"Tipping The Velvet" by Sarah Waters is the lesbian answer to Dickens. From the very first page, Waters draws the reader into a Victorian world that, far from echoing the stereotypical power relations between men and women that were so current in the nineteenth century, offers the reader a new and exciting perspective on lives that were unwritten at the time. The novel's heroine, Nan King, deserts her life as a simple oyster girl in Whitstable to follow her dream to be on stage and to be with her companion, Kitty, for whom she harbours a secret love. The lyrical and dazzling prose with which this underground - at times sparkling and joyous, at others dark and seedy - is described in the novel captures the imagination of the reader as s/he travels with Nan through the twists and turns of London's Victorian music halls. No stone is left unturned by the novel as it explores the vagaries of male impersonators on stage and on the street as prostitutes for unwitting men and aristocratic women, the depths of poverty to which a destitute woman could fall in an unforgiving society, and the love that can flourish between women in the most unusual and desperate situations.
It is a fresh take on the Victorian novel, and a fresh take on lesbianism. It manages to write lesbians into history in the most startling and adventurous way with characters that the reader can identify with or recognise as familiar. It is the fact that this novel, despite being set over a hundred years ago, speaks just as much of now as it does of the Victorian era, that entices and enthralls. There are still women today who refuse to accept their lesbian sexuality for fear of what society might think, there are still men who refuse to believe that sexual intercourse between women can be as satisfying as that between a man and a woman, and there are still women who use their wealth and power to manipulate and control others. All this and more is dealt with in this fantastic novel - a brilliant and eye-opening experience.