By Sharon Peters
Tipping the velvet, one finally learns near the end of this appropriately named picaresque novel of a young lesbians coming of age in Victorian England, is a turn-of-the-century euphemism for what one might today hear called muff diving.
It is one of the myriad keenly observed and deftly delivered details of life a century ago that one finds in this delightful, insightful story of a young woman who leaves her family home for the love of another woman, and along the way becomes a music-hall star, "rent boy," kept plaything (of an upper-class lesbian) and, finally, a socialist.
Not normally one for historical novels, unless theyre by Gore Vidal, I found Sarah Waters tale most satisfying -- by turns engaging, heart-tugging, erotic and chock-full of details that make Nan Kings life and times come alive.
The trick in a story like this is turning ones research into believable characters and at that Sarah Waters, in her debut novel, does admirably. Her style is smooth and easily digested, making the Victorian details seem completely natural as she illuminates the tale of a young "tom" who started out thinking she was the only one and who passes though various levels of London lesbian society.
While Tipping the Velvet is especially interesting because it is about a lesbians life in an era when officially there was no such thing, the novel is good enough that in the end it doesnt really matter what Nan Kings sexual orientation is. Her story is human enough that it appeals to a straight-arrow like me -- and even to my (very) male significant other, who wanted to read it as soon as I was finished with the book.
In short, I love this novel of life in Victorian England because it is so well done.