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Tipping the Velvet (thoughts)

February 27, 2009

1% Well-Read ChallengeSorry about doing yet another book review. Usually, I like to post non-book review stuff as well, but this week it’s been one after another! This is because I’m having a bit of a dilemma, but it’s like a rich person’s dilemma, so I haven’t been sure whether or not I should mention it. This month I’ve been reading a ton-enough books that I’m reading more than one a day. (Note that several of these have been kids’ books!) As it happens, most of the books are either super-awesome or challenge reads: in both instances I like to do individual reviews. But, the arithmetic just doesn’t add up-I don’t like posting more than once a day, so my choices are pretty much to only do book reviews and forget all my fun, random posting (like, I’ve been wanting to do a post on how even though I own a copy of Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell, I had to request a copy from the library because my mom can’t handle the mass market paperback edition I bought as a cheap college student…I really want to take a picture of the two editions side-by-side, because it’s hilarious) or be content with blurb reviews in my Sunday Salons of books that really deserve a full post. So, hopefully I can figure that out soon!

Tipping the Velvet: isn't it a gorgeous cover?In the meantime, since the 1% Well-Read Challenge ends tomorrow, here’s my final review. I loved Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews of her other books, Fingersmith and Affinity, but I haven’t seen this one talked about much (in fact, I bookmooched it thinking it was Fingersmith, lol). Like her other novels, Tipping the Velvetis historical fiction set in Victorian England; it’s a coming-of-age novel centered around, narrated by, Nancy. It’s also about love, and all of its forms…puppy love, carnal love, soulmate love, forbidden love. Oh-and there’s a fair amount of sex in here too. The sex scenes are all very well-written, and there’s just enough smuttiness to keep things entertaining without going overboard.

So, other than the smuttiness, why did I love the book so much? First of all, Waters has a wonderful style. This book sucked me in with its opening (why yes, I’d be happy to share it with you):

Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives-as they are properly called-the largest and the juiceiest, the savouriest yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England.

(I should point out the book’s written in first-person, not second, after the opening paragraph) and it never let up. This is a long-ish book, at over 450 pages, but I never felt bogged down. I just kept turning those pages, reading chapter after chapter, past my bedtime, because I was so entranced.

In addition to style, Waters just has great story-telling abilities. Nancy experiences lots of highs and lows in her life, once she leaves her family’s oyster business to work as a dresser for a young actress in London, and we’re right there with her at every moment. I don’t want to give away any of the story, since I came into it not knowing anything, but trust me: it’s worth the ride. It’s big and sprawling and deliciously underside Victorian. The characters are all interesting and well-developed too; even though Nancy doesn’t always do the right thing, I always cared about her and hoped everything would turn out well.

There you have it-awesome plot, characters, setting, writing style, and some sex scenes thrown in for good measure. What more could you possibly ask for? I think lots people would really enjoy this book; at its heart, it’s a story about growing up and finding true love. And isn’t that what we all want?

Oh-I almost forgot to mention this, but I was surprised and excited to discover that many of the characters are lesbians, cross-dressers, or both. I’ve been wanting to incorporate some GLBQT books into my reading, and this was a great place to start. I’d never really thought about historical lesbians, especially Victorian ones, but Waters portrays a wide range of women who handle their lives and sexuality in all sorts of ways. And while I’m straight, Nancy’s journey into her sexuality just seemed very realistic to me. So of course, I was curious about whether Waters herself was a lesbian, and it turns out she is. I really like this quote from an interview with, because it rings very true for Tipping the Velvet:

I’m writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It’s right there at the heart of the books. And it’s both at the heart of the books and yet it’s also incidental, because that’s how it is in my life, and that’s how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn’t it? It’s sort of just there in your life. So I feel it makes absolute sense to call me a lesbian writer, but at the same time I’m just a writer.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, the phrase “tipping the velvet” was Victorian slang for c*nninglingus. Learn something new every day, right?

Notable Passages
It was the hair, I think, which drew me the most. If I had ever seen women with hair as short as hers, it was because they had spent time in hospital or prison; or because they were mad. They could never have looked like Kitty Butler. Her hair fitted her head like a little cap that had been sewn, just for her, by some nimble-fingered milliner. …She looked, I suppose, like a very pretty boy, for her face was a perfect oval, and her eyes were large and dark at the lashes, and her lips were rosy and full. Her figure, too, was boy-like and slender-yet rounded, vaguely but unmistakably, at the bosom, the stomach, and the hips, in a way no real oy’s ever was; and her shoes, I noticed after a moment, had two-inch heels to them. But she strode like a boy, and stood like one, with her feet far apart and her hands thrust carelessly into her trouser pockets, and her head at an arrogant angle, at the very front of the stage; and when she sang, her voice was a boy’s voice-sweet and terribly true.

I might have been Narcissus, embracing the pond in which I was about to drown.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2009 6:05 pm

    Great review! I like the quote you included from the author. I have another one of her books on my bookshelves that I’m looking forward to reading (The Nightwatch).

    I’ve definitely not be following the one-post-a-day rule this week!

  2. February 27, 2009 8:51 pm

    I know this is not really related to the book itself, but did your copy have the cover that you posted? Because I can’t imagine being able to read a book with that cover in public! It’s so blatantly erotic!

    I’ve heard good things about Waters previously, namely that her books are real page turners, so I’m glad you had a good experience with her. Personally, I feel like her whole schtick is a little gimmicky (it seems like her thing is to write historical lesbian fiction, which ok, I get that there were lesbians back in the olden times, but that doesn’t really make a book…), but I’ve not read her stuff, so I can’t really say. I think most of what I’ve heard has been overshadowed by the fact that her books have lesbians in them, and that’s what stands out first and foremost in my mind when I think of her, which I realize is probably unfair. It sounds like she actually does write an intriguing story above and beyond it involving ladies who like other ladies.

  3. February 27, 2009 9:18 pm

    Sounds like another great Waters novel – I will add this one to my list after Fingersmith.
    I must admit the whole lesbian issue doesn’t really concern me – I just see it as the author portraying examples of love, sex and relationships in her storyline – I think it is nice to have a break from all the heterosexual storylines that are available in literature!

  4. February 27, 2009 11:42 pm

    Avisannaschild, thanks! The post-a-day thing is self-imposed-I don’t think it’s a general blog rule or anything. ;)

    Steph, yes it did have that cover-I only read it at home! And I think it would’ve been hiliarious if my parents commented on it, but they didn’t. ;) It’s a very pretty cover…definitely erotic though. Honestly, and I expect a lot from my fiction, this book didn’t feel gimmicky at all. I’d totally call it out if it did, but the lesbian thing really conformed to Waters’ quote here. It’s not the center of the story, it’s just an incidental part of Nancy’s life. As a straight girl, I could really relate to Nancy’s growth through love. So I’d give her a chance. :) I think this is the most light-hearted of her novels too, so if you want something more intense, check out Affinity or Fingermsith.

    Karen, I completely agree with your take on the lesbian characters! I almost didn’t even bother mentioning it in my review, but I really liked the author interview I came across. :)

  5. February 28, 2009 2:56 am

    I mostly skimmed over your review since I haven’t read Tipping the Velvet yet and want to, but I thought I’d stick my two cents in about reading a lot. I don’t get through quite as much as you, but I schedule my reviews way ahead of time so I still have a chance to do memes and random thoughts. I don’t like to post twice a day either, especially not with reviews. I’d only do it with memes. Anyway, I was already scheduling reviews for March in the middle of February. I’m about a week ahead at the moment with 3 reviews waiting to be written. I don’t know if that’s an option for you or not! I already scheduled around my ARC posts, so it was just a matter of extending that.

  6. February 28, 2009 4:41 am

    This is a fantastic read, all of her books seem to be about lesbians but that doesn’t really fuss me. You should definately check out her other books, I’ve read everything apart from Affinity which I have patiently waiting upstairs.

    As regards to the how many posts a day thing I don’t think it really matters, as long as they have something to say thats interesting. I got rid of quite a few bloggers who were clogging up google reader with random ‘funny’ picks everyday or people who constantly just link to other people’s prize draws.

  7. adevotedreader permalink
    February 28, 2009 5:03 am

    No need to apologize Eva, I always enjoy your reviews and am amazed at their regularity. Hope you can achieve the mix you want though.

    This is the one Waters novel I have read and I thought it was a wonderful romp. The BBC did quite a good adaption of it as well.

    I think it’s great that Waters has a wide readership and incorporates people’s different sexualities into her stories as a matter of course (and so well!).

  8. February 28, 2009 11:17 am

    SARAHWATERSILOVEYOU! I have this on the list, but a thousand books just came into the library for me, and they’re all non-renewables (other people are queued up for them) and I NEED to get on them. *sighs* It’s such a rough life.

  9. February 28, 2009 11:29 am

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about Waters’ books and have them all on my TBR list. This sounds really good and I will definitely be checking it out. I hate posting more than one review a day as well which is why I get so far behind. Hopefully, I’ll catch up eventually :)

  10. February 28, 2009 12:54 pm

    I saw the movie version of this last year (must have been the BBC adaptation that adevotedreader mentioned). I had no idea it was based on a book! Nice review.

  11. February 28, 2009 1:37 pm

    I’ve been dying to get a copy of this book. I’ve driven to three local libraries, none of which have it. I’ve tried charity shops and books swap sites. Nothing. I loved Fingersmith and Affinity and adore Waters’ writing style. I’ve seen the BBC adaptation of it and I really thought the lesbianism would put me off the story, but I find that Waters handles the subject really well.

    • Chris permalink
      January 25, 2010 8:51 pm

      Try going to or Amazonuk. They have copies although they are paperbacks. The used copies are usually in good shape and certainly lots less than the new ones. Good Luck.


  12. February 28, 2009 4:11 pm

    I’ve read Fingersmith and Affinity and loved them both. I have this one and Night Watch to look forward to…and her new book that’s due out later this spring. Isn’t she a marvelous author!

  13. February 28, 2009 7:37 pm

    I thought this book was fabulous too. I still have Fingersmith and Night Watch waiting for me. Yay.

  14. March 1, 2009 9:03 am

    I love Sarah Waters’ other work, Fingersmith and Affinity in particular, but I was not crazy about this book. Not the writing, but the content for me was just too over the top. It wasn’t the lesbianism that I had any issue with, just the blatant sex, sex, sex. And the relationship the main character has with that older woman just didn’t work for me. I’ll definitely try whatever this author cooks up in the future, though. May I be nosey? You might have mentioned it before, but are you back in school right now? I just wondered since you’re reading such an impressive quantity of books!

  15. March 6, 2009 7:54 pm

    I loved this one and Fingersmith, too. I tried the Night Watch and couldn’t get into it, perhaps because it wasn’t Victorian, I’m not sure. I hadn’t heard of Affinity, I’ll have to look for it. I watched the British miniseries of Tipping the Velvet on DVD a while ago and it was actually a pretty good adaptation, I have to say. They had an interview with Waters and she basically said the same type of stuff you quoted in your review.

  16. March 7, 2009 4:56 am

    One I haven’t picked up yet. I read a book by her a few years ago and now forget which one it was, but I really enjoyed it! (one reason I started my blog! lol) I just picked up a used copy of Fingersmith too. Good review, Eva!

  17. March 11, 2009 1:09 pm

    I haven’t read this, but I ADORE Fingersmith. Affinity and Night Watch were good too.


  1. The 1% Well Read Challenge Wrap-Up « A Striped Armchair
  2. January/February 2009 reviews : 1% Well-Read Challenge
  3. Review: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters | Flight into Fantasy
  4. Women Unbound: a New Reading Challenge « A Striped Armchair

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