Friday 25 November 2011

Devouring Books: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

I had such a difficult time with Tipping the Velvet (SUCH a wrong sentence, now that I know what tipping the velvet actually is...) to begin with because 1) I don't really read historical fiction, so the whole 'written in nowadays language but set in the past' thing was a bit jarring for me, and 2) the chapters are SO long. I mean, offensively long, especially for a person whose attention span has been permanently worn away by the internet (i.e. everyone). I mean, I've written less than a paragraph of this review, and I've already checked twitter about 5 times... Not. Good. So basically, if I hadn't wanted to read it for my GLBT fiction challenge that basically has a month to go (also not good...) then I probably would have returned it to the library, defeated and grumpy.

I'm really glad I did keep on reading though, because, despite my abhorrence for the length of the chapters, they kind of ended up flying by, and I desperately wanted to find out what was going to happen to Nancy, and whether she was going to survive the huge adjustment from being an oyster girl (and, this might just be me being gross, but is that some kind of euphemism..?) in Whitstable to a star in London. And really, this is Nancy's story above all- she goes from being a West End star, to a rent boy (which is exactly what you think it is) to being a 'Tom' (apparently oldspeak for lesbian) and kind of, eventually, finding herself. It's a great coming of age story, and, as I've said, I really like Nancy, especially towards the end of the book- basically in the whole of the last section.

The first section of the book basically concerns Nancy's first throes of love, for another woman, Kitty Butler, who she follows to London and eventually (like, finally!) has a relationship with, this relationship being entirely secret, and pretty unfulfilling for poor Nancy. I kind of really hate Kitty, for the way she eventually treats Nancy, but, at the same time, I kind of get that she is essentially a slave to what is 'right and proper' in society, and that she doesn't want to be seen as defective, or wrong in some way. Still kind of hate her though. But the first section was all good and cool, and then the second section was filthy! And I don't mean that Nancy becomes a chimney sweep, if you know what I mean (wink wink, nudge nudge). Like seriously, though, Nancy dresses up as a boy, gives gentlemen a good time (wink wink, nudge nudge some more), and then gets taken in as a lady's sex slave (ok, servant. Although actually, I'm not sure if she gets paid in actual money... Hmmm.) Also, the term 'Monsieur Dildo' is used more than once, and now I will always think of dildos as being french.

In short, the entire second section of the book made me do this:
(Have you seen New Girl? I like it, it makes me laugh!)

And the third section is, in my opinion, the best of the entire book, Nancy learns how to be a grown up and the meaning of true love and it's all flowers and puppies and rainbows. And, I don't want to give anything away because I really think you should just read the book, but you have to watch out for Florence, because she is my absolute favourite character, a total socialist feminist and all round awesome person, and if she was real, I'd totally be her girlfriend. Probably. Maybe just her good friend.

Anyway, now that I've given you an outline of the story, and probably RUINED IT FOR YOU FOREVER (although there's not much I've told you that you couldn't have gotten from the blurb. Except maybe for Monsieur Dildo...) let's talk about the homophobia of book reviewers. This might be taking things a bit far, but on the copy I got from my library, there's a quote from the Independent on Sunday (Damn. That's actually quite a good paper. But the Daily Mail probably burnt this book for being naughty...) that says "Imagine Jeanette Winterson on a good day collaborating with Judith Butler to pen a Sapphic Moll Flanders." Now, I've read some Winterson, and I think some Butler as well, and neither of those are as immensely readable as Waters, and Winterson can't write anything without going off on a million tangents (much as I do like Oranges are the Only Fruit). I was kind of confused by this association, and, as it turns out, Sarah Waters kind of is too. According to Wikipedia, here's what she has to say about it: "Waters credits Winterson as an influence in lesbian writing, but states that the books [this and Oranges] are quite different and her writing is not like Winterson's at all. Waters suggests that reviewers have bracketed them together because Winterson was the only other lesbian author they could recall." Oh Sarah, you're so canny! And reviewers, seriously, Emma Donoghue? I think she's a lot more like Waters than Winterson, if you simply must compare her to a lesbian author, and even that's a stretch. For shame!

Anyway, Tipping the Velvet, it's good! Get over the long chapters and get yourself a copy, and revel in the filth of Section 2 if that's your kind of thing. Me, I'll stick to the romance and realism of Section 3, if you have no objections.


  1. I can't read this book because I'm not a lesbian.
    p.s. except for you
    p.p.s. argh at the reviewers.

  2. Your review made me laugh so many times! I've been told that I need to read Sarah Waters in general and this book in particular.

    Who knew that all dildos were French? I certainly didn't, until just now.

  3. LOVE this book. Totes. Also, good call on her style not being like Winterson's because IT'S NOT AT ALL THEY JUST BOTH WRITE ABOUT LADIES KISSING LADIES. Stupid people lumping authors together.

    Also, I would totally date Flo too. Because she is *awesome*.

    "I've written less than a paragraph of this review, and I've already checked twitter about 5 times."


  4. @Frances- You're only a lesbian for me? Interesting... Or did you mean that only lesbians read this book except for me? (It's probably that one, huh?) LOL

    @Crowe- Literally my only life mission is to make people laugh. So, yay! Also, dildos are clearly french... I don't know why, but they just are!

    @Reading Rambo- I hate the author lumping, it's a bad time. But really, reading this didn't make me want to rip my eyes/brain out like reading Sexing the Cherry did, so that kind of makes me think that Waters and Winterson? Not the same. At all. And yay, Flo!!!!

  5. Only a lesbian for you.
    Love the idea of you screaming and running from the book like Jess running from the penis in that clip :)

  6. This was the first Waters book I ever read and I thought it was phenomenal!

  7. I don't read as much historical fiction as I used to, but Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue are always authors I've found I can depend on for a good story, and one that's well-written.

    Very nice review. :)

  8. @Frances- Totally did the squealing in my head. Possibly didn't actually run from the book... (Ok, I did.)

    @Lola- It really is great! I liked it a lot, anyway :)

    @Sally- I hardly read any historical fiction at all, which means this one was a bit tricky for me to start with- fortunately, it got really good! Also, love love love Emma Donoghue!