Tipping the Velvet, published in 1998, by Sarah Waters is a historical novel. It’s set in Victorian England during the 1890s. Waters is a Welsh writer and has written several historical fiction books. Tipping the Velvet was her first novel and after reading it, I have to say bravo. She won the 1999 Betty Trask Award. And I now consider myself a fan.
The novel is a coming of age story. Nancy “Nan” Astley is a young woman who falls in love with Kitty Butler, a male impersonator. When Nan sees Kitty on the stage for the first time, she falls for the “masher.” Nan becomes obsessed and attends all of her shows. Kitty is intrigued by her fan and asks to meet Nan. The two quickly become friends. When Kitty is offered a job in London, Nan joins her and becomes her dresser.
At first, Nan hides her feelings and the two are more like sisters. However, love can’t be denied and after a fight the two confess their feelings. Yet, this is Victorian England so their relationship has to remain a secret. Kitty is terrified that people will find out that they are lovers. This fear causes Kitty to marry her manager, Walter.
Nan, heartbroken and alone, roams the streets of London. She had worked as a male impersonator on the stage with Kitty. She learns that being a woman out on the streets causes problems so she starts wearing men’s clothing for security. Also, she prefers them. Soon she discovers that she can make a living as a prostitute. Her male clients do not know that Nan is a woman. Yet one person who prowls the streets has learned her secret. Diana is a wealthy widow who wants a companion. She has set her sights on Nan. At first the relationship seems too good to be true. But being the plaything for a wealthy woman turns out to be difficult. What will happen to the young woman?
The greatest strength of this novel is the descriptions. When I was reading this novel, I didn’t just read the words; I was immersed into Victorian England. When Nan wandered the streets of London, I was right next to her. Seeing, smelling, and hearing everything. When Nan met people, I felt like I was shaking their hands as well. The descriptions in this novel are comparable to Charles Dickens. Many of my followers know that I’m a fan of Dickens so this is quite the compliment coming from me. I’ve read many good books this year. And I’ve said I’ve found many new writers that I will continue to read. Sarah Waters may top all of the authors I’ve read recently. Not only are her descriptions amazing, but her storytelling abilities astounded me. Nan’s life takes so many twists and turns and I never tired of them. At times I wondered if Waters had story ideas on a dartboard and when she wanted to switch things up she threw a dart and went with the new idea. This isn’t to say that the different subplots didn’t mesh well. They all did and I think she has the ability to make the reader believe almost anything. When I read the last page of this novel, I was sad. Not about the ending, but that it was over. I wanted to continue with the story.
This novel is on my 1001 books you must read before you die and it counts towards my Award Winning Books challenge. Waters has one more book, Fingersmith, on the 1001 list and I hope to read it soon.