Waters, Sarah. Tipping the Velvet.

NY: Penguin, 1998.

This was apparently Waters’s first novel and it sort of sets the pace for the five books (so far) that have followed. It’s 1888 and eighteen-year-old Nancy Astley spends her days help her family run its oyster business in Whitstable, down in Kent. Though it’s only an hour or so away by train, none of them have ever visited London, but Nance frequents the Palace music hall in nearby Canterbury and knows all the tunes and the comic turns from the big city.

Then one night she witnesses the performance of Kitty Butler, a “masher” — that is, a male impersonator, a girl dressed in boy’s clothes who dances and sings slightly bawdy songs. Before the evening is over, Nance is in love, though it takes her awhile to figure that out, the times being what they were.

She worries her parents by going to the Palace every single night for the rest of Kitty’s run, and because her sister is dating a young man who works backstage, she manages an invitation to meet her idol. One thing leads to another and Kitty invites Nance — whom she calls “Nan” — to come back to London with her as her dresser. The pay won’t be much but if they share digs they can manage. And that’s the beginning of Nan’s transformation into an entirely different person from the small-town oyster girl.

The next year is blissful as Nan and Kitty build a relationship together — Waters doesn’t shirk on the physical descriptions, which are both racy and poetically romantic — and finally their manager, Walter, decides Nan should join the act. A masher duet: That’s never been done before. And Nan looks (and acts) far more boyish in trousers than Kitty does. Soon, they’re being booked into the best halls and they’re making money hand over fist. But Nan’s fundamental attitude toward their sexual relationship is much more straightforward — more modern, really — than Kitty’s. The other girl has a deep need to be “normal,” however much she enjoys lesbian sex.

And that’s the end of that — and the beginning of the next phase in Nancy’s young life. She’ll go through a series of metamorphoses, spending time as a faux rent boy (an interesting double twist), then as the kept woman of a wealthy young widow with an extremely warped collection of friends, then as housekeeper and baby-minder for a politically driven young socialist and her brother. She learns some hard lessons along the way, though she doesn’t change that much deep down. Not yet.

Waters’s style, even in this first outing, is very mature and wonderfully evocative of certain disparate aspects of English society late in the Victorian era. Her descriptive passages are vivid, and also frequently erotic in the best sense of the word. (The title itself is a poetically suggestive euphemism.) The changes through which Nan slowly and painfully progresses are very nicely handled; she’s an entirely plausible character. I somehow missed knowing about this author until I read the glowing reviews of The Paying Guests, her most recent work. I expect to be reading all of them now.


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