A few weeks ago, I was on my way home from uni and realised I didn’t have a book. When I nipped into a second-hand book shop, I saw a book by Sarah Waters, and I remembered that the Amazon page for “Leda Grey” says that book is suitable for fans of Waters. So why not go the other way around, I thought?
Wow. That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because it ended with me reading “Tipping the Velvet”.
Going in, I expected to find a book set in the Victorian period, full of lush descriptions and excellent period detail. I certainly got all of that. What I didn’t expect was for the book to be set in Kent and London in places that I know quite well, which was a charming addition, or for the book to be so fabulously, unabashedly gay.
“Tipping the Velvet” is the story of Nancy Astley, a sheltered eighteen-year-old from Whitstable who, after meeting male impersonator Kitty Butler at their local theatre, falls passionately in love with her and manages to develop a friendship with her, becoming her dresser. When an opportunity arises for Nan to leave London to be with Kitty in London, she grabs it with both hands, eventually becoming Kitty’s partner on stage as well as her lover. But the world of the theatre is a dangerous one and Nan’s new life does not end up being all it seems.
Lesbianism is at the very heart of this book. The protagonist is a lover of women whose acceptance of that element wavers over time, and we also see other women who love from women, from those comfortable with that to those, like Kitty, who find it a horrific element of themselves. If I explain that the title of the book is a Victorian slang term for cunnilingus, that tells you all that you need to know about where its focus lies.
It’s a deeply erotic and sensual book about amazing characters whom you can love and loathe in equal amounts. Waters’ writing style is an absolute joy to read, full of gorgeous descriptions and amazing metaphors. It utterly blows my mind that I’ve never come across Waters before because her writing is everything I want from fiction: heartbreakingly beautiful, painful and oh so real in so many ways.
To be honest, I’m struggling to say anything more about it. There’s nothing else much to say beyond it’s a book that I think everybody should read. If you’re interested in historical fiction, if you’re interested in lesbian fiction, if you’re interested in music hall or explorations of gender and class, or if you just like books that are beautifully written and fun to read, pick up this book.
Waters has five more books out now and I hope that, during this year of book reviews, I manage to pick up and read every single thing she’s written. If I do, it will have been time most excellently spent.
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