Monday, 2 March 2015

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Tipping the Velvet follows Nancy from Whitstable who meets Kitty Butler, a male impersonator, who needless to say, turns Nancy's life upside down in more ways than one.  As well as being sold as a LGBT novel, it is also a historical novel set in the Victorian times.  One of the reasons I started this blog was to encourage me to branch out into genres I normally do not read.  Having read (and supremely enjoyed) The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall I thought I would branch out further into the LGBT scene.  Sarah Waters is quite the celebrity on the LGBT scene and so with a spare Audible credit I thought I would try her for myself.

The main thing that surprised me about this book was that I did not feel like I was reading a 'lesbian novel'.  In reality, this is a book packed purely with events and focuses on action.  This is a book with lesbian characters not lesbian themes; lesbianism itself and other themes are not looked at, the main concern of the characters is whether the feelings are mutual  (which happens in heterosexual relationships anyway).   Personally, I feel that if Sarah Waters gave either Nancy or Kitty a sex change, the plot of the book could easily accommodate this change.

As for the events, I felt that some of them were predictable but on the other side, the events were well set-up and realistic.  The events happened at a good pace and at a good rate.  I wasn't really bored and there wasn't a phase where some dragged out.  I do feel that some of the characters were unfairly judgemental towards the main character, Nancy.  Yes, she is guilty of not really thinking about her actions but then again, as a poor Victorian woman, she was not exactly brimming with choices.  Furthermore, there's a difference between 'fucking' and being in a healthy, loving relationship and if Sarah Waters was hinting at this distinction, it was poorly done.  If anything, I feel sorry for Nancy and I'm glad that I have more (theoretical) freedom when it comes to making money.  Maybe when Sarah Waters brought in the socialist element in the last few chapters she herself was sympathetic towards Nancy.  I think that if you enjoyed Bridget Jones's Diary then you may enjoy this.

"I didn't mean it. Well, I meant it, but I was so stupid that I didn't mean what I meant."
Who should be apologising to who?

Nancy as a character was hard to understand psychologically in several ways.  At the beginning it was hard to understand how much of a lesbian she was (e.g. was this just a one off? Curiosity?).   What I am getting at is that I feel like I don't really know Nancy; it is hard to see what personality and qualities she has.  For instance, if you asked me at the beginning whether Nancy would leave Whitstable to London and then actually work as a music-hall star I would have said no, as she didn't seem the type to have the courage to do so.  Again, Sarah Waters seems to focus purely on plot, event, actions etc. etc. and this has its downsides.

Doing a bit of research, Sarah Waters did her PhD on lesbianism in the 1800s which explains how the book is well researched but as with A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, it is hard to know to what extent it is a fair portrayal.  For me, this isn't much of a worry because a lot of the events take place 'behind closed doors' and so Nancy is not really 'out of the closet' in any major sense.  The only point I felt was unrealistic were the last two lines of the book - which, isn't to knock the ending.  I think Sarah Waters made a good point of tying up all loose ends in the final chapters.  (Tipping the Velvet was also made into a BBC mini-series (with Benedict Cumberbatch), which might be off interest to those who like to watch first or for those who have already read the book).

The narrator, Juanita McMahon, was really enjoyable.  The last audiobook I really enjoyed was Ethan Hawke's reading of Slaughterhouse Five.  A narrator has the power to make a good novel bad and a good novel great.  Juanita McMahon is one of the latter kind.  I have to admit however, it was very weird walking around Betws y Coed and Llangollen listening to the audiobook when the erotic scenes were taking place.  I had to have a few shifty glances and make sure no sound leaked out of my headphones (I can see now why people read erotica on their anonymous eReaders).  As a side note, I now have 'Weekend Warrior' and 'Night Owl' on my Audible badges app.

The reason why I didn't give this book 5 stars are twofold.  Firstly, whilst it was entertaining it didn't make me think 'wow'.  Secondly, I doubt I would read this book again, although I would consider reading another book by Sarah Waters.  However, for a romantic drama it is a good one, not too soppy or unbelievable.

Book Facts
Publication Date: 1998
Pages: 480
My Edition: Audible
Narrator: Juanita McMahon
Production date: 2014
Length: 19 hours and 10 minutes
Cover:
Sarah Waters Tipping the Velvet. Review: "One of the best storytellers alive today..." Cartoon drawing of a top hat and cane.


Upcoming reviews:
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

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