This summer we’ll be reading three books based on a singular concept: The Summer of Love, LGBT Edition. The books will be love stories, loosely defined, by and about the LGBT community. We’ve chosen our first two books: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (meeting July 27th) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (meeting August 31st). Now we must choose our third book. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some of the suggestions people have made. These will be cut and paste reviews, and not my personal thought (I have not read any of these yet). Feel free to post suggestions below. We’ll be meeting June 29th at BookPeople to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and make our decision.
Reviewed in The New York Times by Miranda Seymour: http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/06/13/reviews/990613.13seymout.html
June 13, 1999
In this first novel, a dewy-eyed Victorian girl is swept up in an affair with an actress.
The jacket of this buoyant and accomplished first novel features a photograph, very faintly tinted, of two pretty girls, nonchalantly curvaceous, bare except for their striped stockings. Their round backsides sway in just enough to meet on the narrow bar of a circus trapeze. The models wear the beguiling, dimpled smiles of professional sirens, and the angle of the camera puts us in a crowd of grubby spectators, faces turned up, waiting for the swing to move.
It’s a mildly troubling picture, one that immediately arouses curiosity. You want to know more about the occasion; you scold yourself for being titillated; you find yourself noticing that the photographer has distanced the girls from the audience: the charms they so frankly display are out of reach and will remain so. All in all, it’s a clever preparation for the yearning opening pages of ”Tipping the Velvet,” an erotic and absorbing story set in late-Victorian England.
The novel’s heroine, Nancy King, is an oyster-seller’s daughter, a simple, dreamy girl as soaked in brine as any mermaid. Going with her sister to the local music hall, the Canterbury Palace, Nancy sees her first ”masher” on stage — Miss Kitty Butler, swaggering out as a pretty boy in evening clothes to sing and throw a rose into the audience, a gift for her chosen favorite. Nancy, reaching for the prize, is instantly, utterly smitten. Oblivious of the teasing of her family, she returns again and again in her best Sunday clothes, sitting in the plush seat she can’t afford, yearning for a glance or a nod from Miss Butler.
Waters has captured it beautifully — not only the seediness of the hall and the transforming spell cast by the jaunty cross-dressing girl but the star-struck innocence of Nancy’s first love, the breathless passion she can hardly find words to describe.
”It’s like I never saw anything at all before,” she tells her astonished sister. ”It’s like I am filling up, like a wine-glass when it’s filled with wine. I watch the acts before her and they are like nothing — they’re like dust. Then she walks on the stage and — she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet. . . . She makes me want to smile and weep, at once. . . . I never saw a girl like her before. I never knew that there were girls like her.”
This is the voice that holds our attention throughout the book, making even the preposterous acceptable, because it remains so intimate, so ordinary, so convincing. If lesbian fiction is to reach a wider readership — as much, though far from all, of it deserves to do — Waters is just the person to carry the banner. Less ostentatious and self-referential than Jeanette Winterson, to whom some British critics have been comparing her, she has more flair for narrative and a stronger grasp of her characters.
Formally, ”Tipping the Velvet” resembles the picaresque novels of the 18th century, rambling forward through loosely connected episodes that exist only to offer startlingly contrasted experiences to a wide-eyed protagonist. Nancy, to her wild excitement, is invited to leave her jolly family and go up to London as Kitty Butler’s dresser. From slavish adorer, she progresses to sharing Kitty’s act, to receiving the kind of bashful adulation she once offered. The girls in the novel become the smiling, unattainable sirens of that photograph.
But, as Nancy soon becomes painfully aware, her love will always be hidden away. ”Toms,” as Kitty teaches her to call openly lesbian girls, are to be avoided. Kitty is ready to respond to Nancy’s love, but not to risk her reputation. Nothing, she insists, must ever be revealed.
With a shrewd eye on the future, Kitty eventually marries her manager, Walter Bliss, and Nancy, half demented with grief and jealousy, decides to bury her identity, to become the character whose clothes she has so successfully adopted. A girlishly appealing soldier boy, she hawks herself in the notorious streets east of Piccadilly, available to anyone who wants to buy five minutes of pleasure in a dark alley. This is the grimy, vicious world uncovered by Henry Mayhew in his painstaking research into the London slums, and Waters brings it all too horribly to life.
Loosely speaking, ”Tipping the Velvet” falls into five parts. We’ve seen first love, the stage and the streets. In the third and most candidly sexual section, Nancy is picked up by a rich and vicious widow with a handsome home and an interesting line in leather accessories.
Again, it is the confidence and elegance of Waters’s writing that saves the novel from descending into a pornographic romp; in fact, the widow’s home and her bizarre life style contribute to one of the most engrossing and convincing sections of the book. The scene in which Nancy dresses up as the Roman page Antinous for the delectation of the widow’s lascivious friends, and the brutal episode that follows, in which she is hurled back into the streets, are written with startling power.
My only regret is that Waters felt the need to press her political message quite so strenuously in the final chapters of the novel, with Nancy finding the love of a good woman and becoming a pillar of the labor movement. The story here is still well told, the characters clearly defined; what mars it is the sense of a tacked-on moral, as though Waters had suddenly lost her nerve about the boldness of her own imaginings.