Wednesday 24 April 2019

Review Time! - Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

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Tipping the Velvet title image with silhouette of woman holding her hat

Title: Tipping the Velvet

Author: Sarah Waters

Genres: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ+ (see below for rep,) (Modern) Classics, Romance(-ish)

Tipping the Velvet book cover

A Few Starting Notes:

I received a free digital review copy of this book via NetGalley in celebration of the 20th anniversary (2018) edition of Tipping the Velvet (this review is a little late – oops!)

My reviews are honest and fair.

Ok dearest nerdlets!

The format of this review is gonna be just a touch different to my normal review format, cos it didn’t work for this book, and I’m a rebel. #DealWithIt

Plus, I’m trying to review Tipping the Velvet – a true Queer classic – so cut me some slack, k? 😉😎

There are some very mild SPOILERS in this review.

I’ve kept them uber-vague and you shouldn’t actually be able to tell any plot-points from them, they were just necessary in order to discuss some of the themes – so consider this your warning!

The Premise:

Nancy Astley is an Oyster Girl – her family are oyster catchers and run an oyster restaurant. 

Literally everything in her life is oysters.

Then she sees Kitty, a Drag King, perform on stage… and her whole life changes.

Before she knows it, there is no longer a Nancy Astley – now she is Nan King, male impersonator, and nothing will ever be the same.


So. Much. Complex. Rep.

*bows before greatness of this book*

Waters brings together a vibrant ensemble of lesbians and other women who love women.

Unapologetic Victorian Toms (sapphic women) abound, from the feminine to the butch and everything in between, and it’s truly awesome to have this many Queer ladies in one book.

These are flawed, beautiful, cruel, kind, gentle, rough, complex women, and the depth and range of characters is totally awesome!

There is also, though, a refusal to bow to neat little boxes in terms of both sexuality and gender.
Kitty, for example, has relationships with both men and women, with no definition of her sexuality provided.

This both fits in with the time period, and allows Kitty to exist beyond the labels that are given to her.

It’s also amazing to see Drag Kings here – a tradition of 'male impersonators' that is centuries old but tends to get overshadowed by the more well-known Drag Queens.

(Not that we don’t love a good Drag Queen! Slay sweeties!)

Nan herself has a complex gender identity, where she (as our narrator,) speaks honestly about feeling like she exists between genders.

He also uses male pronouns at various times, both when he’s performing as a Drag King and when he enters the world of Queer men, during which time he has sexual relationships with other men.

During one of her relationships he uses both male and female pronouns, and presents at various times as both man and woman, with several variations on the femininity and masculinity of each.

This also touches on the way different gender presentations can lead the people around him to have completely different views on who s/he is, and how they should behave towards him.

Nan doesn’t use clothes as her identity, but rather uses them to reflect who s/he is in that moment, and how s/he’d like to be treated; this also brings her liberty when navigating the highly sexist world of Victorian London

Not all of Nan’s relationships and experiences are positive, and one particular partner uses gendered clothing, and her gender identity, against her, as well as acting in other abusive ways.

This partner treats Nan’s gender identity as both a novelty and a means of power, parading him in front of her friends, and delighting in scandalising them.

The popular notion of this book as being about cisgender lesbians therefore does its scope and complexity, in terms of both gender and sexuality, a disservice.

(Although, given that this book was published 20 years ago, it’s hardly surprising that this simplistic assessment is what’s stuck in the public consciousness.)

The Time Period:

This book does an excellent job of fully immersing the reader in the period without letting it get in the way of the story.

It also uses historical truths – such as the usually-hidden Queer community and often-forgotten Drag Kings – to shake the reader’s expectations and change the way we look at Victorian society.

This shows a part of history which is very much factual, but which we still, to this day, don’t hear about.

The Oysters:

Ok, this point is a little nit-picky. And I fully admit that.

BUT, while I totally get the… symbolism… of the oysters, as a life-long vegetarian, I couldn’t help but find eating and/or cooking a creature alive distasteful in the extreme.

So, while it’s clearly meant to be sexy, I found it a MAJOR turn-off. #JustSaying.

(In case you don’t know, both oysters and the title ‘Tipping the Velvet’ have a double meaning which refers to sex-acts in cisgender F/F relationships (amongst others.))

Content Warnings:

This is one of those books that does manage to cover a sh**-tonne of ground, so be aware of the following:

- homophobia 
- transphobia 
- sexism 
- classism 
- sex work 
- poverty/destitution 
- implied Depression 
- abusive relationships (mental, physical, sexual) 
- consent issues/borderline sexual assault 
- unhealthy BDSM dynamic 
- grief 
- homelessness 
- estrangement from family

...I think that’s everything, but as always, be careful when reading!

There’s also graphic sex – so head’s up for that!

The Verdict:

This is book is awesome!

For sheer enjoyment value, I’d actually recommend Affinity, also by Sarah Waters, over Tipping the Velvet (albeit Affinity goes to some Very Dark Places.)

But, for impact, enduring resonance, and more complex and saturation-levels of rep. than we’re used to seeing, even 20 years on, this can’t be beat.

This book was a game-changer then, and it remains one now.

Do yourself a favour and, if you can, Read. This. Book!

Buy Now USAGoodreadsAuthor’s Site

Have you read any Sarah Waters books?
Do you know of any other books with lots of complex LGBTQ+ rep?
Talk to me! 💖

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Last updated: 28th April 2019


  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this book! It does seem like it handles a very complex theme very well.

  2. I have to admit that I rarely ever see or hear about Drag kings so it must have been nice to see some things switched up here and some diversity. Also, it sounds like the LGBT+ rep was off the charts and complex just as it should be!

    1. Hell yes! It made me realise just how little we see of these levels of rep! <3

  3. Wow, this sounds like it has wonderful characters and some great diversity in the queer rep! And also like it does a great job of really exploring some aspects of gender and sexuality. And you're right, you really don't hear much about Drag Kings, compared to Drag Queens, so that's awesome too!


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