Book Review: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

By D. R. Coghlan

May 25, 2019
Tipping the Velvet image of Oysters

Tipping the Velvet: My First Book Review

I am thrilled to write about Tipping the Velvet for my first book review on my blog. Tipping the Velvet was Sarah Waters’ first novel. Published in 1998 when she was just 28, it has been rightly hailed as a standout in lesbian Literature. I loved this book. It took me on a journey unlike anything else I have ever read. The language, the style, the story, the pacing, I savoured every page.

What’s Tipping the Velvet all about?

From the first page we are invited through the veil, into Nancy’s personal life. She is the daughter of an Oyster selling family in Whitstable, southern England at the end of the 1880s. Nancy is in her late teens as the story opens and we walk beside her through her coming of age and her coming out.

Nancy discovers both Kitty Butler and the romantic yearnings of her own heart on an outing to the theatre.

Ms. Waters builds their relationship so delicately, so innocently and this lends a great tenderness and fragility to the emerging relationship between the two girls.

Kitty and Nancy travel to London together where they find some success performing on the stage. But nothing runs smoothly for a long. Nancy finds herself broken hearted and in a desperate situation, without the means to support herself. More opportunities present, but each has its own cost.

In Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters has recreated the rich tapestry of life in the late 1800’s at various levels of society. Through engaging characters, and a setting rich with social and political detail, we are drawn deep into the story.

A comment on the style

The style is emotionally understated. There were scenes I had to reread to understand and to draw out the full emotional impact of what was happening. At times I wanted Nancy to cry more, to scream, to object more loudly to the turbulence in her life. At other times I found her too stubborn, too forward, or too meek. And yet, I loved her and my heart cried for her, raged for her, as I encouraged her forward.

I really enjoyed the intimate picture painted of the life of women in the Victorian era. And not just young lesbian women. We see women in heartbreaking poverty, and the contempt they are held in by their rich sisters.

There is also a delicious and somewhat surprising sexuality about the story as we are invited into both the desperate life of a rent boy and the hedonistic lives of the rich.

Throughout the twists and turns there is always a hope, a common humanity that brings people together. And all along, we see Nancy grow, not just in her understanding of her sexuality but as a human being. She makes mistakes, bad choices, she suffers, she fails, she gives up — and that is fine because she learns and grows through it all. This, above everything else, is perhaps what is so enchanting, what makes Nancy so absolutely all of us. More than pure escapism, it left me with the feeling that with my own frailties and disfunction, I am indeed in good company.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, this is a spiritual story of a young woman’s journey to find herself and her place in a world that is not known for it’s kindness or equality. And this is really what I loved most about it. Those who have read any of my novels including The Secrets We Keep will know how drawn I am to the spiritual journey. Nancy, like many of us, starts with a picture of happiness in her mind that is all about a person. In the end, she grows enough to find not only love, but her spiritual purpose. Beautiful.

I am so pleased to have chosen Tipping the Velvet for my first book review. I read a library copy of the novel. The day I reluctantly handed it back to the library, I went straight out and bought the hardback. I just didn’t want to let Nancy go.

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Books by D. R. Coghlan

The Secrets We Keep

The Secrets We Keep

Maddie Meets Kara - Remember Me

Maddie Meets Kara - Remember Me

Maddie and Kara - Breaking Free

Maddie and Kara - Breaking Free

Good Girl Bad Girl

Good Girl Bad Girl