The first time I heard of Sarah Waters was when Atwood praised her in a review. I made a mental note to check her out and then forgot about it. Some time later I came upon her described as the author of lesbian Victoriana, which is hardly very respectful but still kind of intriguing (I love Victorian stories, did I mention that?). So when I finally got hold of her novel and it turned out to be exactly that (at least on some level), I both enjoyed that fact and wondered what else Ms. Waters had to offer.
Because if you imagine what “lesbian Victoriana” might look like, you’ve probably hit more or less on the story and feel of Tipping the Velvet. Nancy works in an oyster parlor (yes, I’ll get to that) but harbors love for music halls and it is there that she encounters Kitty, who performs dressed as a man. A pretty standard love affair follows, in which one girl joyfully embraces her new homosexual identity while the other refuses to admit to it, which obviously leads to a (quite predictable) clash – and it is only the beginning (or, you know, first half). The story itself is hardly revolutionary but interesting enough. Waters tries her hand at describing a few different environments of Victorian England: wholesome parochial community, bohemian world of music halls, debauched upper classes and poor-yet-working-for-utopia communist intellectuals. I found all these worlds sufficiently different, colorful and memorable. They also catalyze Nancy’s transformations.
Nancy’s story is a rather generic tale of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, complete with a perfect fairy-tale ending, when everyone comes together and Nancy gets to choose her perfect partner. And I’m not sophisticated enough not to love such a closed, happy ending, sorry. But the real literary wonder happens in the language. The whole story is full of seemingly innocent allusions and jokes that reference current LGBT culture. For example, once Nancy joins the act in male clothing and needs a scenic name, she, quite randomly, decides upon King. One of the characters, though not a warrior princess, is called Zena (with a Z, but still). The word queer appears many more times than statistically likely. Even the oyster parlor, though not exactly a word game, is a similar nod to the reader.
This game, however, has a second side. While modern elements of “queer” culture are, seemingly innocently, incorporated into the Victorian tale, the language of the era also appears. Because it is, I assume, meaningless to the modern reader, the appropriate expressions are explained by the characters as Nancy gets to know her new world. This includes most notably the title, which had it used a more recognizable synonym, would jump out to you from a bookshelf as rather risqué (if not downright vulgar). But because it doesn’t function in the language anymore in its Watersian meaning, we only get the joke once it’s explained by one of the characters.* Playing with slang like this is fun in its own way but also it makes an important point: homosexuality is not only a sexual orientation but also a whole culture that changes with time (even if Waters’ heroines are surprisingly modern in some of their behaviors).
I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot and am looking forward to Waters’ next novels. I have no idea how she could continue with more of “lesbian Victoriana” because Tipping the Velvet pretty much covers it all but maybe she found new ways to tell the same stories or even completely different stories to tell. If you can recommend anything, I will surely try to follow.
* Yes, I suppose you can figure out the meaning by yourself but admit, wouldn’t you, like Nancy, think rather it has something to do with the theater?