One of the most mortifying moments of my teenage years – and there’s plenty of competition, believe me – was watching the BBC’s adaptation of Tipping the Velvet with my parents at the age of seventeen. I remember being utterly shocked (I had a very sheltered upbringing), although since it’s rated 15 it really can’t have been that scandalous. I’ve read two of Sarah Waters’s books since then, but I’d never quite had the courage to go back to this: her first and most celebrated novel. However, I found it in Oxfam yesterday, decided to give it a go at last, and have devoured it at high speed. Beautifully written, evocative, sexy and playfully transgressive, it deserves its status as a modern classic. I could claim I timed this post specifically to coincide with Pride, but that’s just a happy coincidence.
Nancy Astley’s childhood in Whistable is flavoured by the scent and salt of the sea, and focused on her family’s busy oyster-parlour, which forms the heart of a sprawling web of relations and friends. Her escapist passion is the music hall, and she and her sister Alice spend many happy hours in the Palace at Canterbury; but one night everything changes. A new act arrives on stage: the sleek, chic male impersonator Kitty Butler. Nancy is transfixed by her (in many ways the book is a paean to the triumph of the trouser role), but her schoolgirl crush develops into something else: an alluring sense of affinity.
She sang that night like – I cannot say like an angel, for her songs were
all of champagne suppers and strolling in the Burlington Arcade; perhaps,
then, like a fallen angel – or yet again like a falling one: she sang like a
falling angel might sing with the bounds of heaven fresh burst behind
him, and hell still distant and unguessed.
Nancy begins to haunt the Palace, to the extent that her family tease her mercilessly, but it all becomes worth it one day when Kitty Butler looks her way. Invited backstage, Nancy experiences the thrill of building a friendship with her idol, and when Kitty moves on to greater things, and invites Nancy to join her as her dresser (later joining her on stage as part of a hugely popular double act), Nancy doesn’t hesitate.
The world that Nancy and Kitty enter is a complex one. On the surface it’s just a spot of cheeky cross-dressing – the music hall audiences love to see pretty girls swanking around, dressed up as Bond Street swells – but beneath the superficial innocence, the currents run deep. On stage, Nancy’s cross-dressing has always been mitigated by a bit of feminine tailoring here, a bit of rouge there; but when her heart is broken and she walks out on Kitty with nothing but a bit of money and her costumes, she discovers that being able to pass for a boy offers her a way to make some money. But it also opens a new door when, leaning against a lamppost one night in her guardsman’s uniform, a darkened carriage draws up beside her and invites her to step inside. It is a momentous decision. Sinking into the gaslight demi-monde of queer London at the end of the 19th century, Nancy learns a new vocabulary: mary-annes and toms, boys and uncles (which reminded me of the street cant and slang of Slammerkin), and begins to realise that the world offers satisfaction for all manner of nonconformist tastes.
Before starting on the book, I’d imagined that it was primarily going to be notable for its sex scenes and, while those certainly are memorable (the scene with Diana and Monsieur is the only one I remember clearly from the TV, with a mixture of fascination and shock), there aren’t many of them and, despite flashes of the explicit, they’re managed rather tastefully. What really gripped me about the book was the quality of Waters’s writing. I knew she could write well, of course, because I’ve read other things by her, but for a debut novel this is remarkably assured and confident. She has the period voice just right, and she manages to be mischievous, poignant and deeply erotic by turn. This is a character piece, worthy of being read for its own rich and sophisticated writing, full of real emotion and shot through with Nancy’s deep, desperate desire to belong. She is a very engaging narrator, though not always as sympathetic as she could be, and her story works equally well as a tale of self-discovery, and as a jaunt through some of Victorian England’s less reputable corners.
I’m glad I finally overcame my maidenly modesty and decided to have a go at it. It’s the best of Waters’s books I’ve read: energetic, lively, sensual and moving. From grease-paint and footlights to ladies’ clubs, seaside towns, glamorous fancy-dress parties and socialist rallies, it’s a glorious evocation of different cultures in a bygone age.