Tipping the velvet

Tipping the velvet
| Reviews > Books

Made into a sumptuous BBC drama, Tipping the Velvet is a gripping (and researched) romp through life behind the curtain at a Victorian music hall, cleverly told through the eyes of a young cross-dressing actress experiencing her first first girl-on-girl love…

In this turn of the century romance, Sarah Waters encapsulates the essence of the Victorian controversy that surrounded ‘toms’ (LGBT) engaging in homosexual relationships. Toms were shunned in the very era Tipping the Velvet (Virago V) is set in and yet cross-dressing women were considered a delight worth paying good money to see on the music hall stage. This controversy is seen through the eyes of a young Victorian girl from Whitstable; Nancy Astley. The linear progression of the novel creates a realistic journey, moving the reader forward at a dramatic, head-spinning yet thoroughly believable pace that keeps even the most casual reader lusting after the next page.

It’s 1888. Nancy Astley, a 19 year old girl from Whitstable whose experience of life has never stretched farther than the oyster barrel, makes first contact with her sexuality one night at the theatre, when she sees her first true ‘Masher’ performance. Kitty Butler, a trouser-clad girl who sings about sweethearts and wives, opens Nancy’s eyes to more than just a liking for girls, but to a life that breaks all social taboos; the life of a tom. Overwhelmed by Nancy’s commitment to watch her sing, Kitty invites Nancy to become her dresser; and soon, her friend and companion.

When Kitty finds her big break in the west end and asks Nancy to come with her, she says yes quicker than you could say limelight, and is whisked away to better pastures. Soon Nancy finds herself a place in Kitty’s act, and in her very first pair of trousers to boot. Life with Kitty is a grand one, particularly when they begin their secret, homosexual relationship; but this proves too risky for Kitty, who never quite manages to accept their love. Nancy is then plunged into heartbreak and betrayal, forced to flee from her glamorous life with kitty, yet having no home to go back to.

A bitter, vengeful Nancy then creates herself a new life clad in men’s clothing, working the streets alongside the prostitutes and Mary-Annes; a life which she slips into surprisingly well. But trouble finds her when a cruel, rich woman is looking to recruit a new Tom to live as her servant and lover, and Nancy finds herself further from Whitstable than she could ever imagine. By the 1890’s, Nancy has learnt more about herself than Kitty Butler could ever have taught her.

Waters takes many controversial aspects of Victorian life and plunges them under a beam of refreshing light, writing with such dignity and enviable clarity that it’s almost absurd to believe this was her debut novel, a predecessor to all the impressive instalments that were to come in the future. The impeccable research and carefully sculpted characters makes Tipping The Velvet a truly admirable read. Historical fiction has never been so contemporary.

Tipping the velvet

Amazon: Tipping the Velvet (Virago V)

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