Tipping the Velvet

By Sarah Waters

I was very fond of Fingersmith, so I eagerly snapped up Tipping the Velvet when I had to go on a long train journey to Brussels. Well, when I say eagerly, I must admit that I spent some time looking for a copy with a different cover. While I rather like the way the right-hand girl looks at the
left-hand girl (Nancy at Kitty, not vice versa), there is a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that makes this copy a little less suitable for public perusal. I blame the television, and their idea of Victorian undies, myself.

  • Author: Sarah Waters
  • Title: Tipping the Velvet
  • Pages: 472
  • Published: 2003 (1998)
  • ISBN: 1-8440-8011-0

Just like Fingersmith, her third novel, Tipping the Velvet, her first, is a semi-historical novel about girls falling in love with each other. Fingersmith is clearly more restrained: only two girls, and only one graphic sex scene. Tipping the Velvet is a typical debut novel in that it goes wildly over the top and includes everything the author wanted to put on paper.

That said, from beginning to end, it is a carefully constructed book, maybe with a few rough edges, but not objectionably so. The ending is maybe one of those edges. It resembles nothing so much as a Chinese Yuan play where near the end everyone assembles and justice is dealt out. The prudish and secretive Kitty loses Nancy for good because she doesn’t dare to be an open lesbian; the nasty, horrible Diana gets stuck with a ice-cream spilling tomboy who plays an even younger child than Nancy did for her (Reggie reminded me of the horrible boys that Wodehouse saddled Bertie with now and then), the nice, gentle and understanding Ralph gets the exactly right woman, and Kitty and Florence (who doesn’t mind living openly with a woman) discover that they really, truly love each other for each other and in each other, and not as a second-class substitute for their first loves. And the emperor^WSarah shakes her sleeves and pronounces the end.

Not that I dislike endings of this kind; on the contrary. But the
ending isn’t as balanced as the rest of the book, which is very wel
constructed. Every part, every chapter fits nicely together.

The great thing about Tipping the Velvet, isn’t the construction, of course, and it isn’t the hot steamy lesbian sex, either, even though that’s nice to have, but the way Waters presents us the falling in love of Nancy with Kitty, and later with Florence. (The in-betweener with Diana is very sordid, and there isn’t much love about there.)

A well-written book about an interesting person, even a nice
person, that ends well with the right people living happily ever
after. A book as good as they come.