I have just finished reading Sarah Waters’ “Tipping the Velvet”. Actually this has been long overdue since I started reading that i think late December. Let me give you a little background about the author and the story.
Sarah Waters is a known lesbian author born in Neyland, Pembrokeshire in 1966. “Tipping the Velvet” is actually her first novel that she published in 1999. The story was inspired by her PhD thesis about lesbian historical fiction.**
The story itself is based on the Victorian Era, specific location of the story are the music halls during that era. The main character in the story, Nan King ( an oyster cook from Whitstable) became infatuated with a male impersonator actress named Kitty. With her infatuation, she didn’t know that she will become physically attracted to this woman. She thought that she was just being fanatic about the art that Kitty is doing. She eventually becomes Kitty’s personal assistant and left Whitstable to be with Kitty during her performances. Nan King also has a hidden talent and became Kitty’s partner in their performances ( male impersonation). Their on-stage partnership suddenly became realistic, thus making Kitty as her first girlfriend. Kitty didn’t want to expose their relationship, Nan King realizes the “closet relationship”. After a while, Kitty left Nan to marry their manager and live a life as a “straight” person.
Nan King being devastated of her first lesbian experience, she lived a life as a ‘tom’. She left the music halls and lived in another place far from the music halls. She got attracted with a girl name Florence, working in the boarding house she’s living in. Nan became a prostitute ( for gay males) because they think she’s a boy. Nan King was picked up by Diane, a rich woman in her late 40’s and adventurous in sexual experimentations. Nan King then became her ‘boytoy’ and made her live in her mansion. Nan King enjoyed the experimentation however she didn’t love this woman, she’s still in love with Kitty. She also became involved with Diane’s maid Zena.
She left Diane’s mansion and tried to look for Florence, the girl that she got attracted with before leaving for the mansion. She felt that there was something ‘hanging’ between them. Now with no money, she found Florence. They started where they left off. Nan admitting her past to Florence.
In a socialist event, all of Nan’s ex’s were in that particular place. Kitty talked to Nan, asking her to come back even though Kitty still married to Walter. Nan refused since she didn’t want to become the ‘third party’. Though Florence and Nan both have unfinished businesses with their ex’s, Nan still chose Florence over Kitty.
This has a historical approach, makes you really imagine the music halls during the Victorian era. It seems that the author wants to explore lesbian visibility in history that has been left behind. The author showed the ‘exclusive’ parties for women who love women that may be present at that time.
At the beginning of the story, readers will already realize it is a lesbian novel due to the yonic symbols used such as oysters etc… ( I guess I know what you mean lolz ;p ).It made me giggle a bit at first, since Nan is somewhat a ‘virgin’ in this kind of feeling. It made me think of the first time I felt that feeling, going beyond friendship or fanaticism. I felt disappointed at Kitty being a closet lesbian, leaving Nan hanging. I actually became angry at the character of Kitty, especially the part when she was saying to Nan that she doesn’t want to be called a ‘tom’. Well what are you then? I totally understand closet relationships but between the two of them, Kitty still prefers not to be called a ‘tom’. That is called hypocrisy.
Actually, as I was reading through the course of the story it was suddenly becoming too graphic for me. The part when Nan was already involved with Diane. For me, it seems that the character was floating, on the rebound that’s why she agreed to be Diane’s ‘boytoy’. For the faint-hearted, I believe you might not like what you will be reading when you come to this part.
In summary, the novel is liberating lesbians especially in its setting in the Victorian era. During that time, women are treated weak and does not have the right to enjoy sex. Well as for this novel, it showed that women can enjoy sex and be whoever they want to be. As you can see, the characters of Nan and Kitty as male impersonators, they have to be one so that they can be considered as ‘someone’ in society; albeit shows patriarchy in that period.
Aside from patriarchy theme, it also shows discrimination among lesbians. It could be shown in Kitty’s statements that she doesn’t want to be called as ‘tom’ ( referring to a butch lesbian). We must admit that there is also discrimination even inside the circle that we revolve in.
** based on Sarah Waters’s official website.