Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tipping the Velvet

I'm not sure why I haven't yet read every single word Sarah Waters has ever written. Every time I pick up one of her novels, I'm utterly entranced, captivated, and blown away by her deft hand with plotting, characterization, and historical detail. She's truly one of the most gifted writers working nowadays. Previously, I've ripped through Fingersmith (loved it!) and The Paying Guests (loved it!). Both books were meticulous in their construction and unfolding; both are showcases of Waters' flair for plotting. I knew, going into Tipping the Velvet, that I wouldn't be disappointed.

What I was not expecting, however, was the sheer volume of emotion this book wrenched from me. I am not one to shirk or avoid demonstrations of emotion; I feel how I feel and I do not hide it. This means that I'm quick to weep in films, quick to laugh, and quick to righteous anger in favour of the protagonist. I've written before about emotion and how important I regard it in relation to cultural objects. What is art, after all, but a transformative experience, either in state of mind or being? Waters' previous novels did not affect me to the same degree; Fingersmith was more compelling as an intricate rendering than as a journey in which I was emotionally invested. The Paying Guests was heartbreaking in a distant kind of way.

Tipping the Velvet is markedly different than either of those novels. Rather than a cleverly forged plot, this novel focuses on the emotional development of its narrator, Nan. This is a Bildungsroman while simultaneously a tour through the queer subcultures—and counterpublics of Victorian London. The back of my particular copy includes a blurb that characterizes this tour as a look into the "demi-mondes" of London; I'm not sure if demi-monde is the current appellation. While the novel does depict hedonistic women, it does not depict them as "starving artists" or socially mobile women. They are lesbians—ça, c'est tout, but also not entirely. However, this is minor quibbling; regardless of the definitions, Waters' painstakingly and impressively researched début is concerned with depicting a world hitherto under-represented in culture. She uses Nan as her focal character, but wisely imbues her with a complex narrative arc that propels the tour and maintains the reader's interest.

Shockingly (at least for Victorians), Tipping the Velvet reproduces lesbian romantic entanglements, in all their messy and glorious reality—just like hetero relationships. At a theatre outing, Nan witnesses Kitty, a vaudeville performer who performs in the guise of a man (hold: vaudeville refers to a distinctly North American genre but in this case, it's the same format). Nan has a complicated reaction to Kitty's performance and beauty; she falls in love. She ingratiates herself with Kitty and in due course becomes her dresser (to help her change costumes quickly between songs, etc). They leave the small town, the town most memorable for its oysters (Waters is rarely subtle in her choice of imagery), and head to London. There, after some period of seemingly non-reciprocated love and anguish, Nan and Kitty become lovers. Kitty is quite anxious to maintain the relationship hush-hush, as "toms" (lesbians) are social pariahs. Meanwhile, Kitty's audience numbers are dwindling. Their manager has an idea: put Nan in drag and make it a double act! It seems that Nan is quite convincing as a boy, almost too convincing. The scene in which Nan dresses as a man for the first time features the cast repulsed; she is too much like a boy, so much so that it produces a feeling of the uncanny.

Fast forward a bit and Nan discovers Kitty in bed with the manager (man-ager). Heartbroken, Nan flees with no money, no clothes save her men's clothes, and no home. She wanders the streets until at one point, a man catches her eye. He requests that she service him for payment. She gives him a handjob and realizes that she has stumbled into another unknown subculture: rent boys. She does this for awhile, then stumbles across a rich lesbian who hires Nan to be a kept woman. The rich woman buys her men's clothes and fancy things and all Nan has to do is fuck when she's told. She's trotted out, like a horse in a show, to the woman's lesbian friends. This is the part that some might call the demi-monde. Of course, it ends with Nan again without clothes, without money, and she ends up staying with a social activist and her brother. Nan becomes their maid and then eventually, the activist's lover. The novel culminates in a protest and Nan gives a stirring speech to the hundreds gathered. She sees Kitty; they have a brief conversation; Nan feels nothing for her now; she is totally in love with Florence, the activist.

When she and the activist declare their love for each other, I wept. Nan has finally found her equal in love, her partner, her complement, after all this heartbreak and tragedy. It's also a political ending: Kitty was ashamed of their intimacy; Florence is not. Nan can be herself, whether dressed as a man or a woman, when she is with Florence. Her happiness is no longer contingent on society's expectations.

I thought a detailed summary of the novel to be helpful in understanding why the emotional and political catharsis at the end is so satisfying. We become invested in Nan's journey through this careful accumulation of details. Without this long stretch of highs and lows, we would not—could not care about their declaration of love. Regardless if you agree with me or otherwise, my experience with Tipping the Velvet was transcendent, partly due to my emotional investment and partly due to Waters' powers as a writer.

Waters has an immense gift for description and immersion. My old nemesis rears its head again: realism. Waters is distinctly and definitely working within the realm of realism: her writing vivifies a lost period in as accurate detail as she can possibly manage. Of course, this puts me in the position of contradicting myself. While yes, I often find realism to be tiring and exhausted as a form, I can't help but have been swept up in Waters' descriptive powers. The strength of the prose is found in the sensual details, such as the smell of Nan's hands, or the vivid blue of her navy uniform. My stance on realism must be modulated. The problem with absolutist positions is that it makes hypocrites of us all. Thus, I must confess that Tipping the Velvet has relaxed my strident rigidity on the topic.

All is not perfect, alas. I can't say that I found Kitty to be compelling in any way. We are constantly being told that Kitty is vivacious, wondrous, electrifying, but the only Kitty we are shown (a discrete concept) is a mewling, timid creature that jumps at shadows and wallows in shame. While some might argue that a major theme of the novel is of acting and theatricality, I cannot believe that Kitty could command any attention off the stage. Her characterization is thin.

Additionally, and this is personal preference, but others might baulk at the painful obviousness of Waters' choice of symbols. The oysters and Nan's well known ability with cracking them open could strike readers as conspicuous and annoying, asking for too much attention. I did not mind it at all. In fact, I find Waters' evident symbolism to be endearing. I found myself chuckling when I considered that fingersmith has a multiplicity of meanings: fingersmith is a pickpocket, the person that reaches her fingers into the purse of another lady. Lol. But I understand that others could conceivably be thrown off from this.

On the whole, Tipping the Velvet is another of Waters' masterpieces. Her steady and methodical accretion of emotion and historical detail is exquisite and her character work is mostly first-rate. Again, I'm so pleased to write a third positive review in a row; it's such a change from my seemingly unending parade of negativity from earlier this year.

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