Thursday, 5 January 2012

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

I recalled a passage in Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet which involved champagne and disaster, that I thought seemed appropriate for the New Year and for the blog, in that order. I last read the book it nearly a decade back, having just read and loved her second book, Affinity. Tipping the Velvet seemed at first to be the lighter book, and it’s obvious that Waters had bloody good fun writing it, but looking back, she’s managed to do more than just create an entertaining Victorian romp. A whole imagined world of lesbian history is intertwined with her sumptuously detailed descriptions of London in the 1890s and her impressive research into gay and lesbian writing of the late nineteenth century; it’s a rather marvellous achievement and also a cracking read.

Nancy, know as Nan, lives with her family in Whitstable, where she works shelling oysters for their restaurant. Captivated by Kitty Butler, a male impersonator who she sees at the local theatre, she becomes close friends with her, taking up an offer to work as her dresser in London. Soon performing as a double act on stage, they become quite famous, with a burgeoning physical relationship growing in secret. Unfortunately, Nan comes back one day to find Kitty in bed with their agent, Walter, and she leaves in a hurry.

Taking to the streets and the grim world of prostitution, going out ‘renting’ dressed as a young man for male clients. It’s here that she runs into Diana, a wealthy widow with a rather outré taste in sex toys. She lives with her for a year, but Diana and her rich, boorish lady friends treat her as little more than an object of titillation and erotic indulgence, and Nan misses Kitty terribly.

After a rather debauched party thrown by Diana for Sapphists Only, Nan has a fight with her after she tries to strip Zena, her maid, in front of her friends. Sent upstairs while the rest of the party continues its drunken whirl, Nan finds herself consoling Zena:

“Just listen to them!” I said, growing bitter again. “Partying like anything! They have forgotten about us, sitting miserably up here...” “Oh, I hope they have!” “Of course they have. We might be doing anything, it wouldn’t matter to them. Why, we might be having a party of our own!” She blew her nose, then giggled. My head gave a sort of tilt. I said: “Zena! Why shouldn’t we have a party, just the two of us! How many bottles of champagne are there left, in the kitchen?”

Her new friend scuttles downstairs and returns with a dewy bottle and a glass straight from the cold store:

I went to her and took the bottle, then peeled away the lead wrapper from its neck. “You’ve shaken it up,” I said. “It’ll go off with a real bang!” She put her hands over her ears, and shut her eyes. I felt the cork squirm in the glass for a second; then it leapt from my fingers, and I gave a yell: “Quick! Quick! Bring a glass!” A creamy fountain of foam had risen from the neck of the bottle, and now drenched my fingers and soaked my legs – I was still, of course, clad in the little white toga. Zena seized the glass from the tray and held it, giggling again, beneath the spurting wine. We went and sat upon the bed, Zena with the glass in her hands, me sipping from the frothing bottle. When she drank, she coughed; but I filled her glass again and said: “Drink up! Just like those cows downstairs.” And she drank, and drank again, until her cheeks were red.

With all those bubbles and emotions, there’s bound to be horseplay. Which there is, but unfortunately Diana and friends come upstairs to check on their charges at a rather inopportune moment...


  1. Guess this one should also end up on my 'to read' list.
    It's Alex... by the way!

  2. Thought it might be you! Yes, I can definitely recommend this one; actually, I'd go one further and suggest you read all three of her Victorian novels. Affinity is the best one in my mind, but Fingersmith is excellent as well.