Laura reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

So, I know that Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is, like, the lesbian book. But I’ve got to be honest with you: I really wasn’t all that into it. Terrible, I know! But hear me out.
Background:  Tipping the Velvet is set in Victorian England in the 1890s. It’s a coming of age “lesbian romp” involving singing drag kings, prostitutes, sugar mommas, and suffragists. Just about every type of lesbian activity you can imagine is portrayed in this book. (And I don’t mean that in an erotic sense, although there’s quite a bit of that, too.)
This book’s 1998 publication and subsequent literary reception and commercial success paved the way for many other lesbian books. And I am so, so happy about that. But the actual content of this book didn’t do much for me. Here’s why:
    1. The main character, Nan, was completely awful. The way she treats other people is totally wretched. Her irrational behavior is so unrelatable. I really just wanted to smack her. Repeatedly. Ugh.
    2. The plot just sort of… rambled. And on the one hand, that’s sort of how life is, right? Directionless? Unexpectedly veering off into weirdness? A little smutty? I would say yes. But on the other hand, books are not real life. And I prefer books with a little more structure.
    3. Oysters. Before she left home to fulfill her lesbian destiny, Nan’s favorite activity was sucking on juicy oysters. Which, I mean, really? Really?
I’m not saying this was the worst book ever.Tipping the Velvet was okay (and in fact, much better than many other works of lesbian literature I’ve read). I just felt let down after hearing so many great things about it! And after having read Fingersmith, I had really high expectations! All dashed!
Anyway, I think you should still read this. Or at least watch the BBC miniseries adaptation. But don’t expect it to be life changing or whatever. This is more like homework, so that you can converse intelligently with other people on the subject of queer media. Because if most people have only encountered one lesbian book in their lives, it’s probably this one. (Sigh. Can we change this? Can we all get together and take a vote? Where are my lesbian literati at? Call me, ladies.)
Tipping the Velvet has also been reviewed for the Lesbrary by Ami and Danika.

4 Replies to “Laura reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters”

  1. -t

    Thank you! I am reading it for the first time now & have been wondering why people fawn over it. I get the *signficance* but your description of “homework” is extremely apt.

    I, too, have read other Sarah Waters works before this one and had high expectations (those and all the hype). And it just is kinda, well, blah. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  2. caseythecanadianlesbrarian

    I find it funny that you think the book needs more ‘structure,’ since it actually quite strictly follows a classic 19th century three volume narrative structure, which coincides brilliantly with Nan’s different adventures. (The BBC version also follows this formula). Waters using a structure from the 19th century for a novel set there is pretty smart, I think. Maybe you just didn’t like the structure or didn’t notice it, which is fair enough, but it is actually pretty tightly organized, not like ‘real life’ at all.

    Can you be specific about what exactly about Nan’s behaviour you disliked?

    1. Laura

      I really disliked the way that Nan completely cut off her family. I know she didn’t get the acceptance she was looking for from her sister, but was it really preferable to pose as a male prostitute rather than ask for help? Really? And the way that she took advantage of Zena, when the poor girl was still all shaken up after having been assaulted… that felt really predatory to me. My heart broke when Zena lost all her savings — and then *still* had to take care of Nan (however briefly). And then near the end, when Nan fights with Flo and holds it over her that at least she got to have sex with her exes, unlike Flo with the now deceased Lillian — gah! So awful! Nan is so unsympathetic to me.

      As for the structure, that’s a good point. *More* isn’t quite what I wanted — just different. I agree that her choice of narrative structure was very smart, but I just didn’t find it all that enjoyable to read. Nan makes decisions for herself, but it feels like she mostly falls into these situations for reasons external to the plot. (Namely, to show off various segments of an imagined Victorian lesbian world.) It came off as messy and rambling to me. Not my preference.