It took me so long to read Tipping the Velvet, not because it wasn’t good, but because I was so annoyed with the protagonist Nancy that I had to keep walking away from it. Blargh!
Nancy Astley is just an ordinary fish monger’s daughter, until she discovers the theatre and more specifically Kitty Butler. Kitty’s act is singing as a male impersonator. Nancy falls head over heels in love and when Kitty must leave for another gig, Nancy signs on as her dresser. It doesn’t take long for the two to become lovers and then to Nancy’s surprise a duet upon the stage. Nancy trades her skirts for men’s trousers and a new name: Nan King. Nan King is a star in her own right with plenty of her own admirers but she only has eyes for Kitty. Everything is peachy until it isn’t and Kitty breaks her heart.
I’m going to get Spoilery…
Nan! Grr. First, she acts appropriately after Kitty’s revelation: moping and crying and acting like an angsty teen, all that she’s missing is blasting “All By Myself” for hours at a time. It’s what she does after she puts her pants on that’s the problem. She stumbles into prostitution, as a dude. It’s almost impressive how she manages this. Her reasons for taking on this career drove me insane: Revenge. Revenge? She gives some explanation but all I could think of was Alexandre Dumas and what he might say to this.
I don't know how she figures she's getting back at anyone. Kitty can’t see her. What does she get out of it? Some weird kick when men tell her she’s “such a pretty boy” while she laughs to herself? As for money, she could have gone to her theatre friends for help if she needed it but her pride wouldn’t let her. Worse is to come because a nasty rich lady takes her in and says “I own your soul!” Nancy, being Nancy, says *shrug* “okay.” She turns her back on the only true friends she has because the evil lady has lots of money and she’s hot for teacher. And so begins the most heartless relationship ever created.
End of Spoilers.
Later, when she finally gets herself together, someone lays out for her all her deeds and the flawed logic that lead to them. It takes that for her to see just how much of a brat she has been. She lets things happen to her and then blames destiny for it, like she has no responsibility for her own actions. It was this attitude that made me frustrated with Nancy and found it hard to sympathize with her.
Thankfully, Nancy does grow as a person and by the end becomes less self-absorbed. It takes awhile.
I didn’t enjoy this Sarah Waters as much as the other two I read: Affinity and The Little Stranger. They, being more creepy, were different in tone. I think I had come to expect books with that feel. Very Wilkie Collins-ish. I would have loved it more had I read it before the others. Tipping the Velvet is Waters’s debut novel and I thought parts dragged on too long. That’s not to say it wasn’t brilliant in places. It was shocking and funny and heartbreaking. I’m always impressed by Waters’s ability to convey emotion. The reader is with Nancy watching Kitty’s act over and over, falling in love with Kitty the actress like a modern teen might fall in love with a TV star. I might not have always liked Nancy but she always felt real.
What can I leave you with? It’s bold. Waters doesn’t pull any punches. Be prepared. There are many Sexytimes. I’ll never look at the Victorians the same way again.