Reading 1001 discussion

28 views
Past BOTM discussions > Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4104 comments Mod
Host Kristel


message 2: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4104 comments Mod
Sarah Walters is probably best known for her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet. Written in 1998, the book tells the story of tells the story of Nan Astley and Kitty Butler. It won both a Betty Trask and Lamda Literary Award, and has been adapted for TV by the BBC. The book is set in Victorian England. 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.


These questions may contain spoilers. When responding if you want to conceal your responses to avoid spoilers, use these html codes; < spoiler>, spoiler> without the spaces.

Some preliminary questions? Are you looking forward to reading this book? What are your expectations?


Part 1:

Although Tipping the Velvet was written almost 20 years ago and takes place 120 years ago, there are still themes and motifs that are still relevant today. Discuss these themes/motifs and how these contribute to a larger social commentary (acceptance of same-sex relationships, gender roles, gender identity, heteronormativity, etc)

How do you view each of the two female protagonists? Do you pity Nan? Kitty? What are the characters’ faults and positive qualities, and how does that fit in with/contribute to plot device?

Mr. Bliss mentions how girls usually only make a living in show business if they are male impersonators. Do you think this is sexist or just a coincidence? Do you think Kitty genuinely likes impersonating a male or does she just do it to make a living?


Part 2
Nan wonders, “I felt like a man being transformed into a woman at the hand of a sorceress”. What do you think Nan questions or thinks of her own gender expression/identity, is it merely a job, or does it go deeper than that?

What do you think of Nan’s and Diana’s relationship? Is Nan growing as a woman both emotionally and sexually, or is she becoming a shadow of the person she once was? Do you believe this is a “healthy” relationship?

In what ways is Nan leaving Mrs. Milne’s house for Diana similar to her leaving her parents house for Kitty in Part One? What is different this time around? Does this show a pattern with Nan’s actions regarding lust for powerful women, causing her to leave her family initially, and Grace and Mrs. Milne, who treated her as family?

Part 3:

Why does Nan seemly use women, sometimes sex with women, to get ahead, or find places to live? (Diana, Zena, Florence) Did this occur after Kitty broke her heart or was Kitty another one of those women?

Nan tells Kitty, “And as for Florence, my sweetheart, I love her more than I can say; and I never realized it, until this moment”. Does Nan actually love Florence? How does her conversation with Kitty make her realize how much she loves Florence?

How did Nan grow from the beginning of this story to the end? Did she learn more about love, affection, and loyalty, or is she destined to make similar mistakes with Florence later on?


Final questions: Did you enjoy this book? Was it what you expected? Were use surprised, pleased or underwhelmed?


message 3: by Pip (new)

Pip | 1409 comments I have just begun. I thought I had read this before, but I haven't. I am looking forward to it, I am already hooked!


message 4: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4104 comments Mod
Pip wrote: "I have just begun. I thought I had read this before, but I haven't. I am looking forward to it, I am already hooked!" Great, I am looking forward to getting started but have to finish my other audio first. Are you reading or doing audio?


message 5: by Pip (last edited Dec 09, 2018 11:06PM) (new)

Pip | 1409 comments I am reading an actual library book, for a change! I listened to Slaughterhouse Five, but am really enjoying holding a book in my hands.


message 6: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4104 comments Mod
Pip wrote: "I am reading an actual library book, for a chsnge! I listened to Slaughterhouse Five, but am really enjoying holding a book in my hands."
I know, I have really been enjoying reading actually books. But am still thankful for audios. I am going to be listening to this one.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments I listened to this one when it was part of the diversify challenge a couple months ago and loved it.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments The moments where gender identity is explored were very rich for me. My 19 year old son identifies as transgender and went through so much of this beginning with puberty. In my opinion Nan is likely transgender or gender fluid. I felt her contentment with appearing male went so much deeper than just dressing up for theater.


message 9: by George P. (last edited Dec 02, 2018 06:50PM) (new)

George P. | 482 comments I'm now about 2/3 of the way through the novel, reading it in paper format. One of my libraries has an ebook/Kindle copy but it has a waiting list.
It's an engaging exploration of lesbianism as well as an erotic coming-of age story or Bildungsroman. It is probably the most overtly sexual novel that I've read in the 1001 Books list with the possible exception of Chuck Palahniuk's "Choke".
I've also read Sarah Water's novel Fingersmith which is a rather different sort of story, but also told by a sympathy-inducing female protagonist. It's interesting that Choke and Waters' two novels were all in only the first edition of the Boxall list. Perhaps the editors decided they weren't serious enough literature, or maybe just making room for more non-U.S. and Brit novels.
I'm not sure if Kitty really liked impersonating a male for theater, she was more gender-ambigous it seemed, but Nancy/Nan certainly did, and seemed to identify somewhat more as a male. She immediately lost all interest in her boyfriend after meeting Kitty, and hasn't shown any attraction to any males since (to the point I've read to) so she clearly had a strong lesbian inclination.
A great strength of the novel for me was the immersion in that setting of the beginning of the 20th century- Waters seemed to really have done her homework on making that era come to life, just as she did for Fingersmith's slightly earlier time.


message 10: by Diane (new)

Diane  | 2041 comments Loving it so far.


message 11: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 1984 comments Mod
Having read and loved Fingersmith I was hopeful to feel the same way about this book but for me it fell kind of flat and was an effort to get into.

Part 1:
I think that the same prejudices exist today although probably not in theatre land. Different sexuality/gender identity is more accepted by society as a whole but there are still individual groups who remain uncomfortable with anything that is different.

I didn't actually like either of them, they are both careless with other peoples feelings and come across as self absorbed. Nan to me understands who she is and would declare her feelings to the world but Kitty is concerned with public opinion.

I think Kitty genuinely enjoys entertaining and as that is the way to do it and have a career she embraces it. I think historically women have been kept out of show business starting with Shakespeare where you have boys pretending to be girls who are pretending to be boys. Girls who make show business their careers tend to have a certain reputation which is not necessarily who they really are.


message 12: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 1984 comments Mod
Part 2
I think Nan is most likely transgender, I think she identifies much more strongly as male than female and that physiologically this is also the case as she looks like "a real boy". Being a boy is not just a job for her it's how she feels most comfortable.

This is not a healthy relationship in my opinion one partner rely totally on the other for everything can never be healthy. Diana teaches Nan to explore her sexuality and to use it but I don't think this helps her emotional growth neither does it stunt it.

Nan left her family for love, the kind of love that demands everything and leaves no room for thought about others. She leaves Mrs Milne and Grace for lust and profit she knows she will be have gifts showered on her and will be able to satisfy her sexual needs. It also shows a pattern of leaving behind the safe and secure to explore the unknown and exciting, Nan doesn't want to be tied down.


message 13: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 1984 comments Mod
Part 3:

I think this occurred after Kitty broke her heart she was not using Kitty in fact it was the other way around, Kitty was using her for moral support, for housekeeping as well as for almost unconditional love.


Nan does love Florence it is a quiet kind of love compared to her passion for Kitty but it is love all the same. Kitty still wants to hide her away while Florence is proud to be with her and to let the world know it and that is another factor in her love.


Nan is a complicated character with a tendency towards self destruction and I can imagine her making mistakes with Florence in the future, that said if any relationship will work out for Nan I believe it will be the one with Florence because they both understand heartbreak and they both know they are safe together.

To be honest I was underwhelmed with this one having loved Fingersmith I was expecting more of the same. I enjoyed some sections and descriptions of London life, it was intriguing to see the LGBT society that Nan became a part of but I felt disconnected from the characters.


message 14: by Kristel (last edited Dec 09, 2018 04:17AM) (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4104 comments Mod
I finished yesterday. I agree with Book, this book was not as good as Fingersmith. This book was “too much information” for me when it comes to the actual “Lesbian Romp”. I don’t care for that much detail in my reading.

I think one can see that Sarah Water’s can write in this debut novel. I guess I found a bit of it over the top and not quite believable.

I also agree with Book. I did not like the character of Kitty. She was using Nan and their relationship was uneven. You knew that this was not going to end well. Of course there is a lot of foreshadowing in the book that tells you where the story will go.

I also agree with the description of Kitty as probably more bisexual and nan more Lesbain or transgender. There was a lot of terms in this book that I maybe don’t quite understand the exact differences; toms verses gay. Of all the characters in the book, I probably liked Florence the best. She was most comfortable with herself. I did not like Diana. She was another “user” who treated people badly or if not badly she treated them for her own needs. She was self serving. I also found her a bit unbelievable. I found the idea of such large groups of women all of this different culture all very unbelievable. I also feel bad that Nan cut herself off from her family. I hope she will reconnect someday. Nan does grow through out the book as a coming of age book. She has learned many things along her way but she also is finally reconnecting to people and setting better boundaries and finding her own place and strengths in the world. I listened to the audio of the book and it was well read with a nice accent fitting the characters. I agree that Fingersmith was a better story. I think this book will remain on the list because of its contribution to the novel as LGBTQ literature. So far, Sarah Waters does a better job with it than most that I have read though I don’t appreciate erotica in any kind of book so this will get some point deductions for that.


message 15: by Gail (last edited Dec 09, 2018 06:49PM) (new)

Gail (gailifer) | 1379 comments I finished reading the whole book and enjoyed it although I did find it to have too much of the quality of a paperback romance for me (albeit a LBQTQ one) in that Nan went from one unequal relationship to another, burning bridges and being defined by her sexual/love life rather than truly finding herself.

I found the historical Victorian detail to be very interesting but I am afraid much of the emotional drama was straight out of 1998 when the book was written. I do believe there was a LGBTQ lifestyle in London of the 1890's but I doubt very much that anyone felt comfortable coming out given the legal and cultural prescriptive of the time.
Although I did pity Nan her overriding love of Kitty and Kitty's betrayal, in general, I found Nan to be a pretty nasty piece of work also.
(view spoiler)

Do you think Kitty genuinely likes impersonating a male or does she just do it to make a living?
I think that Kitty enjoys impersonating a male as it gives her the adrenalin rush that comes from the audience loving her. I don't think she cares about it outside of that.

Why does Nan seemly use women, sometimes sex with women, to get ahead, or find places to live? (Diana, Zena, Florence) Did this occur after Kitty broke her heart or was Kitty another one of those women?

There is a practical issue involved in Nan's having to find people that will take care of her given that she has left her family and friends behind. However, I believe that she could have adopted other behaviors rather than letting her sexual desires govern her whole life once she had found some stability. However, it was difficult to judge her from an 1890's perspective where women in general were defined by their fathers or husbands NOR by the 1990's when to be so honest about her sexual preferences could still have limited her options.

(view spoiler)

Final questions: Did you enjoy this book? Was it what you expected? Were use surprised, pleased or underwhelmed?

I did enjoy the book because it was a bit of a romp and the writing is quick and clever. It is a bit slow in the beginning but I was enjoying the overall stream of events. I was uncomfortable a few times while reading but I kept thinking that I would also have been uncomfortable if the characters had been two men or a man and a women.
I am now looking forward to Fingersmith, which many other people, including the author herself, thinks is a more mature book.


reply | flag *


message 16: by Pip (new)

Pip | 1409 comments The obvious theme is lesbianism, or more accurately gender identity, the other is the discovery of self in a coming-of-age story. There is also the theme of social change through activism which appears towards the end. Transgender discussion has become mainstream in 2018 in a way that I don't believe was current in 1998. However, the story involves male impersonation by females in music halls, a female impersonating a male prostitute and the use of dildos in lesbian relationships. None of these would be current issues, I would have thought, but I am curious to know if this is so.

Kitty was apparently a lesbian, but she exploited Nan and (view spoiler). She was more to be pitied than loved. Nan was more resourceful, amoral, willing to take chances and eventually the more likeable character. She was the narrator who saw herself as she was and made no excuses for her poor choices.
Were there no women in vaudeville? I thought there were. I have no idea whether male impersonators were actually popular or not. I thought that Kitty enjoyed her routine but was terrified of being labelled a lesbian, or "tom" as was the current slang.
I was confused about Nan's identity. She loved dressing as a man and was quite happy about performing as a male prostitute, so was she transgender or lesbian? (view spoiler)

Nan left Mrs Milne and her daughter Grace without any qualms at all, whereas her initial departure for London caused her some misgivings, as would be expected. She pined for her family in the beginning, but she hardly gave the Milnes a second thought.

Nan was good-looking, especially when dressed as a boy, and she exploited her looks to survive. She would have remained with her first love Kitty,(view spoiler) but eventually she realised that Kitty was unworthy of her love and Florence was a much more worthy object of her love.
Nan learnt more in her time in London than most of us learn in a lifetime, but whether she will remain content with Florence is unknowable. I would like to think that she would.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I realise that it was more fiction than fact about the lesbian demi-world in Victorian London, but the descriptions were so vivid and original that I was happy to collaborate. I especially loved the play on words between Victorian usage and present day language. The obvious example was "gay" to refer to female prostitutes, but also "queer" was frequently used in its original meaning of unusual. Then there were terms such a "masher" and "tom" which I had not heard before. And I was quite surprised when the term "tipping the velvet" was eventually explained!


message 17: by Diane (new)

Diane  | 2041 comments Part 1:

Although Tipping the Velvet was written almost 20 years ago and takes place 120 years ago, there are still themes and motifs that are still relevant today. Discuss these themes/motifs and how these contribute to a larger social commentary (acceptance of same-sex relationships, gender roles, gender identity, heteronormativity, etc)

Gender identity was a prominent theme. Same sex relationships were taboo and hidden during Victorian times. The setting influenced the characters and how they dealt with their gender identification.



How do you view each of the two female protagonists? Do you pity Nan? Kitty? What are the characters’ faults and positive qualities, and how does that fit in with/contribute to plot device?

I don'y really pity either of them. (view spoiler)


Mr. Bliss mentions how girls usually only make a living in show business if they are male impersonators. Do you think this is sexist or just a coincidence? Do you think Kitty genuinely likes impersonating a male or does she just do it to make a living?

I think this may be sexist to some extent since Victorian society was sexist. They lived in a highly male-dominated society where most successful performers were men. I think the novelty of male impersonation allowed them to be noticed and become more successful than if they were dressed as females.


Part 2
Nan wonders, “I felt like a man being transformed into a woman at the hand of a sorceress”. What do you think Nan questions or thinks of her own gender expression/identity, is it merely a job, or does it go deeper than that?

I think it went a lot deeper than that for Nan. For Kitty, it seemed like just part of the act.


What do you think of Nan’s and Diana’s relationship? Is Nan growing as a woman both emotionally and sexually, or is she becoming a shadow of the person she once was? Do you believe this is a “healthy” relationship?

This was my least favorite part of the book. This was a very unhealthy and shallow relationship. This was not a period of growth, but a big step backward. She burned a lot of bridges with this relationship.


In what ways is Nan leaving Mrs. Milne’s house for Diana similar to her leaving her parents house for Kitty in Part One? What is different this time around? Does this show a pattern with Nan’s actions regarding lust for powerful women, causing her to leave her family initially, and Grace and Mrs. Milne, who treated her as family?

In both cases, she left a situation where she was cared for and loved for a situation in which she was only being used by another person for their own gratification. The difference between the relationships: I think Kitty did love her, but her selfishness won out. Diana didn't care for her at all.


Part 3:

Why does Nan seemly use women, sometimes sex with women, to get ahead, or find places to live? (Diana, Zena, Florence) Did this occur after Kitty broke her heart or was Kitty another one of those women?

I don't feel she used Kitty (more the opposite). I think this behavior was more of a reaction to her loss of Kitty and to a certain extent, for her survival.


Nan tells Kitty, “And as for Florence, my sweetheart, I love her more than I can say; and I never realized it, until this moment”. Does Nan actually love Florence? How does her conversation with Kitty make her realize how much she loves Florence?

I believe she does love Florence. It isn't a wild passionate love like she experienced with Kitty, but definitely a truer more stable kind of love. I think she held back with Florence because she always had this ideal of Kitty in the forefront. Having the opportunity to finally reunite with Kitty made Nan realize that wasn't what she truly wanted or needed. It was an "aha moment" about her true feelings for Florence. It also showed how much she grew as a person and matured.


How did Nan grow from the beginning of this story to the end? Did she learn more about love, affection, and loyalty, or is she destined to make similar mistakes with Florence later on?

See previous question's response.


Final questions: Did you enjoy this book? Was it what you expected? Were use surprised, pleased or underwhelmed?

I did enjoy this book. It got uncomfortably graphic in the middle, but was otherwise very enjoyable. It was what I expected. I have yet to read Fingersmith, so I can't compare the two, as others have.


message 18: by Daisey (new)

Daisey | 255 comments Part 1:

How do you view each of the two female protagonists? Do you pity Nan? Kitty? What are the characters’ faults and positive qualities, and how does that fit in with/contribute to plot device?

I did not really pity either of them. I felt that both knew what they were getting into and made not so great choices based on their own feelings. (view spoiler)

Mr. Bliss mentions how girls usually only make a living in show business if they are male impersonators. Do you think this is sexist or just a coincidence? Do you think Kitty genuinely likes impersonating a male or does she just do it to make a living?

I think that Kitty genuinely enjoyed performing, but I think that she would have been happier to perform as herself rather than an impersonator.


Part 2
Nan wonders, “I felt like a man being transformed into a woman at the hand of a sorceress”. What do you think Nan questions or thinks of her own gender expression/identity, is it merely a job, or does it go deeper than that?

I think that for Nan it went deeper and that she truly enjoyed it.

What do you think of Nan’s and Diana’s relationship? Is Nan growing as a woman both emotionally and sexually, or is she becoming a shadow of the person she once was? Do you believe this is a “healthy” relationship?

I felt it was a horrible and very unhealthy relationship. The only benefit was in that Nan learned more about herself and expressing her own wishes, even when she was not able to truly do so.

In what ways is Nan leaving Mrs. Milne’s house for Diana similar to her leaving her parents house for Kitty in Part One? What is different this time around? Does this show a pattern with Nan’s actions regarding lust for powerful women, causing her to leave her family initially, and Grace and Mrs. Milne, who treated her as family?

I felt that this was very similar, except that she minded the leaving less although it was a worse decision than the first time.

Part 3:

Why does Nan seemly use women, sometimes sex with women, to get ahead, or find places to live? (Diana, Zena, Florence) Did this occur after Kitty broke her heart or was Kitty another one of those women?

For the most part, I don't think she knows any other way, and she doesn't have the initiative to find another way to stand on her own. I think Kitty is included in these women, although it was not a set decision at the point of leaving to completely move on from her past like it is the next few times.

Nan tells Kitty, “And as for Florence, my sweetheart, I love her more than I can say; and I never realized it, until this moment”. Does Nan actually love Florence? How does her conversation with Kitty make her realize how much she loves Florence?

Yes, I have to believe that she has truly realized what real love is and does truly love Florence, or she has not actually matured through the story.

How did Nan grow from the beginning of this story to the end? Did she learn more about love, affection, and loyalty, or is she destined to make similar mistakes with Florence later on?

Like the last question, I have to believe she has learned from her former mistakes, or she hasn't actually grown as a character. I want characters to learn and grow through the course of the story.


Final questions: Did you enjoy this book? Was it what you expected? Were use surprised, pleased or underwhelmed?

I enjoyed it more than I expected, but it sometimes felt overly long and there were scenes that were definitely not comfortable for me as a reader. I think another thing that held me back was that I had a hard time believing in the ease with which all these women found each other and their freedom in expressing their true selves in fairly public ways in the Victorian setting.


back to top