Tipping the Velvet : Book Review

Mainstream Novels I Use as One Handed Reads

Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters


I remember there was a lot of hype around the BBC TV mini series – mainly because the heroine of the book is a lesbian and it featured several love scenes.  How ‘buttoned up’ the British TV audience was in 2002!!  Already well known for corset & bonnet dramas, the BBC dramatised this story which featured cross dressing as a young girl discovers what was an alternative sexuality in the 1890s.  Well done to Auntie Beeb for tackling subject matter which must have been out of ‘her’ comfort zone!


The phrase ‘tipping the velvet’ has its origins as far back as the late1600s. The velvet is slang terminology for the female sexual organs. Tipping implies using the tip of the tongue, so it means cunnilingus or to tongue a woman.


The book, Sarah Walter’s debut novel, is rich and varied. In portraying a patchwork of people, real, believable characters in such a vivid a depiction of England (mainly London), her writing has been compared with that of Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe.


The central character, Nancy grows up somewhere coastal, but a visit to London’s theatre-land leads her to blossom and fall in love with a star of the stage – a male impersonator. Nancy leads a very varied life, interacting with her Victorian surroundings and the varied characters who populated it.  To survive, she plays many ‘roles’, riding a roller coaster between successes and hard times.

Waters  acknowledges that she’s imagined a lesbian presence in her urban Victorian backdrop where none has been recorded in history. The reader follows Nancy’s journey from kitchen work, to theatrical society, later becoming a high-class woman’s play thing before escaping to a subversive all-female society. This allows her show us social conditions while exploring the issues of gender, sexism, and class difference.


Nancy ‘s beginnings are humble, working at her parents’ oyster restaurant, she loves singing, visiting the music halls for entertainment which is how her big adventure begins. She becomes fascinated with and befriended by a female performer (Kitty) who impersonates a man in her musical number. Nancy’s shyness and unfamiliarity with worldly ways means she falls hard for the young actress who seems glamorous and beyond the realms of her experience.


Nancy is invited to leave home and travel as Kitty’s dresser when the actress gets her big break. Swept up in Kitty’s affection and their forbidden love she forgets her family and takes to the stage with her in a double act, but can she survive living this lie? Nancy finds it much harder than Kitty to keep their love for one another out of the public eye. As a successful music hall artist, Kitty has rich admirers.

“We fitted together like the two halves of an oyster-shell. I was Narcissus, embracing the pond in which I was about to drown. However much we had to hide our love, however guarded we had to be about our pleasure, I could not long be miserable about a thing so very sweet. Nor, in my gladness, could I quite believe that anybody would be anything but happy for me if only they knew.”


Nancy has a change of fortune, she finds herself broke and friendless, living in a rough area. She must find a way to earn money, she uses her cross dressing skills and ‘prostitutes’ herself, pleasuring men who are fooled into thinking they are with another man.  It is very risky and furtive, there is even less tolerance for homosexuality than there is for lesbians at that time.


We know from history that Queen Victoria refused to believe there was such a thing as sapphic love.Before long Nancy finds a high class, if predatory admirer and her life takes a turn in a totally new direction.  She is surrounded by the ultimate luxury… but at what price and for how long?


“There was, of course, the dildo that I have described (though the device, or the instrument, was what I learned, following Diana, to call it: I think the unnecessary euphemism, with its particular odour of the surgery or house of correction, appealed to her; only when really heated would she call the thing by its proper name – and even then she was as likely to ask for Monsieur Dildo, or simply Monsieur)


The reader hangs onto Nancy’s (military) coat-tails as she discovers both the tender, passionate side of lesbian love, and the heart wrenching struggle as she navigates same sex love during those sexually repressed times. The book is often explicit, sometimes comical, peppered with pathos, frequently romantic but always warm. Nancy is portrayed as a strong female character cut from the same cloth as ‘Moll Flanders‘. She embraces her sexual desires in pursuit of love and partnership and takes risks to survive.


The love scenes in this book are very well written, filled with Nancy’s emotions as she explores and discovers, from tentative and shy to full blown love and adoration. I always prefer to read sex scenes where you’re privvy to the thoughts of one of the participants, and this book delivers all the conflict and exploration alongside Nancy. We re witness to her experiences of humiliation and objectification, the love of an anonymous crowd, rejection by her first love. Nancy wears desire and passions on her sleeve, earning her a place in our hearts.

“Being in love, you know… it’s not like having a canary, in a cage. When you lose one sweetheart, you can’t just go out and get another to replace her.”


Hopefully you agree with me that this novel qualifies as great masturbation material, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, and others you may have read, as I intend to continue my smutty literary journey!

Click the link to see who else is participating in #MasturbationMonday, the fun meme for kinksters to share their writing around the topic of self pleasure.


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Submitted for the meme: Book Matters fiction prompt, hosted by May More, why not see what others are recommending

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12 thoughts on “Tipping the Velvet : Book Review”

  1. I’ve read that there were whole societies of cross-dressers during Edwardian times (and further on, into Victorian times) in England; there are a few really fantastic pieces of fiction based on this fact.

    Jayne Krentz, who writes historicals as Amanda Quick, delved into this subculture in one of her books. And I believe it is “unspoken but assumed known” that one of London’s criminal lords, in the 1880s, was actually not a lord at all, but a lady acting as one.

    There are also true tales – if you’re into that kind of thing – of women acting in male capacity (and very much dressing the part) in the days of British privateering. Somehow piracy has become more associated with American history (perhaps due to the proximity of the Carribean islands) than English I think, but most of them – the women included – were Brits. You might find some interesting reading if you search that route. 😉

    1. Wow! Thanks for those comments, I am definitely delving into the topic more! I knew smuggling was strong around the British coast – that sounds so fascinating. Bless you Mrs F x

  2. As Mrs Fever says there are many stories of victorian cross dressing including a doctor -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_(surgeon)

    I read Tipping the velvet a few years ago and really enjoyed it, though at the time I was a bit more naive! Great post on a well written and fascinating book.

    1. Thanks Julie, kind of you to comment. It was the lesbian network that Walters wrote about without any historical backing, but I’m now looking forward to looking into more of the factual cross-dressing stories.

  3. I have not read the book Posy but your review has certainly convinced me that I should – I think there are various aspects I would like about it so am very pleased you linked this to BookMatters. The quote at the end of your article really hit home –
    “Being in love, you know… it’s not like having a canary, in a cage. When you lose one sweetheart, you can’t just go out and get another to replace her.”
    So true where LOVE is concerned – I never understand when people do seem to find replacements very quickly and seem to fall in love again with ease. I think I have only really been in love with a partner 3 times in my life. Cause love is and should be different…
    May xx

    1. Thanks May, I think you would, indeed, enjoy it. I think she’s a writer worth following.
      That quote really struck me too – the danger of finding your next ‘object of love’ too soon is that you’ve just transferred all your feelings, rather than getting over your old love. And perhaps some folk are just in love with the idea of love.

    1. Thanks for reading K – it was a great TV show too with gorgeous actresses. Sarah Walters often writes the FF genre, I hope you enjoy it!

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