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Tipping the Velvet

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Nan King, an oyster girl, is captivated by the music hall phenomenon Kitty Butler, a male impersonator extraordinaire treading the boards in Canterbury. Through a friend at the box office, Nan manages to visit all her shows and finally meet her heroine. Soon after, she becomes Kitty's dresser and the two head for the bright lights of Leicester Square where they begin a glittering career as music-hall stars in an all-singing and dancing double act. At the same time, behind closed doors, they admit their attraction to each other and their affair begins.

472 pages, Paperback

First published February 5, 1998

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About the author

Sarah Waters

35 books8,101 followers
Sarah Waters is a British novelist. She is best known for her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, as well the novels that followed, including Affinity, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch.

Waters attended university, earning degrees in English literature. Before writing novels Waters worked as an academic, earning a doctorate and teaching. Waters went directly from her doctoral thesis to her first novel. It was during the process of writing her thesis that she thought she would write a novel; she began as soon as the thesis was complete.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,724 reviews
Profile Image for La Petite Américaine.
207 reviews1,445 followers
February 19, 2011
It's not often that I like a book, so listen up and listen well.

If someone had given me the bare bones outline of Tipping the Velvet and suggest I read it, I'd have kindly told them to piss off. I have a job, a kid to raise, and an already low tolerance for contemporary fiction. A book about cross-dressing lesbians in Victorian England wouldn't spark enough interest in me to get past the title page.

Silly me. Good thing I thought that "tipping the velvet" was a reference to the theater (hint: it's not) and mistakenly believed I was buying a book about East End actresses. This mistake was a blessing, and this novel renewed my faith in modern fiction.

Tipping the Velvet carries a variety of themes that have bored me since my first Women's Studies classes in college: identity, cross-dressing, gender roles, and sexuality. Yet, alongside these nearly foreign concepts were the universal themes found in all great works of literature: passion, lust, betrayal, scandal, violence, redemption, and love. So, what did it leave me with? A book that shot a breath of life into all of those tired old themes. A book I couldn't put down, and not just for the positively raunchy (and at times touching) sex scenes that had me blushing to my hairline. No. What kept me hooked was the astoundingly good writing:

When describing being backstage at the theater after a performance, "I caught a glimpse of ladders and ropes and trailing gas-pipes; of boys in caps and aprons, wheeling baskets, manoeuvring lights. I had the sensation then - and I felt it again in the years that followed, every time I made a similar trip back stage - that I had stepped into the workings of a giant clock, stepped through the elegant casing to the dusty, greasy, restless machinery that lay, all hidden from the common eye, behind it."

When telling us about a dirty mirror, we're told that the "small looking glass [was] as cloudy and as speckled as the back of an old man's hand."

When discussing the ways of her tyrannical lover: "There is a way rich people have of saying 'What?' The word is honed, and has a point put on it; it comes out of their mouths like a dagger coming out of a sheath. That is how Diana said it now, in that dim corridor. I felt it pierce me through, and make me sag. I swallowed."

Yeah. Writing like that will keep you up at night.

The hot sex scenes? The bizarre gender roles that previously would have left me uninterested? The story itself? All just added bonuses. This chick could write about paint drying and make it fascinating. She makes cross-dressing, hooking, and other >ahem< "unmentionables" ;) seem completely exciting, alive, and blessedly normal. I love it.

Finally. A work of fiction that doesn't suck or make me feel like I've gotten dumber by the time I've finished it.

Profile Image for Matt.
936 reviews28.6k followers
September 4, 2020
“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it…”
- Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet

Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet is the gay Victorian epic you didn’t know you needed in your life. From its unsubtle opening come-on, to its sort-of pedantic ending, this is Charles Dickens with a twist. That twist – I don’t think this is a spoiler – happens to be a really specific description of a strap-on dildo.

In my reading life, I don’t think I’ve come upon something like this before. Likely, I wouldn’t have, but for a bit of luck.

By way of background, I’m a straight white male living in the conservative heartland of America who likes reading about the Civil War and drinking cheap white wine chilled with ice cubes. Just so we understand each other, I drink that wine out of a huge plastic wine glass that can almost be classified as a novelty.

Thus, when Sarah Waters sits down to write her novels, I am likely not the intended audience for which she spins her yarns. Possibly, I am the furthest thing from it. Nevertheless, great fiction transcends all bounds. In other words, despite being classified as “gay fiction,” this is really just great fiction, a premium example of sublime storytelling.

My first experience with Waters was at the end of 2014, with her novel, The Paying Guests. Intrigued by the marvelous reviews, and the promise of a little of the between-the-sheets action for which she is famous, I picked it up. Despite being far less risqué than I might have imagined – or hoped, if I’m being honest – it was an engrossing reading experience. This led me, by happy accident, to circle back to Waters’ first novel, Tipping the Velvet.

Tipping the Velvet is a huge, messy, fun saga, the aforementioned Dickens spiced with some of Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and more than a dash of My Secret Life. Imagine Pip from Great Expectations, except Pip is a headstrong lesbian who leaves his family, and Magwitch is a rich widow in the market for a cross dressing sex slave. That just about explains this sprawling, picaresque take on the classic coming-of-age story.

Set in the 1890s, Tipping the Velvet is narrated in the first-person by Nancy “Nan” Astley, a young woman born and raised in Whitstable, Kent, where she works in her family’s oyster restaurant. (Waters gets points for many things. Subtle symbolism is not among them). When Nan opens her story, she has just begun to fall in love – from afar – with Kitty Butler, a masher who sings popular tunes while dressed in men’s clothing at a nearby theater. Nan goes to watch Kitty every chance she gets. Eventually, Nan becomes her dresser. Later they become friends. Soon enough, like every plucky, Victorian-era protagonist, Nan leaves home to follow Kitty to the big city. She gets on stage. She becomes Kitty’s lover. She meets with some success.

And at some point, there is a bump on the road, and Nan’s real adventure begins.

This is a book that I almost gave up on. Like The Paying Guests, it starts slowly. And I mean real slow. The most fundamental part of a story is conflict, and Waters, who is a deliberative writer, carefully setting the stage and piling on details, keeps the road smooth for a long time. (Just over 150 pages, more or less). But once Nan’s newfound life gets a little shakeup, the rest of the novel’s pages move at a much quicker pace.

There are unforgettable supporting characters, unique set pieces (there is a bacchanal that trumps every party-scene in War and Peace), and a wonderfully recreated London, full of gritty, tactile details. Take, for instance, a description of a boarding room that Nan comes to inhabit:

The room to which she led me was cramped and mean and perfectly colorless; everything in it – the wallpaper, the carpets, even the tiles beside the hearth – having been rubbed or bleached or grimed to some variety of gray. There was no gas, only two oil-lamps with cracked and sooty chimneys. Above the mantel there was one small looking-glass, as cloudy and as speckled as the back of an old man’s hand. The window faced the Market…All I really saw, however, was the bed – a horrible old down mattress, yellow at the edges and blackened in the middle with an ancient bloodstain the size of a saucer – and the door. The bed, for all its rankness, seemed at that moment wonderfully inviting…

Tipping the Velvet is crammed with descriptions like this, from dance halls and back alleys to swank mansions and late-19th century gay bars. (Which is why it can be just as exasperating as it is thrilling). It is a London vaguely familiar from other novels, but peopled with a heretofore hidden gay community. It can be a bit exhausting, all the detail. Once the story starts careening, however, as it does around the halfway point, it becomes impossible to put down. The plot rambles propulsively from one extreme episode to another. I don’t want to spoil all the surprises, except to repeat there is a dildo, and it is given a word-painting that really imprints the thing in your mind.

Since I know you are wondering: There is sex within these pages. This should not surprise, since the title is slang for cunnilingus. Some of the sex is mildly graphic. Most of it, however, is contained within one extended sequence late in the book. You’ll know what part I’m talking about when you get there. Believe me, you’ll know.

Nan is an engaging narrator and an incredibly drawn character. I’ve often found first-person narrators to be under-written ciphers, a vessel through which to view the novel’s world. Not here. Nan is never overshadowed by the fascinating supporting cast she keeps running into. She is complex, and often unlikeable (often really unlikeable). She abandons her family, and essentially forgets about them. She tries to drag people out of the closet, kicking and screaming. She is sexually aggressive and utterly selfish. At times, she doesn’t seem worthy enough to warrant our continued attention. In the end, though, the roundedness of her personality, the good and the bad, makes her arc all the more moving. Nan has a lot of different experiences – singer, prostitute, housekeeper, activist – and she earns every bit of happiness she garners.

There are things I didn't love here. The plot is so expansive and digressive that it can feel directionless. This, coupled with the slow beginning, is enough to try one’s patience. Towards the end, Waters also gets a little preachy. Nan gets caught up in the labor movement, and we are treated to a slew of harangues that abruptly curb Nan’s hedonistic impulses. I bought the conversion, but just barely, and mostly because Waters had stored up some goodwill with me. Waters also hits certain themes hard, particularly the need to be true to your own identity. Tipping the Velvet is kind to those “toms” who boldly and openly live their lives, while pitying characters – such as Kitty – who want to keep their sexuality a secret. It’s a rather cruel dichotomy, especially given the setting.

Ultimately, I was rewarded by sticking through to the end. I’m always searching for the mythical “novel to get lost in.” I did not expect to find it in a lesbian bildungsroman, but that is exactly what happened.

I’m not in school anymore. There aren’t any teachers telling me what to read. I pick my own books, except when my book club picks them (and if I don’t like it, I don’t read the book, and pretend I did). I have a definite literary wheelhouse – a comfort zone. Of course, if you do the same exercise with the same muscle over and over, you plateau. Every once in a while, I try to shake things up, to dip outside what I obviously like and try something different. Sometimes that leads me to struggle with the canonical classics. Other times, it leads me to Sarah Waters. Reading Tipping the Velvet, with its new spin on old motifs, is like wandering a familiar city and finding a brand new part of town.
Profile Image for Maureen .
1,446 reviews7,062 followers
April 23, 2018
Nancy Astley was born in Whitstable, Kent in the late nineteenth century. She's from an ordinary, hard working family, and from a very young age she helped in her parents fish restaurant shucking oysters until her fingers were red raw with the icy cold water, used to keep the oysters fresh, but it was all she knew and she was happy with her life. She was loved by her parents and siblings alike, but when she entered her teens, the bright lights of a nearby music hall began to call to her. She loved the variety acts that performed there, but the momentous night that she watched a male impersonator named Kitty, well, that was to be the night that saw her turn her back on her loving family, and take her into a world that would put dear old coastal Whitstable and the Astley family firmly in the past.

This is a story of girl meets girl, as Nancy and Kitty begin a new life together amidst the bright ( and sometimes not so bright ) lights of London and its music halls. The author is truly gifted and describes the sights and sounds backstage that made me reminisce about my visits many years ago to the City Varieties in Leeds in the north of England, built in 1865, it's a theatre that is as authentic a music hall as it's possible to get these days. However, I digress, so onto the storyline - Nancy wants much more from Kitty, but Kitty is afraid that people will discover the fact that they are lesbians - let's not forget this was the late 1800's! Eventually Nancy will move onto another relationship, ( one that is both abusive and destructive, ) and which sees Nancy used as a cross dressing sex slave ) but not before she spends a spell as a prostitute ( albeit dressed as a male ) and performing sexual acts for other males. I know I seem to have mentioned sex a lot, and some of these scenes are quite explicit, but they are rightly included as they play an important part in the storyline, however for some of the characters, relationships were secondary to the sex within said relationship, so it was difficult for me to have much empathy with them.

Whoa, what a crazy mixed up life Nancy and her friends lead, but the author makes this an irresistible read, and even though they're a narcissistic bunch, they make for truly interesting subjects. All in all a very enjoyable romp that brings Victorian England ( with its staid and stuffy views ) very much to life.

* Thank you to Netgalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for my ARC. I have given an honest review in exchange*
Profile Image for Robin.
494 reviews2,733 followers
February 24, 2018
Oh, gag! I have SO many problems with this book. What the hell was this supposed to be, anyway? I will go through the possibilities:

Historical Fiction
Set in the late 1800's, in stuffy Victorian England... we meet Nancy, a young lady who falls fast and hard for another young woman performing in a theatre. Yadda, yadda, yadda, they're a couple. Yadda, yadda, yadda, Nancy is shocked that her sister doesn't accept this. Yadda, yadda, yadda, Nancy meets and beds pretty much every female that subsequently crosses her path. If the character has a vagina, Nancy is sure to be 'tipping the velvet' with her in short order. I'm not sure if Sarah Waters meant this to be historically accurate, but I just can't believe that it is, in any way. Young people in THIS century have a hard time coming out. But Victorian Nance is loud and proud? And never seems to suffer because of it? I just didn't see this as authentic to the time at all, aside from the costumes.

It does tick off this box, I suppose, with Nancy's 500 pages of pining for Kitty. And all the sexy girl/girl scenes. But then, dear god, please explain the ENDING to me which was so very politically earnest I forgot what book I was reading! A socialism rally with every single lesbian in London in attendance?

Literary Fiction
Sarah Waters is a decent writer. It's because of her storytelling, that I finished this book. But I just couldn't take it seriously. Was I meant to? I'm so confused.

In addition to all these complaints, I really disliked the main character. Nancy didn't endear herself to me at all. She turfs her family, thinking more about the various men's suits she wears than her parents and siblings. She mistreats her friends. She CHOOSES to work the streets, and isn't in the least bit damaged by it.

The more I think about it, it occurs to me that more than anything this is a re-write of history giving voice to relationships that certainly DID happen in the 1800's but no one talked about. I can get my mind around that, but somehow it doesn't raise my appreciation of this book much.
Profile Image for Fabian.
957 reviews1,623 followers
August 30, 2020
Call this the lesbian version of "Maurice."

Girl meets girl... & then another one... & then another! Odd that in the late 19th century England so many lesbians would all be out and about strolling the dirty streets. Even odder still that the heroine of the novel happens to stumble upon them all.

This took considerable research, I'm sure, and how cool is it to get this particular point of view?! The biggest mistake, however, was to give the narrative the first-person touch: making Nan King into a Bella-from-"Twilight"-type, i.e. clueless, trite, sometimes all too selfish girl, which eradicates any form of elegance that would have transformed this novel into something... much better. Plus, although it doesn't take too much imagination to guess what the title actually means, not until page 400 does the title finally make sense (& the primary reason I read this, I believe, had much to do with that strange title).
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,406 reviews11.7k followers
May 15, 2018
As seen on The Readventurer

Well, I definitely have never read anything like this before. I dare you to read this book's synopsis and not get curious at least a little bit. The moment I set my eyes on a short description of Tipping the Velvet on the 1001 Must Read Before You Die Books list, I knew I had to read it. Cross-dressing lesbians, kept women, music hall singers, renter "boys" - I mean, what's not to like?

First and foremost, this is a book about lesbians (my first!) and written by one at that, so as far as the relationships in this novel are concerned, they are authentic in my mind. (I don't know about you, but I just hate it when straight authors write "gay books," particularly erotica. What can they possibly know?) I found myself quite ignorant of how such relationships work. Lesbian relationships, contrary to my uneducated beliefs, can be as abusive and destructive as the heterosexual ones. And, of course, there is lesbian sex. A few fairly explicit scenes, but the book doesn't turn into an overly gratuitous trashfest.

Second, in spite of its scandalous premise, the book is historically accurate. It comes as a shock to find out that there was a whole strata of women exploring their (homo)sexuality so freely in 1890s. After reading Edith Wharton's novels where women are too afraid to even get a divorce, it is a revelation to know that there were society women who kept female lovers and organized orgies. This, however, doesn't mean that in this book women go around doing whatever they please. Waters accompanies Nan's erotic adventures with a solid social context - same-sex relationships have to be secret, women known as "toms" are stigmatized, there is a legal punishment even.

I personally found this book very interesting. An imperfect, but strong debut. It is erotic without being vulgar, well researched but entertaining, well written without being boring. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that it takes a while for the story to pick up steam. The first 130 pages are a little dull, but after that the novel is impossible to put down. Needless to say, Tipping the Velvet won't be my last Sarah Waters novel.

P.S. Due to the naked women on the cover this edition is a little challenging to read in public.
Profile Image for Amanda.
336 reviews64 followers
August 15, 2010

I knew that's all you wanted to hear about. I'm going to go on with my review, but you're welcome to stop reading now that you know the juicy stuff. And no, I will not go on to describe, in dripping detail, any of the aforementioned LESBIAN SEX SCENES. For shame, I know.

So anyway, a while back, my friend Coventry had piles and piles of books she was giving away and this was one of them. Seeing that it was written by Sarah Waters, I nabbed it immediately and placed upon my shelf, waiting for just the right time to read what I was sure would be a delightful sapphic treasure. I'd read another of Sarah Waters' books a couple years back and it was perrrrfet!

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

With Fingersmith as its predecessor in my personal library, I had such high expectations for Tipping the Velvet. Unfortunately, high expectations nearly always lead to the most crumbling downfalls.

I'll give you a rundown of the story ('cause I know you're not gonna read it, so don't be all whiney that I'm including spoilers, ok?)

Nancy is a young gal who falls madly and deeply in love with a pretty woman singer who subsequently invites Nancy to go on tour with her as her dresser. Nancy very soon becomes the woman's UNdresser as well (hubba hubba) and they go on like this for a while until one day Nancy returns home to find the woman singer in bed with (GASP!!!) a man. Gross, I know. So anyway, Nancy runs away, cries a lot, and hardly eats anything for like, 2 months, when she finally gets her shit together and becomes a prostitute. Or, well, maybe a gigolo is a better term for it--she dresses up as a dude and wanders the street blowing other dudes for sixpence. One day when she's off wandering the street, a horse-drawn carriage starts following her at a short distance (scary...), eventually stopping her on a dark corner to offer her "a ride." Well, you guessed it, the person in the carriage is a lady. The carriage lady is very rich and takes Nancy on as her concubine. So they go on for, like a year or something, with Nancy living in the rich lady's house and being a sex slave, when finally the rich lady gets sick of Nancy and kicks her out (after finding Nancy getting you-know-what-ed by the maid) with no money or clothes or anything. So Nancy runs to this house for wayward girls and poor young couples where she knows there's a bleeding-heart young woman working and the bleeding-heart young woman takes Nancy in and eventually they become lovers (of course) but then the pretty woman singer from the beginning shows up and says, "Nancy, come back to me!" But Nancy's like, "Hell no, bitch, you have a husband. Plus, my girlfriend is a super-popular, bleeding-heart socialist and all the honeys want her." So the singer goes away and Nancy and the bleeding-heart live happily ever after.

It doesn't sound like such a bad story, I guess, but the ENTIRE middle part was just so contrived and gratuitous that I almost stopped reading it a couple times. And truth be told, I only read about 3 sentences per page for one of the chapters. It's unfortunate really, because, like I said, I liked Sarah Waters' other book soooooo much. Even the ending of Tipping the Velvet, which I liked fine enough I guess, didn't redeem the middle (prostitution and sex-slave) parts. Oh well. At least I've learned that "tipping the velvet" means cunnilingus--titillating huh?!

I shall now go back to War and Peace to read of hairy-lipped Russian girls and their (only slightly) less-scandalous love lives.

In the meantime, I have two thoughts.
1. If I don't want my significant other watching porn, should I be allowed to read dirty books? I hate to put forth such a double standard... But I really REALLY don't want my significant other watching porn. (Not saying that he DOES.) Alas, a dilemma.
2. Nothing ever feels like a first love, does it? There is no going back. And nothing can compare, can it? *sigh*

Profile Image for Kelly.
23 reviews4 followers
April 27, 2008
It appears that currently the most common criticism of this book on goodreads is that it seems formulaic. Perhaps I am behind the times, but when did eloquent lesbian coming of age stories set in England 200 years ago become so commonplace as to even HAVE a formula?

Ultimately this is a love story embedded in a fluid tale of heart-pounding and heart-breaking moments over the course of Nan's life. Either the girl gets the girl/boy in the end, or the girl doesn't...predicting the ending with a fifty-fifty shot at getting it right does not make a book formulaic. IF, however, anyone who accuses this book of being so standard actually said to themselves in the first chapter "well I bet this innocent oyster girl winds up falling in love with a crossdressing vaudevillian entertainer who will shortly be introduced as a character..and after that love affair goes awry approximately midway through the story she will probably have to turn to dressing as a male prostitute who gives handjobs to old men to make ends meet" then I stand corrected. Personally, my internal magic eight ball didn't predict any of that.
Profile Image for Stacia (the 2010 club).
1,045 reviews3,982 followers
November 6, 2012
"I feel like I've been repeating other people's speeches all my life. Now, when I want to make a speech, I hardly know how."
"If you are fretting over how to tell me you are leaving-"
"I am fretting," I said, "over how to tell you how I love you; over how to say that you are the world to me."

3.5 stars. This was my first foray into the writing of Sarah Waters. According to my friends, I have been missing out on some great lit. Now I'm no longer out of the loop!

Tipping the Velvet follows a young lady named Nan over the course of several years. We start with the early stirrings of her new found sexuality as she finds herself gazing adoringly upon a young female performer dressed in male clothing. The story continues throughout the various changes in her life which force her to take a long internal look at not only how she views the world around her, but also at how she views herself.

This is my first experience with historical lit that subtly invokes moments which remind me of an artistic erotic painting - sensual, moving, yet not completely garish. The story of Nan is about more than just who she chooses to love. The sexual moments are merely one small part of a girl who is on the road to her own self-discovery.

The writing was absolutely beautiful. I loved Ms. Waters' descriptions of the setting, the clothing, and the characters. Little details were captured vividly in my head - even such insignificant things as when Kitty went to kiss Nan's hand and Nan drew it back out of fear that her hands would smell like the oyster liquor which came from her time of working at her parent's seafood house. The way that it was described almost made Nan even that much more charming - as if she were different in her own very special way by having an uncommon occupation.

One thing that I love to read about in books is when the story comes full circle. Every event in Nan's life shapes who she is in the next moment. Every event ties to the previous. I often talk about moments in time - this is a glimpse into the life of a girl who shared several rare moments with several rare and original personality types. This is part of what made the story special.

If you're looking for a traditional romance story, this will not be the book for you. However, if you're looking for a story about a character finding oneself, you might enjoy the journey of Nan King.
Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 2 books2,959 followers
April 30, 2018
I absolutely adored this, even more than Fingersmith. So well written, so engaging and moving. I love the exploration of Victorian society, especially of the Victorian lesbian underworld. At its heart, this is just a brilliant coming of age story (with a fair bit of romance thrown in).
Profile Image for Lotte.
559 reviews1,116 followers
April 16, 2020
4.5/5. That's it then. I've read everything Sarah Waters has published so far. And I just realised that the order in which I read her books goes from pretty tame/not much sexual content at all (The Little Stranger, my first Sarah Waters novel, and Affinity, my second) to medium amounts of sexual content (The Paying Guests, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, in that order) to quite a bit of sexual content indeed with Tipping the Velvet as my last one. (There's a dildo that plays, uhm, a prominent role in this book, so go figure. Also, did you know the title itself is a sexual innuendo?) All of that says absolutely nothing about the quality of the books obviously, I just thought it was an interesting coincidence. Aaaanyway. I loved this. It was more plot-driven and generally light-hearted than her other books and it's slightly ridiculous at times, but in a really fun way. I didn't know much about the plot going into it and like with Fingersmith, I think it's the best way to experience the story — just let yourself get swept along the journey that is Nan's life. But what is it then, you might ask? I'd say it's a Dickensian-style Victorian Bildungsroman and a queer romance, it's about the illusion of gender, about performing and subverting gender, and about theatre and performance in general. It's about trying to find yourself when you don't even know how to truly be yourself. That's all I want to say really. There were some turns the story took that surprised me and some I saw coming from a mile away and while this might've bothered me in another book, it didn't lessen my enjoyment of this one. Sarah Waters herself talks about the flaws of her debut in the afterword that's included in the 20th anniversary edition I read (she's right by the way, Nan really is a bit of a dick sometimes!). However, she also says that while her subsequent books are darker, more "serious" maybe, and she would've made a few different narrative choices if she wrote it today, she will always have a special place in her heart for the unabashed outlandishness of this book. Me too, man, me too. Okay, now to sit patiently and wait for her to write a new book ...
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,494 followers
February 24, 2016
So maybe I Googled "literary smut." So?

In the comments below my friends are all like, "and this is the best Google could do?" They're appalled. My friends have high smut standards? But the thing about the 1800s is they were basically the least smutty time in history, so a dildo goes a long way in that setting.

And that is Sarah Waters' goal, no mistake: she wants to bring smut back to the Victorians. Girl-on-girl smut, to be exact. In her own words, "lesbo Victorian romps." Certainly there were lesbo Victorian romps in the real Victorian olden days, but no one wrote them down because they were such a bunch of tightasses I don't know how anyone pooped. Waters has gone back to insert them. I'm not totally clear on the historical accuracy, and I don't think Waters is either; my feeling is that she's done her best (and she is a professional) but not sweated it too hard.

Anyway, on the all-important question of is it hot, my answer is yes. Super hot for literary fiction, by which I mean "books where the unhot stuff is also good"; pretty tame for erotic fiction. There are strap-ons. And lots of oysters. And socialism!

On the secondary question of is it good, my answer is hell yes: I was totally into this. It takes place in the 1890s as young Nan discovers she enjoys a good pair of pants; it tracks her through a number of misadventures involving pants. It's a bildungsroman. A lesbo Victorian bildungsroman. It's the lesbo Victorian bildungsroman we deserve. If this is the best Google can do for literary smut, it's quite good enough for me.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,018 reviews1,185 followers
May 2, 2018
First off, I would like to thank Sarah Waters for expanding my vocabulary. I can now dirty talk just like a 1890 White Chapel harlot and I love it! I learned new expressions for cunnilingus and clitoris with this book, and God knows you can’t have too many words to refer to those things. Moving on to the actual story!

I loved just about everything in “Tipping the Velvet”. This is the bildungsroman Dickens would have written if he 1) hadn’t been paid by the page and had 2) not been a middle-class hetero-normative straight man.

Nancy is reasonably happy helping her family run their oyster restaurant in Kent, but she feels like there is more to life than her humdrum existence, and she doesn’t really like being kissed and touched by her beau… One day, she goes to the theater and sees Kitty on stage. Kitty is a “masher”: she sings show tunes wearing men’s outfits. Suddenly, Nan’s eyes are open and while she can hardly admit to herself how she feels, she falls in love with Kitty. She leaves her family to follow Kitty to London, where she becomes her dresser and assistant… and yes, the two eventually become lovers. But just like any honeymoon, this state of bliss doesn’t last and Nan is soon launched into the sort of life Mr. Dickens has never written about!

“Tipping the Velvet” has great characters: very human, with strong feelings and personalities. Nan’s voice is in turn naïve, cynical, heartbreaking and passionate. She is very caring but she can also be selfish and rough. The plot follows about 5 years of life and takes the reader from the humble oyster shack to the squalid city theaters, the fancy villas and the working class slums with vivid, often darkly humorous descriptions. Even if you don’t like Nan, you will want to follow her in her adventures through a London we don’t hear about very often: the mysterious gay underground of the Victorian era. There you will meet hedonistic and perverted ladies, passionate political activists, hard-working transvestites and dreamy stars of the theatre who will help shape Nan’s character, help her find herself and grow. Waters is very sensitive to the wide range of emotions a young person goes through when they fall in love for the first time, lose their innocence and hope, have to learn to fend for themselves, and Nan is a character you can believe in and root for.

Waters’ writing is beautiful, her prose flows conversationally and her story-telling gift keeps you engaged until the very last page. The way she describes this London that I had never heard of before (I knew there was a gay community in Victorian London, of course, but I had absolutely no idea what it could have possibly been like) was so fresh, stuffed with fascinating historical details and it never fell into the trap of romanticising the era to pander to the reader. You get the sumptuous gowns and the lovely ball rooms, but you also get the filth of back alleys and cheap boarding houses: the city she writes is a palpable and lively setting for her unconventional story.

Yes, there is sex in the book, and yes, it occasionally gets explicit. But I’m not sure it makes “Tipping the Velvet” erotica: a lot more than sex happens in those pages, and some of it is far from titillating. But when there is sex, it’s often more tender than raunchy. So look somewhere else for your smut fix!

Any fan of historical fiction would enjoy this book, even more so if you like the work of dear Mr. Dickens and like me, wished he had been a bit more realistic about his female characters. It’s an entertaining, daring, touching and satisfying novel that I warmly recommend to everyone.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,218 reviews9,915 followers
February 13, 2018
This is Sarah Waters’ first novel and is a very straight(ha)forward tale of the life of Nancy Astley from age 18 to age 26 as she makes her lesbian progress from Whitstable, Kent to Bethnal Green, London, from oyster girl to music hall star to toy boy (ha) and beyond. I see other reviews have duffed up Tipping the Velvet on account of it’s not got the pyrotechnic plot of Fingersmith or The Paying Guests. This is like complaining that A Hard Day’s Night is rubbish because it is not anything like Sgt Pepper.

So this is a tour of lesbian London, 1890s-style. There is love, there is heartbreak, there are songs, laughter and dildos. I have read some reviews which have lavished praise over TTV because of its saucy sex scenes. But these reviewers can not have rented the movie Blue is the Warmest Colour, or spent the idlest 20 seconds googling. TTV is quite saucy, but society has moved right ahead with lesbian erotica in the 20 years since it was published.

And thirdly, I read reviews which say that our heroine Nancy is horrid, self-centred, stupid and totally uncaring of other people’s feelings. Why, sure she is, but who says a novel’s protagonist has to be nice? I don’t see the same criticism being levelled at The Bible.

What I did notice, which I thought was more than a little corny, was that in the final long scene all Nancy’s past inamoratas pop up one by one so that our heroine can finally come to terms with all the aspects of her wayward life and be able to move into the new century with gladness in her heart. Well, you have to wrap up your 500 page first person lesbian novel somehow, but the ending was pure Notting Hill/When Harry Met Sally/The Graduate and rather grisly.

But still, the ins and outs (ha) of this long Sapphic peregrination with its nervewracking Nancy, conflicted Kitty, dreadful Diana and Fabian Florence hardly ever flags. Hey, it’s a good read!

3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
662 reviews96 followers
November 21, 2018
BookRiot 2018 Read Harder Challenge #20: A book with a cover you hate
(Why does my cover have stripper poles? What does this even have to do with the story? Why is it the ONE time everyone at work wanted to know what I was reading, it was when I was carrying this around?)

In the closing decade of the 19th century, a young woman named Nancy, who until then had lead a happy but unexceptional life working at her family's seafood restaurant in Kent, goes to the theatre one night, sees a female singer dressed in men's clothes, and it ends up profoundly changing her life.

How you gonna keep them down on the oyster farm once they've seen a drag king?

This was Waters' debut novel, and she's certainly qualified to tell the story--her PhD was on the subject of gay life and pornography in Victorian England (it's where she found the title phrase, Victorian slang for.....you know what, just Google it.) You also might glance at the description and then start reading the book and think there isn't enough story here to last nearly 500 pages, as I did.

But you'd be wrong. This story careens off in all kinds of directions and is thick with the atmosphere of fin de siecle London. You'll learn a lot about the lives of 19th century lesbians of varying classes, in an age where class was paramount in shielding you from scorn and worse for violating prevailing social mores. Also, if you have an annual quota for literary strap-on references, look no further. The story does have a few graphic sex scenes, something I can at times be less than thrilled about, but they are well-written and important to the plot so I didn't have a problem with them (and unlike a lot of sex in literary fiction, the writing didn't devolve into a fetishistic fascination with bodily functions. I'm looking at YOU, Call Me By Your Name.)

I also have to mention that at one point the characters go to a lesbian bar--I know Waters did her research but holy cow, that was still surprising--called The Man in the Boat. I cannot stop laughing at that name, because evidently I'm still 12.

I did like this and Waters writes well. I didn't love it though, I think mainly because I just didn't connect with many of the characters. I was interested in Nancy and I admired how Waters wasn't afraid to make her unlikeable at turns. Zena the maid and Nancy's dad were my other favorites. The rest of the cast just didn't really spring to life and I can't really place just why that is. I also found the ending, where in the course of one afternoon Nancy separately encounters everyone from her romantic past, kind of far-fetched. It did honestly ruin the story a bit for me to end on such an unrealistic, sappy note.

Still, this was enjoyable and I'd read Sarah Waters again. This was her first novel, after all.
Profile Image for Sara.
1,124 reviews363 followers
November 24, 2017
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I first read this novel in 2011, and before that I watched the BBC programme featuring Rachael Stirling and Keeley Hawes, and I remember being as captivated by Kitty as Nan was. So when I saw this as an ARC I knew I wanted to dip back into this unique tale of love in Victorian Britain.

Kitty was still as captivating and self centred as I remembered, and I still loved her for it. She knows Nan is utter devoted and besotted and plays her like a fiddle. Nan is naive, new to the bright lights of music halls and love. As the novel progresses we see Nan go from mooning, heartbroken girl to male prostitute (yes, really) to music hall marvel, with an acceptance of herself.

Is it a classic piece of literature? Well, that depends on what you'd call 'classic', but it's well written, well researched about music hall life and great fun - although the pace is slow at the beginning.
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews585 followers
August 17, 2017
Grrrr, that ending ! ... anyway.

Tipping the Velvet is the fourth Sarah Waters book I have read. Fingersmith and the The Paying Guests being ones I have particularly enjoyed. This book, as to be expected in a first novel does have some creaky bits, however Waters passion for research is on full display. Packed full of details on dance halls, lesbian subcultures, socialism, class and other more salacious details about life on the streets of Victorian London. As titillating as it sets out to be I found it a little dull, particularly the last third. Generally I would conclude from this book I am not a romance reader as I found myself doing a lot of eye-rolling at all the rapidly beating hearts and sweaty palms of the first section. Much later in the story I think I was wishing for the innocent hand-holding sections back again.

Another problem preventing my full enjoyment was I really did not like the main character of Nan King. It is entirely possible we were not suppose to like her as she is vain, selfish, and preening by turns and seemed to cast her affections wildly about the place in ways I didn't quite understand.
However, as the book is almost entirely her story it became tiresome to read about her so constantly. I felt particularly sorry for all the people she cast aside at various points in her "journey of self-discovery". I suspect the ending was set up to right all these wrongs but the way this was engineered was so ridiculous that I was pretty happy when I could finally be rid of Nan King and her adventures.

A good read for Sarah Waters completists but not for the faint of heart ;)
Profile Image for Elinor.
158 reviews91 followers
May 22, 2021
This is something else.

Enter a world of sapphic love and desire featuring Nancy (loosely inspired by Zola’s Nana), Kitty the “masher”, Diana the huntress, a gently blossoming Florence, and a flurry of lesser yet equally entertaining characters.

The tantalising story of Nancy Astley unfolds from her youth as an oyster-girl in Whitstable to her discovery of lesbian love, lust, and pleasure in late 19th century London.

The capricious and frivolous nature of Nancy belies the importance of her journey. She fumbles and falls trying to define herself, running from the past at break-neck speed, while at the same time hiding her present like a precious jewel never to be spoiled. But the present inevitably passes, and the past never truly is passed.

Sometimes lubricious, always brave, and often risqué, the style, with slang in all the right places, and queers and gays and toms, has an almost poetic ring to it. It conjures up people and whole scenes in vivid colours, or browns and greys.

This book made me laugh and cry, and feel, and remember, and think, and look at myself in the then and now. This was certainly a necessary novel at the time it came out (ha!); I would have found it irresistible and scandalous had I read it then, and I thoroughly enjoyed it two decades on.
Profile Image for Jem.
408 reviews273 followers
February 20, 2016
A friend once told me she doesn't like historical lesfic because the sex is so underwhelming and I agree. Until I read this book. ;) An amazon reviewer calls it 'Victorian porn'--sounds like an oxymoron, doesnt it? Unabashed eroticism in a period of prudishness and high morality. In the context of modern lesfic, this book isn't much more erotic than our usual diet of lesfic romances. But perhaps the idea of same sex relationships, and some of the more risque situations and uhm...maneuvers made readers uncomfortable. :) I do wonder though, how they missed the masterful writing, the attention to detail, the amazing characterizations, and all the other little things that elevate this book to a classic.

'Tipping' follows the adventures of a young lady from her humble oyster-girl beginnings, to her accidental but no less impressive rise fronting London's performance halls, to her fall into ignominy along the back alleys of the city and the dark recesses of secret clubs and gatherings and her eventual attempt at redemption. It is a lush and sensous tale about a young woman's coming-of-age and coming-out. We get to see another side of Victorian-era London that we rarely read about, populated by mashers, toms, renters, mary-annes, tarts, (translatio: male impersonators, lesbians, prostitutes, ???) and their patrons and keepers.

The book is a feast for the senses. The sights, sounds and smells of places like the oyster parlors in Whistable, the rowdy halls in Canterbury and West End, the dank london back alleys, the dreary working-class neighborhoods--all are so vividly illustrated we are instantly transported there. All the characters are so well drawn, most especially the main character Nan. Love her or hate her, it's impossible not to feel for her. There is a long stretch in the book where Nan descends into a self-pitying and self-absorbed mess, and buries herself in the hedonistic pleasures provided by the rich and idle. I considered not finishing the book at this point, but the excellent writing and the promise of better things to come (I peeked at reviews ;) kept me reading. And what a reward it was.

Profile Image for Regina.
625 reviews394 followers
September 12, 2022
I wish there were more books like this story out there. Stories about groups of people in past time periods that have previously not been written about are very interesting. We seem to have an uncountable number of books about rich debutantes and heiresses during the Victorian era but not many about working class oyster girls, performers and lesbians. And I am on the record saying I want more books about oyster girls, performers and lesbians -- of any era.

Tipping the Velvet can be generically described as a coming of age and self discovery book. It promises a happily ever after -- one perhaps not imagined but which is rewarding. Sarah Waters has a way with words. Her descriptions of sight and smell create atmosphere and absolutely textually enhance the story. The main character -- "Nan" - is one that I slowly began to root for and like but not a character I necessarily started off caring for. What struck me is how different the world I live in today is from even just the recent past. I cannot imagine having to abandon my family (perhaps) and be completely circumspect about my partner all because my partner was the same gender as myself. And of course I can't imagine that because I have never truly had to do that. Sarah Waters brings such sacrifices and unknown privilege to her readers but she does so in the guise of a beautiful and rewarding story. And yes, there are explicit scenes in this novel.

An interesting aspect of the story is that to be free of the female gender role is to dress as a man and go out in public as a man. Women of this era lived highly restrictive lives and had very restrictive opportunities, but dressing as a man provided a freedom not only from male attention but from the restrictions imposed on females during this era. Being a woman as such a role was a defined during this era was by default limiting. Ms. Waters, plays with this concept. I have read one other book by Waters -- Affinity -- in both novels she effectively equates a woman's prescribed role and a woman's limitations in a society with a society's judgment of distaste for same-sex relationships.

What really surprised me, is the acceptance by several characters of the same sex relationships. I have no framework from which to criticize their acceptance and I hope there was acceptance but I guess I am doubtful if such acceptance is historically accurate.

But if you don't want to go heavy and think about societal analysis, you don't have to. Tipping the Velvet is beautifully written, interesting and yeah there is sex.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,162 reviews1,261 followers
February 6, 2013
Here is me reading this book:

Part 1: Yes!
Part 2: Whaaaa?
Part 3: Um, okay.

Be warned: there be spoilers below. This book has a very clear and traditional structure, so once you recognize its contours there aren't many surprises, but my review gives away a lot.

Tipping the Velvet seems to have a reputation as some kind of lesbian erotica. (That got your attention, didn't it?) The cover features a pair of strippers*, the blurb praises the book as "erotic," and even the title, as it turns out, is a Victorian euphemism for a sex act. I've got to think this is mostly about marketing, because there are no strippers in the book, and while there are a few fairly explicit sex scenes, it's not so far out of the norm for adult fiction.

*I actually read the stripperiffic edition, although I've shelved a different one.

So, what is this book actually about? Coming of age, with an emphasis on relationships. Nancy, our narrator, begins the story as a typical 18-year-old girl living on the Kentish coast in the 1880s. But her life is turned upside-down when she falls hard for a cross-dressing music hall singer, and the story follows her for the next several years until she finally discovers what she wants from life and love.

So here is the part where I talk about plot details. Part 1 is great; I was very quickly drawn into Nancy's life and the intensity of her first love. The story is fun and exciting and Nancy is easy to relate to. Then, inevitably, things go sour, and Nancy runs away from her former life, to emerge as a "male" prostitute. Suddenly she's gorgeous and frivolous and lazy, bearing little resemblance to the person she was in Part 1. Part 2 seems deliberately over-the-top, with Nancy's choices representing the way people might feel (rather than actually behave) after their first nasty breakup. It's entertaining, with lots of sex and crossdressing, but mostly left me confused.

Then comes Part 3, in which Nancy of course finds true love. I liked this better than Part 2, and Nancy starts to make some sense again, but it doesn't quite come together. There's little reason for the two characters to be together beyond physical attraction and proximity, and too much character development is put off till the final pages, with the curtain closing on a flurry of epiphanies.

Even for a coming-of-age story, Nancy is quite the chameleon, so while she's interesting to read about, her personality is elusive. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is well-drawn and interesting. This is one of those books that shows a whole cross-section of society, and it depicts life in Victorian London in great detail, bringing the setting alive in all of its sights, sounds and smells. The book wears its research lightly: grounded in the historical period and fascinating in its detail, but without the research getting in the way of Nancy's adventures.

The panorama of lesbian life at the time (from rich ladies' clubs to the working-class women who gather in the basement of a pub) is especially intriguing, and I appreciate that, unlike much of the fiction I've encountered featuring LGBT characters, the story never turns into a tale of persecution and discrimination. Certainly those tales should be told, and Waters doesn't lose sight of the fact that Victorian England was hardly a paradise of equality. But it's nice to read a different kind of story, and one that focuses on the protagonist's own choices and growth rather than other people acting on her.

Overall, a fairly good book. The writing is noticeably better than average, although I wouldn't quite call it literary, the historical background is excellent and the characterization good. The story doesn't live up to the expectations the first 100 or so pages created, which is why I give 3.5 stars. But it is still worth a read.
Profile Image for Ria.
456 reviews65 followers
January 6, 2020
''I had come to Quilter Street to be ordinary; now I was more of a torn than ever.''


I don't know if I wanna rate this 4 or 5 stars because the start was so fucking slow and a bit boring but FUCK after like chapter 3-4 I couldn't put it down. I spent all day reading this and now I have a headache.
People say it reminds them of Charles Dickens. Dickens doesn't interest me, meaning I haven’t read his work, so I can't comment on that.

''You smell.......Not at all like a herring, But perhaps, maybe, like a mermaid."
I thought that it was gonna be cringy and bad because of shit like this but I was wrong.

It’s smutty and I somehow didn't mind all the fucking.

I can't say if it was historically accurate or not so here is what Sarah said: ‘’ Tipping the Velvet was never intended to be a work of historical realism. Instead, it offers a 1990s-flavoured lesbian Victorian London, complete with its own clubs, pubs and fashions. It conjures up an antique lesbian lingo, using, or cheerfully misusing, some of the words and phrases – “toms”, “mashers”, “tipping the velvet” itself – that I’d come across in dictionaries of historical slang and in 19th-century pornography. And it makes frequent little nods to lesbian and gay icons and classic queer texts – to Dorian Gray, Hadrian and Antinous, Woolf’s Orlando, Zola’s Nana, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, Henry James’s The Bostonians ... The very patchiness of lesbian history, I was trying to say, invites or incites the lesbian historical novelist to pinch, to appropriate, to make stuff up. I wanted the novel not just to reflect that, but to reflect on it, to lay bare and revel in its own artificiality.’’

I don’t really like historical fiction or reading about the Victorian era because most of the time it’s boring but I really wanted to read Sarah Waters and I finally found one of her books on sale… I’m glad I read it because I loved it. I don’t wanna say much because I think that going into this without knowing much about it is a great choice.

''It is always fun before they catch you.''

I need to watch the TV show.
Profile Image for Mel.
648 reviews78 followers
October 17, 2016
My review on Prism Book Alliance...

Lambda Literary Award winner in 2000, TIPPING THE VELVET tells the story of young Nancy Astley.
She first finds her way from the simple life of an oyster girl, still living with her parents, to London in the 1880s, following her heart and the woman who caught it, into a live of performance and glamour and love.
Later on, she discovers her sexuality in the hands of another woman, a rich lady who takes Nancy in as a kept girl.
In the end, however, after ups and downs, she finally becomes a woman who has found her identity, love, purpose, and a home.

Nancy’s journey is not an easy one, yet it is quite extraordinary. I could identify with her on many accounts.
Leaving your parents behind and moving into another world leaves you estranged and brings upon a change that you can’t quite bridge.
Searching for love and for one’s self, growing up, is not easy and often brings us to places that are not ideal but that we wouldn’t want to have missed because otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are now.

In much detail and vividly written, Sarah Waters let’s us dive into another world in another time. The historical setting comes alive and can be easily experienced.
The author’s writing style gripped me from the very first sentence and it still makes me smile because I never knew I wanted to know so much about oysters :)
The writing is not flowery, yet time-appropriate and quite beautiful, like you can see in this quote where Nancy talks about Kitty, her first love:

‘When I see her,’ I said, ‘it’s like – I don’t know what it’s like. It’s like I never saw anything at all before. It’s like I am filling up, like a wine-glass when it’s filled with wine. I watch the acts before her and they are like nothing – they’re like dust. Then she walks on the stage and – she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet … She makes me want to smile and weep, at once. She makes me sore, here.’ I placed a hand upon my chest, upon the breast-bone. ‘I never saw a girl like her before. I never knew that there were girls like her …’ My voice became a trembling whisper then, and I found that I could say no more.

TIPPING THE VELVET is solely written from Nancy’s point of view and divided into three different parts.
While the first one is very romantic and lush and, in a way, very innocent, the second part is quite the opposite. I found it to be very interesting but also hard to witness in parts. Part three seems like a revival after the storm, and concludes with a very satisfying ending.

Prominent themes throughout the book are sexual and gender identity, love, survival, and personal and social change. If you are interested in these topics, you should definitely give this book a try. I enjoyed reading this very much and I will surely read more books by the author.

Genre: lesbian historical fiction
Tags: theater/dancing, love, gender, sexuality, London 1890
Awards: Lambda Literary Award 2000
Profile Image for Bonnie.
1,376 reviews930 followers
November 15, 2015
Interested in more of my reviews? Visit my blog!

4.5 stars
Sarah Water’s debut novel set in 1890s London is a delightfully shocking tale of exploring the boundaries of gender roles in the Victorian era. It's about finding out who you really are and being comfortable in your own skin and about overcoming heartache and finding love again.

The Storyline
’And was there at her side a slender, white-faced, unremarkable-looking girl, with the sleeves of her dress rolled up to her elbows, and a lock of lank and colourless hair forever falling into her eye, and her lips continually moving to the words of some street-singer’s or music-hall song?

That was me.'

Nancy is an oyster girl who works quite dutifully in her parent’s restaurant. It’s not until she goes with her sister Alice to Palace, an old-fashioned music hall, that her life is changed forever when she sets eyes on Kitty and sees her performance for the first time.

’Piercing the shadows of the naked stage was a single shaft of rosy limelight, and in the centre of this there was a girl: the most marvelous girl – I knew it at once! – that I had ever seen.’

When Nancy becomes intent on catching Kitty’s eye and having her notice her she begins going back to the Palace every night just to see her again and again. When Kitty throws a flower to Nancy in the crowd the two finally meet afterwards and a friendship is cultivated that slowly becomes much much more. Nancy becomes Kitty’s dresser and when she is offered a job in London Nancy decides she simply must go with her.

The story continues to develop and as time progresses the two become even closer and eventually become lovers as the two eventually team up together on stage.

’The act, I knew, was still all hers. When we sang, it was really she who sang, while I provided a light, easy second. When we danced, it was she who did the tricky steps: I only strolled or shuffled at her side. I was her foil, her echo; I was the shadow which, in all her brilliance, she cast across the stage. But, like a shadow, I lent her the edge, the depth, the crucial definition, that she lacked before.

Final Thoughts
What follows is simply the beginning of Nancy’s story and it’s quite a memorable one. I must admit there were parts that were quite shocking that I wasn’t expecting (like when I found out what Tipping the Velvet really meant… haha!), but that was the beauty of the story, the beauty of Nancy’s story. The writing was honest, the characters were vibrant, and I loved each and every page. Sarah Waters is an absolutely gorgeous writer. Her words will intrigue you, they will astound you, and you won't be able to get them out of your head. I can’t wait to get my hands on more from her.
Profile Image for Viv JM.
694 reviews153 followers
June 4, 2017
Sarah Waters is a great storyteller, and she infuses her books with a marvellous sense of time and place, but this book just didn't really hit the spot for me. The main character just didn't seem terribly believable - the transformation from . I was expecting something a bit racy but found the erotic parts startlingly un-erotic, just a bit bawdy. Not terrible, but not my favourite Sarah Waters book of the three I've read (I really enjoyed Fingersmith and The Little Stranger)
Profile Image for Ygraine.
574 reviews
September 27, 2016
i felt strangely (or perhaps, not so strangely) heartbroken when i had to close this book. i forget, i think, how much i need fictional spaces that speak with tenderness and care of the thousands of ways that women can love women. i forget how deeply i feel their friendships and their intimacies and their fierce loves, how hungry i am to be reminded of the jealousies and all the hurts that a life accumulates, gathers to itself and nurses, but of the healing too, of falling in love again and again, of learning and relearning what it means to want women and to choose women, unafraid and unashamed.
Profile Image for Bill.
948 reviews316 followers
April 18, 2017
I've been duped...

Last year, approaching Summer, I saw a tweet from Stephen King recommending summer reads.
One of the suggestions was "anything by Sarah Waters", and that led to comments such as "ingenious storytelling". Well, that hooked me, and shortly after I read Fingersmith. Yes, I was in full agreement: ingenious storytelling, indeed.

So fast forward a year later, Tipping the Velvet is on my reading list, and I'm in a severe reading slump.

Now, I know that Waters' novels have a lesbian aspect to them. This was was evident in Fingersmith, and was an integral part of the story. But it wasn't THE story. This was a fantastic, twisting, turning plot that had me burning through the pages, wondering where the story was going to take me next. It was brilliant.

I also tore through Tipping the Velvet because I knew, based on all these "ingenious storytelling" raves, I trusted that eventually she was going to turn this tale on its ear. The pages went on and on, and I patiently persevered. Aaand then it was over.

Tipping the Velvet is a well loved novel, but not because of a twisting plotline. This is a loved novel because it explores what lesbianism and women's rights were like in the 1890s. It is predominantly a lesbian romance novel.
And that's fine. Sure, we can also call this an Important novel. But for my money, to stand this beside Fingersmith as a great and interesting caper and ingenious story? I'm sorry, but I'm left feeling woefully short-changed. And that is because I was expecting another Fingersmith. Oh well.

Still, a finely written novel: Waters has a way of writing significantly while being unpretentious about it. And despite the fact that I had grown supremely annoyed with Nancy's self-centeredness, I would still recommend this to those looking for an Important Lesbian Romance Novel. Unfortunately, I was not. Thus my two star rating, and this in no way dissuades me from reading more of her.

Actually let's give another .5 for the steamy scenes...yowza.
Profile Image for Ioana.
274 reviews357 followers
March 11, 2015
I despised this book, despite its being well written, and despite its great premise and promise, for two major reasons: the one-dimensional, juvenile, egotistical, selfish characters and the absolutely inaccurate "historical" setting.

Point #1: The main character, Nan, might just be the most detestable person I have encountered in a work of literature; she is SO completely unbelievably self-centered: everything exists for her in terms of happiness it brings to HER directly, including her love for Kitty (which is anything but selfless and caring: it's compulsive and psychotic). Despite having an accepting, loving family, when Nan goes off to London and makes loads of $$, she never sends any back to help her poor relatives, in fact, she cuts off most ties with them; when Kitty talks to another woman (or man), she gets insanely jealous. There are so many ways in which Nan's unappealing personality manifests, and it would be fine if Waters demonstrated that she, the author, knew that Nan is growing from a selfish teen to a more grounded adult, but in her writing, it is clear that Waters likes the character she created and sees her as flawed, but otherwise just as average in her perfection as everyone else (this is hardly the case: Nan doesn't just have flaws like the rest of us, she is an utterly detestable human being and has no redeemable qualities to speak of).

Point #2: The historical setting is a badly painted set in a theatrical production: obviously fake, obviously glossy and one-dimensional and lacking the ability to bring the story believably into the 19th century. Somehow, Nan doesn't understand why people would be aghast to learn of her relationship with Kitty (this is totally ridiculous; even today, most teens have difficulty "coming out" to their families, for example, even if their families are accepting - imagine not understanding, in the 19th century, that not all members of society would accept a lesbian relationship ). Also: Nan's family's acceptance of her moving to London with an entertainer is absolutely unbelievable (for a nineteenth century family); the fact that Alice "walks out" with a boy for a long period of time (around a year!), but then changes "boyfriends" is totally ridiculous (people used to get married in months, if not weeks, and ladies certainly didn't "date around" in the 19th century). So, in general, the relationships in the book are basically 21st century situations transposed something like 1.5 centuries into the past. Also: Waters writes the setting without any attention to the actual social conditions of the time; even when characters are described as poor, their poverty doesn't materialize- we don't experience the grittiness of the workhouse or even of working the streets, the hardship in procuring food and the like.

Oh, and then there's the pornography... Not interested: MM, FF, MF, MFF, whatever, I don't care to read pages and pages of erotica dressed up as a novel.

Conclusion: Tipping the Velvetis absolutely one of the worst-books-ever.
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