Tuesday, July 28, 2009

155. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

October 2008
History: Published in 1998. The book, like the rest of Waters' novels, has a strong lesbian theme, though Tipping the Velvet in particular deals very candidly with the topic of lesbian sex and desire along with the role that economic class can play in oppression. According to Waters, the title is Victorian slang for cunnilingus. Waters was studying for her PhD, writing a dissertation on gay and lesbian literature in the Victorian era, when she decided she would rather invent stories than study them. "Two women rather isolated, probably living in the country, coming together against all odds and setting up life together in a small-scale sort of way. I just thought, God, there's so much more to lesbian history than that." Expounding on that inspiration, she added, "I wanted to write a story that had lesbians at the heart of urban life; that played with literary models; and, more importantly, showed that there was not just one way of being a lesbian, but many."
Plot: At 18 years old, Nancy, who later becomes known as Nan, lives with her family in Whitstable in the 1880s, working in the oyster house her father owns and sharing everything with her older sister. Nan joins her sister at the theatre one evening, and she is awestruck by a performer: Kitty Butler, a young woman who dresses in men's costumes and sings traditionally masculine songs. Nan gets Kitty's attention by attending all her performances, is asked backstage and to her delight eventually becomes Kitty's dresser.
Kitty is asked to perform in London by a man who becomes her manager, Walter Bliss. She asks Nan to accompany her, and Nan, completely smitten with Kitty, jumps at the chance. Kitty flounders in London at first and remains unknown. Nan supports her as her dresser and "as a sister" while Kitty travels from theatre to theatre and Walter tries different songs and performance changes to find what it is that will cause Kitty to be noticed.
At a party one evening, Kitty becomes jealous of the attention received by Nan from a young man, and although Nan brushes him off, Kitty's own feelings become known, and their relationship is consummated physically that evening. The very next day, Walter discovers by chance what has been missing from Kitty's act: a partner. Nan joins the act as Kitty's male impersonator sidekick and they become quite famous together. They engage in an affair that is kept strictly secret at Kitty's insistence. Homesick for her family after being gone more than a year, Nan travels back home for a visit and discusses the nature of her relationship with Kitty with her sister Alice. Alice rejects Nan's joy and pride in Kitty and their relationship chills. Feeling cast off from her family, Nan returns to London early to surprise Kitty, and finds her in bed with Walter.
Completely heartbroken, Nan takes her costumes and some of the money from her performances and wanders the streets of London before shutting herself away in a filthy boarding house for weeks. After learning by chance the fact that Kitty and Walter have been married, Nan wakes from her stupor and begins to assert her independence by walking the streets of London as a young man in her former theatrical costumes. Her money running out, she curiously begins to earn money as a rent boy, performing oral sex on particular men, but disguised as a man.
Boarding with another family after being tossed from the filthy Smithfield house (because the matron mistook her coming in the door as a man for her having men in her room), Nan meets Florence by chance. Florence is a charity worker who strikes up conversation. Feeling they have a connection, they make plans for a date. They go for tea and begin to get to know one another. When Florence begins to inquire of Nan what she did for a living, Nan could not bear to tell her the truth, nor could she bear lying to the girl. Instead, she excuses herself to use the ladies' room, slipping out the back door, abandoning Florence on their date. As Nan wandered London ashamed of herself, she was taken by a wealthy widow for an evening. The widow, Diana Lethaby, finds Nan on the street and has watched her for some time. Diana keeps Nan financially and physically, hidden away and almost imprisoned, for over a year. Nan is in the meantime introduced to Diana's peculiar wealthy circle of Sapphist friends, who take delight in their shared debauchery.
Being objectified by Diana and her friends, Nan feels little reason to stay, and after being found with Diana's maid in a compromising position, is struck by Diana and both are thrown out on the street in winter with nowhere to turn. Diana's maid leaves Nan at a charity house, and through will, pennies, and incredible good fortune, Nan soon finds herself on Florence's doorstep where she promptly faints.
Nan moves herself in, seemingly beyond Florence's will, to work as her maid in the house that Florence shares with her brother Ralph and an infant of unknown origin, named Cyril. Nan recovers from her life of luxurious objectification with Diana to become familiar with Florence and Ralph's connection to the Socialist movement in London. Known only as a homeless girl at first, Nan proves her worth by cooking and cleaning for the family. But the once cheery and laughing Florence is now known as moody and sad. It is discovered that Cyril is the son of a woman that also lived with Florence and Ralph - who was thrown out for being pregnant out of wedlock, died in childbirth, and who Florence loved passionately but secretly.
After a year of living with Nan, Florence invites her to a lesbian pub one evening, where much to Nan's chagrin, former fans of Kitty Butler and Nan King (her stage name) notice her and ask her if she is indeed who she is. Shocked at seeing her homeless maid in a new light, Nan tells Florence about her past and they slowly and hesitantly begin a relationship, both of them wounded and frightened.
The climax of the story surrounds a Socialist rally Ralph and Florence organize in a park in London, where Nan must teach Ralph how to speak in public. A surprisingly popular event, Nan meets Diana's maid Zena, where all is forgiven. Diana is also spotted with a new object. Ralph falters in his speech and is assisted by Nan, who completes it with him. But the biggest surprise is that Nan is approached after all these years by Kitty Butler again, who is in the crowd.
With Florence in sight, Kitty asks Nan to come back to her, to continue their affair while Kitty is married to Walter. Realizing how much shame Kitty lived in for their love, and how much of Nan was compromised during their love affair, Nan turns Kitty away and joins Florence.
Review: Tipping the Velvet is both a coming-of-age and a coming-out story. The story is relentlessly plot-driven, and allows itself little time for its protagonist to reflect on the greater implications of her life and assorted lifestyles. At no point does she ponder for long the irony of her brief career as a male prostitute, or make much of the inherent conservatism of her consistently hausfrauish roles in her sexual relationships (she "dresses" her first love, the actor Kitty, and compulsively cleans her dressing room; later, she observes that she doesn't mind doing housework for Florence, her last partner, because, after all, she would do these things if she were Florence's wife)-- she's always too busy turning a trick or blacking a fireplace. Her lack of self-scrutiny makes her a more, not less, complex character; she's not a symbol of emergent lesbian identity, self-conscious or otherwise, but rather a woman looking for someone to accept and care for her.
It's a simple plot, but one which continues to compel, and by the end of the novel, as sappy as it sounds, the reader is cheering her on as she discovers that she is at last free of the spell of her first true love and able to love again. (And this is not a short book, let me note-- it takes Nancy well over 400 pages to find happiness.) Nancy's tone throughout the book, whether she is describing the bearding of an oyster (an image Waters slyly introduces and then wisely drops) or the stitching on her wealthy sadistic mistress' custom-designed leather strap-on, is simple and straightforward, unburdened on the whole by that slightly histrionic, mannered quality that characterizes the voice in so much historical fiction; her casual, frank discussion of her past (we do not know how old she is as she tells her story, but she hints at middle age) both naturalizes the sometimes freakish events (like all picaresques, the story is built on the improbable) and strips the narrative of irksome faux-Victorian fussiness
Opening Line: “Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?”
Closing Line: “From the speakers’ tent there came a muffled cheer, and a rising rippling of applause.”
Quotes “Soon her breaths became moans, then cries, soon my own voice joined hers, for the dildo that serviced her also pleasured me – her motions bring it with an ever faster, ever harder pressure against just that part of me that cared for pressure best.”
Rating: Good.

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