Last year, my dad bought me my first Sarah Waters book. It was called Affinity, and all he knew was what the shop assistant had told him: “It’s about Victorian lesbians.” Now, if that’s not a hook, I don’t know what is.
Affinity absolutely broke my heart, but I’m not here to review that today. Today, we’re here for Sarah Waters’ debut novel, Tipping the Velvet. Because Affinity shattered my heart so deliciously that I simply had to read more of her work.
Tipping the Velvet follows the story of Nancy Astley. We start with her and her family in Whitstable. Her parents run a restaurant and make a decent profit off of the famous “Whitstable oysters” when the season is right. Regularly, Nancy and her sister go to the theatre in Canterbury by train to catch the music hall acts. This simple life is all Nancy has ever known- indeed all she expects- until one act at the theatre steals her heart. This is Kitty Butler, and Nancy’s little crush on her sets the entire novel in motion.
The story took me a lot of places I wasn’t expecting, but all of which made sense. Nancy is, in some ways, insufferable. But she’s incredibly young when the story starts (18), and the reader watches her grow and evolve over the span of ten years. In that time, she has several lady-loves, makes many more friends besides, and gets to know Victorian London in many different ways, through several different guises.
I’m not going to spoil anything because, while Wuthering Heights was written long enough ago that I don’t feel guilty ruining the ending, Tipping the Velvet was only released in 1998. Which makes it about eighteen/nineteen. I should know. I, too, was released in 1998.
But I will say, I was delighted when I finished this book and it had a happy ending (for Nancy, at least). This seems to be a rarity in LGBT+ literature- although, I’ve noticed it’s something that is becoming more and more frequent as of late- and so I was unbelievably happy that Nancy got her happily ever after, with the girl she loved. If you have the stomach to suffer through ten years of beautiful agony watching Nancy make her way in Victorian London, the ending is definitely worth it.