Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is a lesbian romance novel set in late Victorian England, and it’s fine. I guess? I have absolutely no idea why I don’t like this book more than I do, but in instead of loving it I’m pretty meh on the whole thing and I want to work out why.
The plot really is a romance plot; Nancy is a young fishmonger’s daughter who falls hard for the male impersonating stage performer Kitty Butler. She manages to work her way into Kitty’s life and they have a brief romance, which ends badly. Shaken by the loss of her first love, Nancy takes to the streets of London and on her way to the true love of her life she manages to pass through several of the Victorian LGBT subcultures. As a look at those various subcultures, obviously with a slant towards the lady side of things, the book is very interesting but because I didn’t really like Nancy, or her various paramours, the book failed to really captivate me.
To start with Nancy, I couldn’t ever really get a handle on her character. Though she had some chameleon like characteristics, it ended up reading more like she was whatever the author needed her to be in order to explore the various subcultures rather than a woman searching for who she was. Part of that is because she never really does discover who she is. When she ends the novel happy with her partner, she has once again adapted to that partner’s beliefs and philosophies. Though she proclaims to really believe these ideals, there’s nothing to really indicate that and so Nancy ends up just being a cipher for the audience through which the audience can view Victorian England. What little of Nancy’s character that is revealed through her various performances, is kind of shitty and she’s never really held accountable for that at all. In the middle part of the book she does some really despicable things, and it’s mostly brushed off. I can understand why Waters didn’t want to hold her accountable; there are far too many novels of lesbian romance where the women are punished after giving into their desires and Waters wanted to avoid all appearances of that. Still, I wouldn’t have minded a few chapters where Nancy really does some self-examination before her HEA.
The other thing that bothered me is the abundance of romance tropes in the novel. There’s the old saying that stale tropes can be made fresh if you change just one thing about them, for example the sex of the characters involved. I think this novel puts that to the test, and for me I’m not sure it held true. For example, the insta-love at the beginning of the novel between Nancy and Kitty still felt forced and unbelievably fast, and I was annoyed by it. There are a few other tropes that Waters plays with in the novel and I’m just not sure that simply changing the participants of the tropes to both be female was really enough to shake them up for me.
I wanted to like this novel a lot more than I did. In fact, I went into it quite excited; Victorian subcultures and lesbians and cross dressing oh my. But there just wasn’t much to the novel at all. Interesting read, but I just wish it had been more… something.
(If you’re wondering, my review of the cross-dressing lesbians with magic book referenced in the tittle is here, and it’s for the fourth book in a series I’m going to plug every chance I get.)