Title: Tipping the Velvet
Author: Sarah Waters
Page count: 472 pages
Rating: 4/5 stars
Trigger warnings: violence, NSFW language & scenes, lots (and I really mean LOTS) of sex scenes, prostitution
Spoiler warnings for this review: spoilerfree review
This delicious, steamy debut novel chronicles the adventures of Nan King, who begins life as an oyster girl in the provincial seaside town of Whitstable and whose fortunes are forever changed when she falls in love with a cross-dressing music-hall singer named Miss Kitty Butler.
When Kitty is called up to London for an engagement on “Grease Paint Avenue”, Nan follows as her dresser and secret lover, and, soon after, dons trousers herself and joins the act. In time, Kitty breaks her heart, and Nan assumes the guise of butch roue to commence her own thrilling and varied sexual education – a sort of Moll Flanders in drag – finally finding friendship and true love in the most unexpected places.
Several years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a BBC two-parter called Tipping the Velvet. I watched it, enjoyed it, and moved on, not really thinking much of it anymore.
Fast forward to this year, and I start watching more and more booktube. In the process, I keep coming across the book by Sarah Waters. I do think I already knew there was a book, I was just never quite curious enough to actually buy it. I finally did so earlier this year, just to leave it on my TBR stack for a while.
Then in September, I decided to start reading it – and finished it within 5 days. You’d think I really like it, wouldn’t you, with an average of almost 100 pages a day. You’d especially think so after seeing me rate it with 4 stars. But I think, technically, I’m more on the 3.5 stars side of things, and as time progresses I’m edging more towards 3 stars.
First of all: with almost 500 pages of dense text, this book is a Challenge. At least it is for someone like me, with tons of mindfog and regular issues with concentration. It’s a downright miracle I managed to finish it this quickly, in all honesty. Because when I say dense, I mean dense. The writing is beautiful, but it also forces you to pay attention to every single thing, which can be beautiful in itself but also, at times, exhausting.
If you noticed the word ‘steamy’ in the Goodreads summary, well. They’re not exaggerating. This book is full of sex. Ranging from uncertain exploring to full-out prostitution, it definitely gets steamy. At one point, I even started wondering if perhaps I’m asexual after all. Surely people don’t think this much about sex? Surely it’s not that important?
In all honesty, it felt like extreme sexualisation of lesbianism. Which, if you’re wondering, is definitely not a thing I’m a fan of.
As an exploration of lesbianism in Victorian England, this book was absolutely fascinating. I feel like I learned so much, from certain slang words to the kinds of subcultures and communities that existed at the time (and that, in all likelihood, have always existed, carefully hidden away). This books touches on topics like cross-dressing, sexuality, gender exploration, attraction. Romance, not so much. Don’t expect a nice, cute love story, because what you actually get is multiple love stories of different kinds of love, different kinds of attraction and infatuation. It’s a raw and elegant story at once, a story full of doubles and contradictions.
So which one do I prefer: the book or the BBC adaptation? I’m going to go ahead and be blasphemous, but I prefer the adaptation. There’s just something about this book that bugged me, and I haven’t put my finger on what that is yet. Is the sheer amount of sex? Is this book maybe just simply not my thing? I don’t know. I do know that whenever I see a different Sarah Waters book now, I feel strangely reluctant to go and buy it.
Still, I can absolutely recognize that this is, in fact, a good book. I’m glad I read it, and I would recommend it to you even if just because it’s obviously a piece of modern classic literature and a cornerpiece of the LGBTQ.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below!
And as always: take care, and I’ll see you again soon 🙂