Tipping the velvet, p.1
Tipping the Velvet, p.1Sarah Waters
Table of Contents
“Endearing ... an engrossing read. Nancy Astley, a butch Moll Flanders, is a remarkable character in a compelling novel readers won’t soon forget.”
— The Hartford Courant
“Engrossing ... a raucous, passionate adventure, and a rare, thrilling read.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Rambunctious ... an amusing romp through late Victorian society.”
— Library Journal
“There’s a huge amount of history bursting from the cleavage of this first, fabulous, fin-de-siècle frock of a novel.... An unstoppable read ... It’s gorgeous.”
— The Independent on Sunday
“Lavishly crammed with the songs, smells, and costumes of late Victorian England. This could be the most important debut of its kind since that of Jeanette Winterson.”
— The Daily Telegraph
“This is a lively, gutsy, highly readable debut, probably destined to become a lesbian classic.”
— The Observer
“A marvelously lush, erotic, and bawdy first novel set in the glory days of seedy music halls.”
— The Woman’s Journal
This delicious, steamy debut novel chronicles the adventures of Nan King, who begins life as an oyster-girl in the provincial seaside town of Whitstable and whose fortunes are forever changed when she falls in love with a cross-dressing music-hall singer named Miss Kitty Butler. When Kitty is called up to London for an engagement on “Grease-Paint Avenue,” Nan follows as her dresser and secret lover, and soon after, dons trousers herself and joins the act.
In time, Kitty breaks her heart, and Nan assumes the guise of a butch roué to commence her own thrilling and varied sexual education — a sort of Moll Flanders in drag — finally finding friendship and true love in the most unexpected places.
Drawing comparison to the works of Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters’s novel is a feast for the senses — an erotic, lushly detailed historical that bursts with life and dazzlingly casts the turn of the century in a different light.
Also by Sarah Waters
The Night Watch
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 1998 by Sarah Waters
The song “If I Ever Cease to Love” copyright © IMP
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Tipping the velvet / by Sarah Waters. p. cm.
823’.914 — do21
Thanks to everyone who read and commented on the various drafts of Tipping the Velvet, in particular Sally O-J, but also Margaretta Jolly, Richard Shimell and Sarah Hopkins. Thanks to Caroline Halliday, Monica Forty, Judith Skinner and Nicole Pohl, all of whom offered encouragement, advice and enthusiasm while I was writing, and afterwards; thanks to Sally Abbey, my editor at Virago, and to Judith Murray, my agent. Thanks, finally, to Laura Gowing, who has taught me many marvellous things about history, and about love. This book is for her.
Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives - as they are properly called - the largest and the juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England. Whitstable oysters are, quite rightly, famous. The French, who are known for their sensitive palates, regularly cross the Channel for them; they are shipped, in barrels of ice, to the dining-tables of Hamburg and Berlin. Why, the King himself, I heard, makes special trips to Whitstable with Mrs Keppel, to eat oyster suppers in a private hotel; and as for the old Queen - she dined on a native a day (or so they say) till the day she died.
Did you ever go to Whitstable, and see the oyster-parlours there? My father kept one; I was born in it - do you recall a narrow, weather-boarded house, painted a flaking blue, half-way between the High Street and the harbour? Do you remember the bulging sign that hung above the door, that said that Astley’s Oysters, the Best in Kent were to be had within? Did you, perhaps, push at that door, and step into the dim, low-ceilinged, fragrant room beyond it? Can you recall the tables with their chequered cloths - the bill of fare chalked on a board - the spirit-lamps, the sweating slabs of butter?
Were you served by a girl with a rosy cheek, and a saucy manner, and curls? That was my sister, Alice. Or was it a man, rather tall and stooping, with a snowy apron falling from the knot in his neck-tie to the bow in his boots? That was my father. Did you see, as the kitchen door swung to and fro, a lady stand frowning into the clouds of steam that rose from a pan of bubbling oyster soup, or a sizzling gridiron? That was my mother.
And was there at her side a slender, white-faced, unremarkable-looking girl, with the sleeves of her dress rolled up to her elbows, and a lock of lank and colourless hair forever falling into her eye, and her lips continually moving to the words of some street-singer’s or music-hall song?
That was me.
Like Molly Malone in the old ballad, I was a fishmonge
It was a curious kind of life, mine, even by Whitstable standards ; but it was not a disagreeable or even a terribly hard one. Our working day began at seven, and ended twelve hours later; and through all those hours my duties were the same. While Mother cooked, and Alice and my father served, I sat upon a high stool at the side of a vat of natives, and scrubbed, and rinsed, and plied the oyster-knife. Some people like their oysters raw; and for them your job is easiest, for you have merely to pick out a dozen natives from the barrel, swill the brine from them, and place them, with a piece of parsley or cress, upon a plate. But for those who took their oysters stewed, or fried - or baked, or scalloped, or put in a pie - my labours were more delicate. Then I must open each oyster, and beard it, and transfer it to Mother’s cooking-pot with all of its savoury flesh intact, and none of its liquor spilled or tainted. Since a supper-plate will hold a dozen fish; since oyster-teas are cheap; and since our Parlour was a busy one, with room for fifty customers at once - well, you may calculate for yourself the vast numbers of oysters which passed, each day, beneath my prising knife; and you might imagine, too, the redness and the soreness and the sheer salty soddenness of my fingers at the close of every afternoon. Even now, two decades and more since I put aside my oyster-knife and quit my father’s kitchen for ever, I feel a ghostly, sympathetic twinge in my wrist and finger-joints at the sight of a fishmonger’s barrel, or the sound of an oyster-man’s cry; and still, sometimes, I believe I can catch the scent of liquor and brine beneath my thumb-nail, and in the creases of my palm.
I have said that there was nothing in my life, when I was young, but oysters; but that is not quite true. I had friends and cousins, as any girl must have who grows up in a small town in a large, old family. I had my sister Alice - my dearest friend of all - with whom I shared a bedroom and a bed, and who heard all my secrets, and told me all of hers. I even had a kind of beau: a boy named Freddy, who worked a dredging smack beside my brother Davy and my Uncle Joe on Whitstable Bay.
And last of all I had a fondness - you might say, a kind of passion - for the music hall; and more particularly for music-hall songs and the singing of them. If you have visited Whitstable you will know that this was a rather inconvenient passion, for the town has neither music hall nor theatre - only a solitary lamp-post before the Duke of Cumberland Hotel, where minstrel troupes occasionally sing, and the Punch-and-Judy man, in August, sets his booth. But Whitstable is only fifteen minutes away by train from Canterbury; and here there was a music hall - the Canterbury Palace of Varieties - where the shows were three hours long, and the tickets cost sixpence, and the acts were the best to be seen, they said, in all of Kent.
The Palace was a small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre ; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with my oyster-girl’s eyes - I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, the crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids, painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent - the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere - the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and of tobacco and of hair-oil, all combined. It was a scent which as a girl I loved uncritically; later I heard it described, by theatre managers and artistes, as the smell of laughter, the very odour of applause. Later still I came to know it as the essence not of pleasure, but of grief.
That, however, is to get ahead of my story.
I was more intimate than most girls with the colours and scents of the Canterbury Palace - in the period, at least, of which I am thinking, that final summer in my father’s house, when I became eighteen - because Alice had a beau who worked there, a boy named Tony Reeves, who got us seats at knock-down prices or for free. Tony was the nephew of the Palace’s manager, the celebrated Tricky Reeves, and therefore something of a catch for our Alice. My parents mistrusted him at first, thinking him ‘rapid’ because he worked in a theatre, and wore cigars behind his ears, and talked glibly of contracts, London, and champagne. But no one could dislike Tony for long, he was so large-hearted and easy and good; and like every other boy who courted her, he adored my sister, and was ready to be kind to us all on her account.
Thus it was that Alice and I were so frequently to be found on a Saturday night, tucking our skirts beneath our seats and calling out the choruses to the gayest songs, in the best and most popular shows, at the Canterbury Palace. Like the rest of the audience, we were discriminating. We had our favourite turns - artistes we watched and shouted for; songs we begged to have sung and re-sung again and again until the singer’s throat was dry, and she - for more often than not it was the lady singers whom Alice and I loved best - could sing no more, but only smile and curtsey.
And when the show was over, and we had paid our respects to Tony in his stuffy little office behind the ticket-seller’s booth, we would carry the tunes away with us. We would sing them on the train to Whitstable - and sometimes others, returning home from the same show as merry as we, would sing them with us. We would whisper them into the darkness as we lay in bed, we would dream our dreams to the beat of their verses; and we would wake next morning humming them still. We’d serve a bit of music-hall glamour, then, with our fish suppers - Alice whistling as she carried platters, and making the customers smile to hear her; me, perched on my high stool beside my bowl of brine, singing to the oysters that I scrubbed and prised and bearded. Mother said I should be on the stage myself.
When she said it, however, she laughed; and so did I. The girls I saw in the glow of the footlights, the girls whose songs I loved to learn and sing, they weren’t like me. They were more like my sister: they had cherry lips, and curls that danced about their shoulders; they had bosoms that jutted, and elbows that dimpled, and ankles - when they showed them - as slim and as shapely as beer-bottles. I was tall, and rather lean. My chest was flat, my hair dull, my eyes a drab and an uncertain blue. My complexion, to be sure, was perfectly smooth and clear, and my teeth were very white; but these - in our family, at least - were counted unremarkable, for since we all passed our days in a miasma of simmering brine, we were all as bleached and blemishless as cuttlefish.
No, girls like Alice were meant to dance upon a gilded stage, skirted in satin, hailed by cupids; and girls like me were made to sit in the gallery, dark and anonymous, and watch them.
Or so, anyway, I thought then.
The routine I have described - the routine of prising and bearding and cooking and serving, and Saturday-night visits to the music hall - is the one that I remember most from my girlhood ; but it was, of course, only a winter one. From May to August, when British natives must be left to spawn, the dredging smacks pull down their sails or put to sea in search of other quarry; and oyster-parlours all over England are obliged, in consequence, to change their menus or close their doors. The business that my father did between autumn and spring, though excellent enough, was not so good that he could afford to shut his shop throughout the summer and take a holiday; but, like many Whitstable families whose fortunes depended upon the sea and its bounty, there was a noticeable easing of our labours in the warmer months, a kind of shifting into a slower, looser, gayer ke
The summer in which I turned eighteen was a warm one, and grew warmer as the weeks advanced. For days at a time Father left the shop for Mother to run, and set up a cockle-and-whelk stall on the beach. Alice and I were free to visit the Canterbury Palace every night if we cared to; but just as no one that July wanted to eat fried fish and lobster soup in our stuffy Parlour, so the very thought of passing an hour or two in gloves and bonnet, beneath the flaring gasoliers of Tricky Reeves’s airless music hall, made us gasp and droop and prickle.
There are more similarities between a fishmonger’s trade and a music-hall manager’s than you might think. When Father changed his stock to suit his patrons’ dulled and over-heated palates, so did Tricky. He paid half of his performers off, and brought in a host of new artistes from the music halls of Chatham, Margate and Dover; most cleverly of all, he secured a one-week contract with a real celebrity, from London: Gully Sutherland - one of the best comic singers in the business, and a guaranteed hall-filler even in the hottest of hot Kentish summers.
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