The latest book for our LGBTQ Book Club to review is Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. This award-winner was called one of the most important debut books of the 1900s and subsequently became a wildly successful BBC mini-series (also available from your GPL). Waters has since penned five additional best-sellers; her latest, The Paying Guests was published in 2014. Tipping the Velvet is set a full century before it’s date of publication and takes the form of a memoir by Nan Astley of Whitstable, an oyster farming community on the Kentish cost of England.
One day Nan encounters a performer by the name of Kitty Butler, a male impersonator who visits a local theatre. Nan is instantly enchanted by Kitty and quickly goes from being her biggest fan, to her dresser and best friend, and eventually her co-star and lover after the pair move to London together. Exit Nan Astley, enter Nan King.
Initially the two women find great success, even a bit of fame, as their act becomes the rage of London’s posh West End. But is all this real or just illusion?
“Tipping the Velvet” is a fascinating historical novel, a tender coming-of-age story, a poignant glimpse into performances and prejudices in the “gaslight” era of theatre, and simply a splendidly written book. As the first lesbian narrative of our book club, I was eager to hear the reactions of our eclectic book club assembly.
There were five of us at this month’s meeting, three gents and two ladies. Everyone around the table loved Sarah Waters’ writing and loved Nan as a narrator, even when she lies or acts questionably.
A couple of people at the meeting really appreciated the attention given to the theatrical details in the book –the cut of the costumes, the smell and feel of the make-up, and so on.
I was a bit surprised to hear that others at the table though Waters was “holding back” when it came to writing sex scenes. I expected people to be shocked at how descriptive they were, but when I thought back I realized their assessment was right. Waters clearly did not want her story to be too perceived as too sexual, even though sexuality is the central theme.
I was also pleasantly surprised at how much I identified with Nan, particularly when she first begins to explore her sexuality. In my youth, I can remember being fascinated by a soap opera actor in the same way Nan was fascinated by Kitty. I found myself talking about him all the time and wanting my family to see him on television. I could understand why Nan was so excited when her family wanted to see Kitty’s act for the first time. When I shared this memory with the group I was delighted to discover that most of them could remember a similar experience of infatuation in their youth. After much prodding they even got me to name the aforementioned soap opera actor. Here, however, he shall remain anonymous. Sorry.
Our next book is Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr, a tale a decadence and violence set in 1950s New York City. Anyone is welcome to participate in the book club. Copies are available now at the Main Branch of the Guelph Public Library at 100 Norfolk St. in Downtown Guelph. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call the main branch at 519-824-2660, or visit www.guelphpl.ca.