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Monday, January 15, 2018

Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters

Book Review
Tipping the Velvet (1998)
by Sarah Waters

  The auspicious first novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet introduced her successful formula of blending historical fiction with LGBT issues.   Tipping the Velvet was a clever idea: a picaresque novel, typically associated with 18th century literature, taking place at the turn of 20th century, written on the cusp of the 21st century.  In doing so, she solves one of the reoccurring problems with literature in the late 20th century.  When new groups emerge with new voices, they run up against the deep pessimism of serious literature.  "Happy endings" in the realm of literary fiction are few and far between.  In fact, the mere depiction of a conventional resolution in serious fiction can be reason enough for an audience to reject that book.

   At the same time, Authors seeking to establish a new viewpoint in literary fiction don't want to create characters consumed with hatred and self-loathing.  Frequently, the solution is to start with early struggles and end with some kind of resolution involving the stable maintenance of the particular situation being depicted.  By utilizing the picaresque format, which typically features a narrator who exists outside of conventional moral behavior, she neatly sidesteps the self-hatred that infects most 20th century literature.   Nan, the show girl turned prostitute turned kept woman turned content housewife to a union organizer, is the real picaresque article- no pretense of moral growth here, as a reader would expect in a bildungsroman.  The picaresque format also frees her from looking the tragic aspects of 19th century lesbian life in London in the face.  After all, picaresque is pre-realism, so an educated reader, recognizing that format, will release Waters from 20th century expectations about characters and their moral activity.

  The most important fact to recognize about Tipping the Velvet is that it is readable and entertaining, long but not overlong, challenging but not difficult.  By focusing on her depiction of lesbian life in London in 1890's, she is returning to an era which was rich with incident but poorly depicted because of conventional morality of the Edwardian era.

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