Lesbians Do It Better: My Review of Sarah Water’s *Tipping The Velvet*
The other day I took the local library by siege: I combed the shelves for hours, determined to find some new and different–and good–story to take home and read. I wandered far enough into the W’s to find myself holding a novel that looked like this:
I thought, Hello! And then I flipped it over, read the back and thought, whoah. Then I read a bit of the first page, just to be sure, and the next thing I knew I was taking it home.
Water’s style is more literary than I normally like; her style is slower and more distant than I personally care for. Had the subject matter been anything else, I would have strayed, but the story itself was so new, so sparkling to me that I could not put it down. “Lesbian coming of age story” is the most common description of this book, along with a note that it’s set in Victorian England. So there’ s a lot of lure here: you get a view of England from the lower and middle class, you get music halls, you get oyster houses, you get London, you get sex, and you get lesbian history. Pacing quickly becomes a non-issue.
Tipping the Velvet follows the first person narrative of Nan, who begins life as an oyster girl in Kent, falls in love with a music hall girl, then goes with her to London. Her adventures unfold from there, taking her first into a stage act as a “masher,” which is to say she dressed as a man then sang and danced. With Nan we rise to stardom, fall to heartbreak, slide into seedy (and rather unexpected!) acts of sex in London’s shadows, to the parlors and bedrooms of the rich, and into a community of “toms,” the Victorian slang for lesbians. We even meet a few “mary-janes,” (the “twinks” of the day). The story is deliciously but subtly sexy; it is shy and bold at once, and it is both groundbreaking and familiar. I’ve read reviews which lambast it for its predictability, but for me, this is part of the charm. I saw so many things coming from a mile away, but this became the safe framework from which I could explore the wild, wonderful world which Nan explored and I had never quite known was even there, not like this.
Nan was interesting, but never seemed quite accessible to me: she was only the vehicle by which I traveled. I hated Kitty from the start, but I was in love with Flo on sight, though she wrapped my heart in a bow when she bent over the table and pantomimed cunnilingus to clue Nan into the meaning of the slang term “tipping the velvet.” (I of course adored Ralph, since I married him.) The book for me was a journey, and adventure into a world I had never known and now am glad I do. The book also felt to me so very female in a way I’ve never quite noticed a book to be before. Not “women’s fiction,” which sends me sharply, quickly away–why is there always a picture of a dock, or an adirondack chair?–but a female book, full of life and power and sexuality, so rich it is sometimes blatantly raw. It was a novel of women so purely women they didn’t need men at all, and in fact, they could become them. I put the book down, frankly, wishing I were a lesbian so I could have Nan or Flo’s journey. And then, as I reflected, I realized what I really envied was the same thing I am attracted to in m/m stories: an experience I cannot have, and yet still long to know and understand.
How fitting that I should find Water’s novel in an exploration for “something new.” It was this new world–new worlds, for there were so many aspects of me that made me feel like I was stepping into a brilliant, uncharted plane–that made the book exciting for me. And, frankly? Reading lesbian sex in particular was wonderful. It felt safe and thrilling to me in a way that neither hetero nor m/m encounters ever have: it was a beautiful mirror into something I know rather intimately, and yet, I found I also knew hardly anything at all.
This book is a treasure. Anyone who likes reading sexy, romantic, and historical stories, no matter what your gender or orientation, should make haste to acquire this book.