This post feels to me like too little, too late — I finished Tipping the Velvet last week but have been traveling around California promoting my own historical novel, Leaving Van Gogh. So a wait for a delayed flight in Long Beach provides my first chance to collect my thoughts on this. And I’m uncomfortably aware that those thoughts were keener and more incisive when I put down my Kindle than they are now.
So here’s what stuck in my mind. Sarah Waters, as ever, is fabulous with scene and atmosphere. Tipping the Velvet is set in 1890s England, mostly in various London settings. In fact when Waters provided a date I had a terrible sinking feeling that she was going to bring Jack the Ripper into the tale. She’s much more subtle than that, though. The story here is generated entirely by the fictional characters, not by historical figures. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach but the Ripper did not belong here. (And I was off by a few years anyway.)
The difficulty with Tipping the Velvet is that Waters makes her narrator so desperately un-self-aware. Nancy Astley is the perpetually naive young girl who, through her mad crush on a music-hall star, ends up leaving her family and going on the stage as part of a double act in trousers. She and Kitty are also partners under the covers. Eventually, this romance breaks up and Nancy goes on the streets as a rent “boy.” She ends up, finally, in a reform-minded family in Bethnal Green. The reader perceives the error of Nancy’s ways long before she does — fine. The difficulty is that Nancy herself is not especially interesting. Once she’s got her sexual orientation figured out, she doesn’t give us much to care about. She repeatedly detaches herself from relationships, leaving behind secondary characters who are in some cases more complex than she is.
What’s more, the music-hall setting of the first section is more compelling that the others. Or perhaps it’s that Waters has special sympathy with the theater. “A double act is always twice the act the audience thinks it: beyond our songs, our steps, our bits of business with coins and canes and flowers, there was a private language, in which we held an endless, delicate exchange of which the crowd knew nothing. This was a language not of the tongue but of the body, its vocabulary the pressure of a finger or a palm, the nudging of a hip, the holding or breaking of a gaze, that said, You are too slow — you go too fast...” A clever conceit, I thought, this pairing of theatrical performance and sexual ditto. And totally appropriate, because Waters‘ writing is wonderfully performative. She manages to create a complicity with the audience; we all know that this storytelling is an act, so let’s enjoy it! Tipping the Velvet isn’t my favorite Waters; that would still be the The Little Stranger. But it’s still awfully good.