For some reason this debut novel passed me by when it was published. I knew about it and thought I knew what the phrase “Tipping the Velvet” referred to . If you don’t then read the book as I have come over surprisingly coy today!. (Although like many of the best titles it can be interpreted in different ways). I just never got round to reading it.
When a television series was made of the novel in 2002 the tabloids had a field day. The Daily Mail, in particular, thought all those who watched it would suffer from incurable moral decline. I would have thought that this would have put it on the top of my viewing list but I didn’t watch it. It was a faithful adaptation with screenwriting by Andrew Davies , a writer who had been accused of “sexing” things up in the past. There was no need to do so with this as it was “sexed-up” already. It starred Keely Hawes and Rachael Stirling and it is available on DVD. I know that I put off watching it because I wanted to read the book first. I have now seen it and it’s a good interpretation of the Waters novel. Stirling (who comes across like a young Diana Rigg) is excellent in the main role.
But it is the book that is an essential. I do love Sarah Waters and got into her work with her wonderfully Dickensian “Fingersmith” (2002) which is also an essential read and may very well feature in this blog in the future. I have now read all of her novels apart from her latest “The Paying Guest” (2014). Both “The Nightwatch”(2006) , set in the second world war and her tale of Victorian spiritualists “Affinity”(2009) are very strong novels. For me, “The Little Stranger” (2009), a gentle ghost story set in the 1940’s was a little too subdued and doesn’t rank amongst her best. Her best is this debut.
The novel starts in Whitstable in Victorian Kent which is excellently recreated. Main character Nan narrates. One thing I find memorable in books is descriptions of food. I know that must say something about me but Paddington’s Marmalade Sandwiches, Winnie The Pooh’s honey and (especially) Edmunds tempting Turkish Delight drink from “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe” have stayed with me since childhood. Nigel Slater’s memoir “Toast” is an essential book because of its attention to food. From “Tipping The Velvet” I have discovered that I do not even have to like the food in question to have it seared on my memory. The book opens like this;
“Have you ever tasted a Whistable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the English coastline makes Whitstable natives – as they are properly called- the largest and juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest oysters in the whole of England. “
Why does this opening paragraph have my mouth watering? I would no more eat an oyster, Whitstable or otherwise than do something else that I wouldn’t consider doing! It’s the skill of the writer who has drawn me in from her opening words. Nan is a girl who has grown up amongst the oysters in Victorian Kent, where her family runs a parlour serving the delicacy. It has been a life of chapped hands, little money and cramped conditions for Nan. Her life changes when she visits a music-hall and falls for a male impersonator. The glamour of show-business lures Nan in. A woman who is on stage pretending to be a man opens a whole can of worms (of oysters?) and Nan finds fame as Kitty’s performing partner when she gives male impersonation a try. Although male impersonators (“mashers”) were a regular site in the Victorian Music Hall, Waters creates a whole lesbian underworld which may or may not have existed, but for the duration of this novel it is totally convincing and Waters’ London is every bit as real as Charles Dickens’.
Like Dickens, and like Daniel Defoe whose “Moll Flanders” this book also slightly resembles Waters likes to keep the surprises and plot twists coming. In Dickens’ time it was to get you to purchase the next issue but here it makes for a riveting read. It is superbly written and hangs together well as a record of 1880’s-90’s London. This is some debut!
Tipping The Velvet was published by Virago in 1999