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Tipping the Velvet: A Novel Paperback – May 1, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The heroine of Sarah Waters's audacious first novel knows her destiny, and seems content with it. Her place is in her father's seaside restaurant, shucking shellfish and stirring soup, singing all the while. "Although I didn't long believe the story told to me by Mother--that they had found me as a baby in an oyster-shell, and a greedy customer had almost eaten me for lunch--for eighteen years I never doubted my own oysterish sympathies, never looked far beyond my father's kitchen for occupation, or for love." At night Nancy Astley often ventures to the nearby music hall, not that she has illusions of being more than an audience member. But the moment she spies a new male impersonator--still something of a curiosity in England circa 1888--her years of innocence come to an end and a life of transformations begins.

Tipping the Velvet, all 472 pages of it, is as saucy, as tantalizing, and as touching as the narrator's first encounter with the seductive but shame-ridden Miss Kitty Butler. And at first even Nancy's family is thrilled with her gender-bending pal, all but her sister, best friend, and bedmate, Alice, "her eyes shining cold and dull, with starlight and suspicion." Not to worry. Soon Nancy and Kitty are off to London, their relationship close though (alas for our heroine) sisterly. We know that bliss will come, and it does, in an exceptionally charged moment. A lesser author would have been content to stop her story there, but Waters has much more in mind for her buttonholing heroine, and for us. In brief, her Everywoman with a sexual difference goes from success onstage to heartbreak to a stint as a male prostitute (necessity truly is the mother of invention) to keeping house for a brother and sister in the Labour movement. And did I mention her long stint as a plaything in the pleasure palace of a rich Sapphist extraordinaire? Diana Lethaby is as cruel as she is carnal, and even the well-concealed Cavendish Ladies' Club isn't outré enough for her. Kitting Nancy out in full, elegant drag, she dares the front desk to turn them away. "We are here," she mocks, "for the sake of the irregular."

Only after some seven years of hard twists and sensual turns does Nancy conclude that a life of sensation is not enough. Still, Tipping the Velvet is so entertaining that readers will wish her sentimental--and hedonistic--education had taken twice as long. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

With a title that's a euphemism for cunnilingus and a plot awash with graphic lesbian sex, this lush tale fearlessly and feverishly exposes the political, social and sexual subversions of Victorian-era gender-benders: sapphists, libertines and passing women. Set in 1890s London against a backdrop of music halls and socialist demonstrations, Waters's debut (published to acclaim in England) is an engrossing story of a "tommish" woman battered and buoyed by the mores of the times. At 18, Nancy Astley is a fishmonger in coastal Whitstable, working with her sister and parents in the family oyster parlour. Smitten by male impersonator Kitty Butler, Nancy attends every show at the Canterbury Palace until the star notices her. A stunned Nancy finds herself Kitty's companion and dresser, and sexual tension keeps the pages turning as she becomes first Kitty's sweetheart, then her partner ("two lovely girls in trousers, instead of one!") in a wildly successful stage act. Kitty's shame over her sexual preference sends her into marriage to their manager, Walter Bliss, propelling devastated Nancy into a series of erotic excursions and a struggle for survival, first passing as a young man and hustling, then as wealthy widow Diana Lethaby's kept "tart," finally as the housekeeper for union organizer Florence Banner. Waters is a masterful storyteller, tantalizing the reader as Nancy endures melancholy squalor, betrayals, the lustful motives of swindling gay-girls and imperious ladies. The circumstances by which Nancy finally finds true love are unpredictable and moving. Amid the gentlemen trolling Piccadilly Circus for trysts with "renter" boys and the wealthy female guests of the Cavendish Clubs "Sapphists Only" parties, Nancy's search for love and identity is a raucous, passionate adventure, and a rare, thrilling read. Agent, Judith Murray.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (May 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573227889
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573227889
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.1 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (268 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #158,749 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sarah Waters is the bestselling author of Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch. Winner of many literary awards, she has been shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange Prizes. She lives in London.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

82 of 84 people found the following review helpful By Glitterbrained on September 26, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I heard about this book, I thought, "Victorian-era erotica? I don't think so!" But in the end, it turns out that my thirst for totally engrossing, wonderfully entertaining, and incredibly well-written lesbian fiction has at last been quenched. Nearly 500 pages was barely enough of Waters' evocative tale of Nancy Astley, aka Nan King, and her life and times as a newly out "tom" (surely the 19th-century English equivalent of "dyke"), a male-impersonating prostitute, a kept "boy," and finally a self-realizing adult. The sights, smells, sounds, tastes of turn-of-the-century England were so brilliantly captured that I couldn't wait to take the subway somewhere, anywhere, so that I could sit down and read without anyone bothering me! The novel is an erotic and emotional triumph. I can't wait to read Affinity, Waters' next...it's already sitting on my desk. If I haven't raved enough about this book, take my word that it's highly recommended.
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69 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Jana L. Perskie HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 13, 2003
Format: Paperback
I was skeptical when I picked up "Tipping The Velvet" at a local bookstore. I do not like labels, and Sarah Waters's first novel had been touted by the press, and readers alike, as a "lesbian novel," whatever that means. However, the book's synopsis on the back cover, drew me in and I took a chance and bought it. I am so glad that I did. What a delight!
This is a historical novel, set in a Victorian England that few have glimpsed. And "Tipping The Velvet" allows us to view it all, center stage. It is a story peopled with characters that are fleshed out so believably, it is almost like reading with 3-D glasses. The characters, especially Nancy Astley, come right off the page and have the capacity to touch your heart and make you care...deeply.
Nancy is born and raised in an English seaside resort where her parents own an oyster restaurant, and Nancy can shuck with the best of them. She seems perfectly content with her lot in life, loves her family and imagines that someday she will marry one of the neighborhood boys and have a family of her own. During the summer months, when business is booming, Nancy frequents a nearby town's music hall for entertainment. Thus Passion enters her life with a capital "P."
Nancy sees a male impersonator perform for the first time on an evening excursion to the hall. Not just any male impersonator...but the ever so seductive Miss Kitty Butler. Nance is entranced and obsessed with Kitty. She schemes to meet the object of her devotion and becomes first, Kitty's friend, then her employee/girl Friday. Her once normal life is turned topsy-turvy, filled with passionate fantasies. Her family is delighted with Kitty "the celebrity" friend, and accepts her completely.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. I couldn't put it down, and when I did have to, I couldn't wait to get back to it. It is an excellent view into Victorian England with great attention to detail. I felt such sympathy for Nan. Your heart will soar and break with hers. As another reader has written, I felt as if I was in the book myself; right alongside Nan. In the four days it took me to read this novel, nothing else in the world seemed to matter. It is so touching and compelling. Oh, and lest I forget, it's quite erotic as well. I hope for a sequel (are you reading this Ms. Waters?). Do yourself a favor and buy this book. Enjoy.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By amy bloom on November 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have read two very,very good picaresque novels in my life and after Kate Vaiden and Huck Finn, there's Tom Jones, which is pretty good. Tipping the Velvet has the strength and earthy sensibility and observation of Twain, the poignant threads of Reynolds price plus--it's got some genuinely erotic bits, great style, history,panache and charm. It may cause straight women and men of all kinds to wish that they were lesbians (like the protagonist) but it is a book open to anyone literate. What a true Christmas pudding of a book.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Gail Cooke HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Lusty and lavish, richly embroidered and boldly rendered, Tipping The Velvet is an amazingly assured debut novel. With an eye for revelatory detail and pitch perfect idiomatic phrasing British writer Sarah Waters offers a riveting panorama of late Victorian England from the Dickensian wretchedness of poor houses to the marble floored villas of society's favored.
Tipping The Velvet, the title being a euphemistic reference to sexual activity, was hailed in England last year as a "lesbian classic." Perhaps so, for one becomes chillingly aware of the travails suffered by women who dared to challenge the orthodox views of 1890s London, whether it concerned sexual preference or adequate wages. Yet this novel is also that rarity - an exquisitely penned, rapidly paced, thoroughly entertaining tale that leaves the reader wanting more.
Eighteen-year-old Nancy Astley is an oyster girl in the bleak coastal town of Whitstable. She "scrubbed, and rinsed, and plied the oyster knife," all the while humming a music hall song. "Music hall songs and the singing of them" were her passion until she met Miss Kitty Butler, a cross-dressing singer. Then Kitty became her passion.
When Kitty is offered an opportunity on the stages of London, Nancy follows as her dresser, wondering "how it would be to live at Kitty's side, brim-full of a love so quick, and yet so secret, it made me shake".
In short time Nancy pulls on her first pair of trousers, clips on braces and joins Kitty on stage. As a twosome the act is a smashing success, until the night a drunk in the audience jeers, calling them "toms." Anxious to protect her reputation, a frightened Kitty quickly marries, and a heartbroken Nancy flees to the streets.
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