50 pages 1 hour read

Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Sarah Waters’s 1998 novel, Tipping the Velvet, follows the life of Nan King, whose parents own an oyster parlor in late-19th-century Britain. When Nan falls in love with drag king Kitty Butler, the two move to London. In London, Nan explores her gender and sexuality as she falls in and out of love with a variety of women during her picaresque exploration of London. In Tipping the Velvet, Waters explores themes of Gender and Performance, Class and Society in Victorian England, and Authentic Lives and Coming Out.

Tipping the Velvet has won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 2000 and the Betty Trask Award. It was included in Malala’s Book Club, a monthly book club curated by Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai. The author of six novels, Waters has won awards for her other novels, including the Somerset Maugham Award for Affinity in 2000 and the CWA Historical Dagger for Fingersmith in 2002. Three of her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She holds a PhD in English literature from Queen Mary, University of London. Waters’s dissertation focused on gay and lesbian historical fiction, which she explores in her novels.

This guide refers to the 2000 Reissue edition of Tipping the Velvet, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Note on Language Use: This guide occasionally uses the word “queer” to refer to LGBTQ+ identities, desires, and expressions. Tipping the Velvet often uses the word to describe characters’ feelings, desires, and expressions. The word “queer” can refer to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, without delineating between different identities or applying distinct labels. It can mean not-cisgender, not-heterosexual, not-allosexual, etc., as a way to avoid reifying labels, prejudices, and binarized expectations. The word is a reclaimed slur and should be used with caution, particularly outside of the LGBTQ+ community, as many LGBTQ+ people have suffered through its usage.

While Nan in many ways reflects a trans masculine identity in today’s understanding, the novel exclusively uses she/her to refer to Nan, and this guide follows suit. Tipping the Velvet is part of a rich history of LGBTQ+ literature, much like the classic Well of Loneliness, that addresses transgender-coded characters in ways vastly different than we might today.

Content Warning: The source material depicts sexual assault and uses outdated language to describe intellectual disability, sexual orientation, and sex workers. In addition, the source material includes racist slurs for Black people and people of color.

Plot Summary

Tipping the Velvet traces the coming-of-age journey of Nancy Astley, later called Nan King, as she maintains relationships with three different women: Kitty, Diana, and Florence. Part 1 opens with Nancy explaining her background—her parents own an oyster parlor in Whitstable, a small seaside town in Kent near Canterbury. Nancy, her sister Alice, and her brother Davy all help their parents run the parlor. They live above the restaurant, with their lives structured around the preparation of oysters and the seasonal rhythm of visitors to Whitstable, with more customers in the warmer seasons. Their lives appear mapped out in front of them until Alice and Nan go to Canterbury, where they see Kitty Butler’s act at Tricky Reeves’s theater. Alice dates Tony, Tricky Reeves’s son. Kitty performs songs and dance while presenting as a man for entertainment. Nan returns to Canterbury frequently just to see Kitty. Eventually she catches Kitty’s eye, and Kitty offers her a rose. Kitty invites Nan backstage, and they talk. Nan begins helping Kitty with her performances, helping her dress and undress for the performances.

Nan learns that Tricky has offered Kitty an extension on her contract, delighting Nan because Kitty will stay in Canterbury. Nan’s parents invite Kitty to their home for supper, and she agrees. They eat oysters, and Nan mentions her extended contract. Kitty, however, tells Nan that she has turned down Tricky’s offer, and her new agent, Walter Bliss, has booked her dates in London. Kitty wants to bring Nan as her dresser. Nan’s parents agree to the move. The two move into a London house shared by other artists, musicians, and actors. Nan and Kitty share a room, becoming more intimate and closer.

Walter becomes frustrated—the explosion of male impersonators leaves little room for Kitty to become a star, until Walter notices Nan and Kitty singing together. He believes an act with two male impersonators will gain more attention. Nan worries that she can’t sing or dance in front of audiences. Kitty worries that Nan looks too boyish and her looks will make the illusion too real. Taking the name Nan King, Nan joins Kitty’s act. Their act becomes a hit, and they both begin to make more money. Nan and Kitty spend Christmas together, buying each other extravagant gifts. Their platonic love becomes romantic when Nan joins the act theater. After seeing Nan with a man, harmlessly flirting, Kitty grows jealous, and they make love that night. Nan writes to her sister, confessing her feelings and desires—Alice responds with disdain.

Walter grows distant, and Nan blames herself. After an incident where a theater burns down, Nan goes home alone to her parents. Feeling out of place, Nan returns early and finds Walter and Kitty in bed together. They confess they plan to marry. Nan storms away, taking her men’s clothing.

Part 2 finds Nan, depressed and isolated, living in a cheap room. She doesn’t leave for weeks, fed by a servant girl who runs errands and brings her food. One of her pies comes wrapped in newspaper, and the crumpled paper has a picture of Walter and Kitty, newly married and planning a new act. Nan goes walking around the city. In her women’s clothing, she becomes an object of suspicion and derision as people gawk at her. Deciding to wear her men’s clothing, Nan’s male impersonation moves from the stage to the street, and she unintentionally becomes a sex worker, working with male clientele who assume she’s a “mary-anne,” or male sex worker. Her landlord, Mrs. Best, discovers her male clothing. Assuming Nan has brought a male client home, Mrs. Best evicts her immediately.

Nan moves in with Ms. Milne, who has a daughter named Gracie. She meets Florence, a young woman who lives across the street. One night, as Nan looks for clientele, she sees a carriage following her. The rich woman in the carriage, Diana Lethaby, offers her a ride back to her mansion. Diana solicits Nan for sex and asks Nan to be her live-in sex object. Diana introduces Nan to a group of wealthy lesbians who meet at the Cavendish Club, a private club in London.

Nan confronts Diana and her wealthy friends when they sexually assault Zena, the young maid. Diana hits her in the face with a book, and Nan retreats upstairs with the maid. Zena and Nan have sex, until Diana and her friends discover them. Diana expels both from her house.

Part 3 finds Zena and Nan trying to survive—they sell Nan’s men’s clothing, getting a room for the night and eating baked potatoes. Zena disappears in the morning, taking their money. Nan tries to move in with Ms. Milne again only to find that both Ms. Milne and Florence have moved away. Nan tracks down Florence in a working-class neighborhood. Nan finds Florence living with her brother, Ralph, and an adopted child they are raising together. Nan lives with them as their housekeeper.

Nan discovers that Florence is a “tom,” a lesbian. The two become lovers. Nan helps Florence and Ralph plan a socialist rally. Nan uses her experience as a performer to help Ralph deliver his speech. At the rally, Nan sees both Diana and Kitty. Kitty tries to win her back while still married to Walter, but Nan loudly proclaims her love for Florence. Nan kisses Florence in public, cementing her love for Florence.