one tops them. Your reivew is outstanding, i dont think i could have written it half as well as you.
    So cool that you enjoyed it!

  9. Fabulous review! I am totally convinced, especially if the story is as queer(!) and wonderful as you have described ;)

    I bought a copy of Fingersmith after your review and hope to read it this year. Which would you recommend reading first?

  10. I realize it's *queer*, but I've never read a Sarah Waters book... and yet I've only heard great things about her, especially her earlier books. I'd really love to experience her - I think she'd bring new scope to my reading - and if I'm lucky enough to win this, the next time I want a gripping, thrilling read, I'll certainly rectify my omission!

  11. The comments to this post are cracking me up. I'd use the q-word except that Jason got this for Christmas too so we don't need to win your extra copy. :D On the other hand, if I win it, I could include it in the prize bucket for the GLBT Challenge...well, if you think that's a good enough reason for me to win it, go ahead and count me. Queer. There you go. :D

    I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think this year I will finally get around to reading something by Sarah Waters. I have no idea why I haven't yet.

  12. Clearly I need to read Sarah Waters I haven't seen a bad review.

  13. Queer but I most definitely associate Sarah Waters with you (Sarah Waters=Nymeth). It's here I first heard about her. One day (hopefully soon) I will read her finally.

  14. I still haven't opened my copy of Fingersmith. Well I did try once and after the first page I was sleeping (no offense to the author but by then I was too tired really to read anything).

    And this I think is the third book of hers that you reviewed here? I'm so way behind on my reading. How queer!

    Oh well. Soon, soon. The Victorian times will call to me soon enough.

  15. What a queer type of giveaway, but I'm game. LOL! We were just talking about this novel Tuesday night as part of our conversation about The Little Stranger. She is a wonderful writer. I plan on reading much more of her work this year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. :)

  16. I NEED to read something by Sarah Waters. And I need more books for the glbt challenge, so this is perfect. And with your endorsement, Ana, how could I pass this one up? So... queer! Thanks. :)

  17. Sarah Waters is one of my favorite authors so it's rather queer that I've not read Tipping the Velvet yet. This is the year I do!

  18. I should really get my hands on any Waters book I see from now on!

    Reading this review reminded me of another book, Life Mask, by Emma Donoghue. It's not Victorian, alas, but Georgian. I think you'd like it if you haven't read it.

  19. Queer, queer, queer. I need this book! After I read The Little Stranger, I fell in love with Waters and her writing style. There is nothing quite like it. So then I read Night Watch and Fingersmith. I must still read this one and Affinity. I sure hope Waters is working on something new, because I don't want to run out!

  20. It would be queer if anyone didn't want to read this book after reading your review.

  21. Yay! I own a copy of this, which makes me sooo happy. And I'm completely w/ you on the ending. :D You have me wanting to start Fingersmith right now! lol But first I must finish Mrs. Dalloway. ;)

  22. Queer is how I've been coming here often but never leaving a comment. I've never read Sarah Waters, but for some reason, I already love her. I've got Fingersmith that I own, and am hoping to read The Night Watch soon, at least before I return it to the library.

  23. You convinced me long ago that I need to start reading Sarah Waters's books; now I just need to figure out where to start. Suggestions?

    Hopefully asking that won't queer the results of the giveaway. :)

  24. I'm glad the book made its appearance in the end :)

  25. I think it's incredibly queer that the day I get notice from my library that Sarah Waters' THE LITTLE STRANGER is available for pick-up I read TWO blog posts on how great Waters is. =)

    I can't wait to read more of this author. I'll be skipping with joy to the library. I'm adding this one my list of must-read Sarah Waters books as well. Eh, who am I kidding? I'll just add all of her book to my TBR pile and just be done with it.

    Great review!

  26. I keep reading raves about Sarah Waters' work. I must read one of her books!

  27. For some reason I thought you had already read this one!! I have yet to read Waters but I will!

  28. Great write up! Reminded me how much I loved the book.

    My blog isn't reviews so much as identifying what appeals to people about books, so it isn't as gushing: http://lay-ra.blogspot.com/2009/09/raview-tipping-velvet.html.

    Can't wait to get a copy of Fingersmith! You're earlier blogs about that one made me want to read it.

  29. I really need to read more from her! I started The Little Stranger but lack of reading time has meant not a lot of progress so far.

  30. Ah, I forgot this was her debut novel. What talent! I loved this book and really must read more by her. I have Fingersmith on my shelves.

  31. I've yet to read any of her books, so my 'resolution' will be to read them, especially Fingersmith and The Little Stranger!!

    I'd love to win a copy of this book, so...queer!! :P

  32. I have yet to read anything by Sarah Waters, but your review was the first I've read that really convinced me that I need to pick up something by her STAT. Please enter me in the giveaway - queer!

  33. Oh Ms Ana, whatever am I going to do with you?!! You are the reason that both Fingersmith and The Night Watch are already waiting for me on my shelf. And now thanks to you, this one soon must join them. I'm not sure which I shall read first, but I'm sooooo going to get to one of them soon!

    I wasn't going to enter your queer contest ;) ...but then I saw Amanda's comment, and thought, "What a brilliant idea!" So, should my name come out of that proverbial hat, please donate it to the prize bucket for the GLBT Challenge, okay?

  34. I've never read any of Waters' work, but I'm bound and determined to change that this year! Everyone loves her so much, and her works sounds amazing, so I'm not sure what's taken me this long.

  35. i AM queer :) and i want to read this book. hope i win!

  36. Just from your review, this sounds like a beautiful book. I've never read anything by Sarah Waters, but it seems like it's time to pick one up!

  37. She's on my list for this year's Victorian reading challenge. I can't wait to get a job again so that I can go back to spending absurd amounts of money on books again.

    I love that she explores sexuality - and does it in this time period. I don't think lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual issues are handled often enough in Vict. lit.

    (should I introduce myself to her with this one or is Fingersmith or one of her others better to start with?)

  38. Oh, Sarah Waters! I need to reread her books and give Affinity another try. I remember when I first read Tipping the Velvet, I got cross with Nan for window-shopping while dressed as a boy. And then she was all surprised when people tried to cruise her! I was all, WOMAN. Have you not read anything about queer (HI! I SAID QUEER!) Victorian London?


  39. Who could not wish to read this book after your review! I've only read The Night Watch, but found it mesmerizing and thought-provoking. This one sounds similarly absorbing. I sensed some parallels between Nan here and Kay in the later book...queer...

  40. I find the cover rather weird to look at :)

    The book sounds very different.I need to read something by this author real soon.

  41. I promised myself that this year would be the year for me to read Sarah Water's. I already have Fingersmith so I'm ready to go, but Tipping the Velvet seems to always have more appeal to me (I got Fingersmith at a book sale, and no Velvet). Anyway, they sound like perfect queer books for... anyone! :)

  42. I really want to read this. The television adaptation by the BBC was supposed to be good as well, I remember it being advertised. Glad you enjoyed it :)

  43. Okay, first of all - I had a lot of fun reading the comments :D I think I'll always come up with things of this sort when I have giveaways in the future :P

    Verity: I actually haven't see any of the TV adaptations yet! Someday...

    Claire: You know, I was thinking about that all through the book, probably because I read Nights at the Circus not too long ago. The most significant parallel I see is that both are so exuberant and full of life and celebratory in tone, even if quite a few bad things happen in Tipping the Velvet. But despite that, and despite the bittersweetness of the end, it still feels playful somehow.

    Vivienne: Exctly :D

    Care: Got your name :D

    Hazra: I hope you enjoy it!

    Meghan: I know! That's why it tool me so long to read this, actually.

    Valentina: Oh no...that makes me sad about the mini-series :( But I do want to watch the singing scenes! You know, I LOVED every book of hers so far, but my personal scale would actually be: Fingersmith > Affinity > The Night Watch > Tipping the Velvet. But it's almost silly to try to order them because I so love them all :P

    I'm so not a blogger: thank you! But I bet you could have!

    Mariel: hehehe :D It is, promise :P And to be honest, I think you'd be fine starting anywhere as they're all fabulous!

    Steph: A few people were disappointing in The Little Stranger, but others loved it too! But yes, I don't think I've seen a negative review of the others either.

    Amanda, of course that's a good enough reason!

    Amy, I hope you love her!

    Claire, the association couldn't be more flattering :D

    Lightheaded: Fourth - I only have The Little Stranger left to go, sadly. She needs to write faster :P

    Literate Housewife: I need to read The Little Stranger: And yet I can, because if I do they'll be none left :P

    Heather: You're in! :D

    Anbolyn: It took me forever to get to it too, simply because I liked looking forward to reading it for the first time. Does that make sense? :P

    Aarti: I haven't, but Emma Donaghue has been on my radar for a few months. Didn't he write The Wet Nurse's Tale? That one sounds really good too!

    Sandy, consider herself entered! Her writing is just something else. I don't know how she does it!

    Jeanne: lol, you're in :D

    Eva: I hope Fingersmith doesn't disappoint you after all the build-up! It probably will plot-wise, because I'm sure you'll find all the plot twists really obvious. But there's plenty more to love :)

    Michelle: Thank you for commenting this time, though :D And I know what you mean: there are some authors I just know I'll love even beforew I read them.

  44. You've really made me want to reread this! You know I've had some problems with Waters's other novels (aside from FINGERSMITH), but I really do love the way she deals with both personal identity and LGBT issues in this book. It's fun to read, but there's more to it than that.

  45. My brain is a bit queer in some respects. I know that I will love Sarah Waters when I do finally read her, but it doesn't seem to give me enough incentive to actually read any of her books!

  46. I was going to read this last month, but unfortunately time got the better of me and I had to return it to the library unread (Inter-Library Loan!) Isn't that queer??

    I SO need to actually sit down and read some Sarah Waters!!

  47. Fyrefly: I loved them all so far (I only have The Little Stranger left to go), so I'd say anywhere, really!

    Alessandra: I figured out what happened too: they changed everything about the address except the country. So I suspect it went on a little tour of Italy until someone figured out where my city was :P

    J.S. Peyton: Yes, add them all! :D You won't regret it.

    Kathy, I hope you enjoy it when you do! :)

    Staci: Probably because I was going on and on about it even before I had :P

    Anna: Thank you for your link! I'll be glad to add it even if it's a different sort of post :)

    Kailana: Sigh, I read like 200 pages all of last week, so tell me about it :\

    Iliana: I hope you love Fingersmith!

    Melody: Enjoy! :D

    Bored_D: You do need to pick up one of her books! She's seriously amazing.

    Debi: Like I told Amanda, of course that's a valid reason!

    Andi, I really think you'll like her!

    Veronica: Sorry that you didn't! But I hope you'll read her soon anyway :D

    She: Yep, it is :P

    Lena: A perfect choice for the challenge. Good luck with the job hunt, btw! And as I told Fyrefly, I honestly think any one of them would be a great starting point. Except for The Little Stranger, but only because I haven't read it :P

    Jenny: Probably my favourite use of "queer" :P

    ds: You know, I hadn't thought of that, but excellent point! Kay is a bit like a disappointed 20th Century Nan.

    Violet: I actually like the cover a lot! And yes, you do :P

    Memory: It is, and there is! It's the perfect balance, really.

    Marg: Dooo eeeet :P

    Stephanie: Hopefully you'll manage to get to it next time!

  48. A long time ago, I used to visit a site that praised Sarah Waters to the highest and I went out and collected all of her books, but have only read Fingersmith. This one is the one I am most excited about out of all her others. I really liked your review and think that this is going to make an excellent read when I get to it and I am glad that you loved it so much. Doesn't Waters just impress the heck out of you with her writing? She does me!

  49. I could kick myself. I was in Borders yesterday and mean to pick this up. I love Waters. Like you I have been dying to read Tippng the Velvet. Thanks for the awesome review. I particularly loved the last quote. So vintage Waters and it was her debut. Funny.

  50. I'm re-reading Tipping right now, after having loaned it to my girlfriend to read for her first time (and her first foray into Waters's work). I go on and on about my love for Waters based on her writing style, but the gender identity theme of this one was probably what hooked me the first time around, as so much of Nan's story is similar to a "coming out as butch" tale I've heard from many people in my life. Also, my butch and I both related Nan and Florence's relationship to our own while reading, which adds a sweetness to the story :)

  51. what a lovely review. i've heard of this and the author. sounds like I really need to get moving and check it out soon.


  52. Great Review! Tipping the Velvet is my favorite Waters novel. Maybe it would be time to reread it...


  53. I just discovered your blog and was taken by your description of Sara Waters' work. I'll head to the bookstore now. It also made me remember a book that I love which covers similar themes - I wonder if you've read it: The Sand Child by Tahar ben Jelloun. If not - it's worth reading.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.