Nancy Astley, the heroine and narrator of Sarah Waters’ amazing first novel, “Tipping the Velvet,” begins her story soaked in brine and ends it soaked in sex. The time is the 1890s, the setting, late Victorian England. When we first meet her, Nancy is the genial, unassuming daughter of fishmongers in Kent, prying open shells in her parents’ oyster bar and “steeped in all the flavors of the trade.” Five years later, having fallen in love with Miss Kitty Butler, a comely male impersonator at the local music hall, Nancy is a graduate of both the haute- and demi-monde of London, a sometime prostitute, full-time lesbian and nascent idealist in the causes of socialism and women’s rights. “Tipping the Velvet” is a Victorian euphemism for cunnilingus, just as oysters, presumably, are a metaphor for what the Victorians called a woman’s “sex.”
“Some people like their oysters raw,” Nancy explains right off the bat, “and for them your job is easiest … But for those who took their oysters stewed, or fried — or baked, or scalloped, or put in a pie — my labours were more delicate.” Waters never flinches in describing Nancy’s serial encounters with breasts, buttocks, pricks, “broom-handles,” “slits,” “arse-holes,” “mashers,” “frigstresses,” “renter boys” and (invariably) sopping-wet nether regions. She is particularly clever when writing about Nancy’s first encounter with a dildo:
It was a kind of harness, made of leather: belt-like, and yet not quite a belt … For one alarming moment I thought it might be a horse’s bridle; then I saw what the straps and buckles supported … I did not, at that time, know that such things existed and had names. For all I knew, this might be an original, that the lady had had fashioned to a pattern of her own. Perhaps Eve thought the same, when she saw her first apple.
This is the lesbian novel we’ve all been waiting for — a sexy, funny, sometimes deeply moving romp through the Victorian underworld, saturated with period detail and almost completely free of activist harangue. Almost, but not quite: In fictional terms, Waters can’t resist rewarding her out characters and drubbing her more inhibited ones. But she writes fearlessly and joyfully in the picaresque tradition, with a nod to Moll Flanders, Fanny Hill, Candide and “Walter,” the anonymous author of that all-time classic of Victorian porn, “My Secret Life.” Betrayed by Kitty, tossed from pillar to post, blowing “gents” in back alleys for a pound a pop and abused without mercy by a group of sadistic upper-class “Sapphists” and “toms,” Nancy emerges at the end not innocent, certainly, but true to her nature, once she discovers what that nature is — “a curious mix of magic and necessity, glamour and sweat.”
The publicity packet sent out with “Tipping the Velvet” contains a short glossary of Victorian sexual terms. No reader who surrenders to Waters’ daring vision will need it. Dildos, “spendings” and “knocking-shops” are the same in any age. In a word, delightful.