Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
I am known to the library aides as the girl who checks out these stacks of super cool books. I’m also known as the girl who read the library. At the check-out counter, there’s one aide in particular that slowly paws through my current weeks’ selection. “Oh, I see you’re checking out I Don’t Know What I Want But I Know It’s Not This,” she says.
“Well, well, well, A Very Virile Viking.” She cocks her eyebrow. “Hoochie-Coochie.”
Observe the cover of Tipping the Velvet. Two nude broads propped on a swing.
Cue judgmental library aide: “Curious, are we?”
I am not curious (not that there’s anything wrong with being curious), but Nan Astley is. A fishmonger’s daughter, Nan spends the first eighteen years of her life shucking and bearding England’s famous seaside delicacy, the Whistable oyster. During an impromptu trip to a local music hall, Nan meets vaudeville actress Kitty Butler.
Kitty kisses Nan’s hand. “You smell like a mermaid,” she says. Nan shows Kitty how to eat an oyster. Slowly. Do not rush it. Savour the flavor. Eating an oyster is very much like eating a mermaid. *Racy talk alert! Racy talk alert!
After all this oyster slurping, Nan and Kitty are stagecoach bound to London. Nan Astley changes her name to Nan King, trades her corset for trousers, lops off her curly locks, and tap dances her way into Kitty’s act.
Soon the names Nan King and Kitty Butler are blazed across the marquees of reputable and disreputable music halls all over London.
Then an OMFG betrayal makes Nan go bonkers. After gnawing the shit out of someone’s hand like a rabid dog, Nan does the melodramatic sprint into London’s seedy underworld. Let the Eyes Wide Shut sexual odyssey begin…
This is a dirty book. Think Charles Dickens with smut, betrayal, and mucho lurid melodrama-all cumulating in a lesbian convention in Hype Park.
Sarah Waters is England’s most accomplished prose stylist to date and, according to Wikipedia, she wrote this book fresh off of completing her doctoral dissertation on Victorian pornography. I think the book is more useful than the degree. My old history T.A. was doing his dissertation on American pornography where he was required to watch hours upon hours of porn (Gee, his job is so hard), but I digress.
Dirty book? I know: your genteel sensibilities are offended by mention of smut. Don’t judge: it is the most beautifully written smut you shall ever encounter.
I learned new vocabulary. Ever wonder what a Robert Browning is? I can’t tell you because the rating on this blog is PG-13. Read the book. While you’re browsing Sarah Waters’ greatest works, look into Fingersmith too: same setting, less smutty, prose just as pretty.