Ever since I discovered her novel FINGERSMITH, I’ve been a huge fan of Sarah Waters. Her novels are a skillful and engrossing combination of so many things I love: lush historical details with a seedy Dickensian underbelly. Complex, flawed but strong female characters. Unexpected plot twists. And though I’m not usually a reader of romance, the romantic pairings and journeys in her novels have so much emotional depth and passion and nuance, I can’t help but be swept up in them. Recently I read her first novel, TIPPING THE VELVET, to see where it all began and found myself marveling anew at her skill as a writer from the very beginning of her career.
Nancy Astley is a teenager working at her family’s humble oyster restaurant in a small English fishing village. Then one night she and her sister go to a music hall and she sees a performance that changes her life: Kitty Butler, a young woman who performs dressed as a man, captures her heart in unexpected ways.
Nancy starts going to see Kitty perform every night until Kitty takes notice and invites Nancy backstage to meet her. The two strike up an intimate friendship, though Nancy’s feelings run much deeper. When Kitty gets the chance to perform on the London stage, she invites Nancy to accompany her as her assistant, dresser, and companion. Nancy accepts and embarks on the journey of a lifetime, through the glamour and grit of Victorian London.
Sarah Waters takes us on a vivid tour of the Victorian LGBTQ world. We go behind the scenes of the glitzy but gossipy the music hall circuit; we enter the lavish halls of a private club for wealthy high-society “sapphists”;” we visit a humble but bustling gay bar frequented by socialist organizers; we experience the lives of renters, men who perform sexual acts secretly with other men in alleyways and seedy rent-by-the-hour hotels.
As she journeys through all of these worlds, Nancy is constantly reinventing herself while always chasing those timeless coming-of-age questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? What sort of people do I want to surround myself with? Whom do I love? She is at times unlikable, impulsive, self-indulgent. She scorns people who are kind to her and desperately seeks the approval of people who don’t deserve her attention. Ultimately, her flawed humanity is what makes her journey so emotionally captivating. She is textured and real. I could see myself in her.
Lose yourself in Waters’s London along with Nancy. You’ll find yourself cheering for her victories, exasperated with her missteps, and completely engrossed in this fully realized, rich, fascinating and little-known world.