I read Tipping the Velvet obsessively and at every available opportunity (on the train, at work, standing at the stove stirring my porridge) for three days straight. It’s absolutely riveting; I couldn’t rest until I knew the final fate of Nan King, the small-town oyster-girl who falls in love with music-hall masher Kitty Butler and follows her to London and a life previously unimaginable.
The last time I was so engrossed in a woman’s journey of love and self-discovery was reading another female bildungsroman, Jane Eyre. In fact, the protagonist’s recurring experience of happiness and tranquility followed by trials and hardship was entirely reminiscent of Brontë’s work. The book-cover received a few strange glances from people on the train – I suppose it’s somewhat saucy as Nan would say – but Water’s ‘lesbian’ novel is quite traditional and ultimately as virtuous as any by Brontë or Austen.
It is erotic – though not as graphic as you might anticipate – and portrays what we still, sadly, call ‘unconventional’ relationships and sexual pursuits. Overall, a relatively conservative morality or lifestyle is exemplified as bringing true fulfillment and happiness. Strap-on dildos aside, the novel is not as progressive as you may think. I found this really interesting. I was expecting something extremely subversive but Waters is meticulously faithful to the forms and characteristics of the Victorian novel. So, though she renders what was invisible visible and retells history from a lesbian perspective, in the end she cannot overthrow that history altogether and must do her best for Nancy within its mores and parameters.
I think she did her justice. This is a wonderful novel. I’m happy to have read it at long last and have become somewhat engrossed with all things of that time. Demelza Morgana looks at Space and Sexuality in the Post-Victorian Fiction of Sarah Waters: an in-depth analysis of “the way in which the historically transgressive sexualities of Waters’s heroines are constructed spatially, via the characters’ movement (or lack thereof) through confining interiors.” In the US, Sally Newman looks at archival photographs of ‘Half-Man dances’ from Smith College and discusses lesbian historiography. Makes me want to go back to college, sigh…
Less ‘academic’ but equally fascinating find was this post about Cross-Dressing and Androgyny in early picture-postcards, including this one of Vesta Tilly, the most famous male impersonator in British music halls, she began her career as a boy at the age of just six.
It’s a fascinating history, I’m sure I’ll explore it more and look forward to reading the rest of Sarah Water’s work. For now, I can’t wait ’til the BBC adaptation of the book arrives from Netflix and this French and Saunders parody is also pretty hilarious (warning, may contain somewhat irreverent spoilers!).