Reading Resolution: “Tipping the Velvet” by Sarah Waters

16. A book you’ve seen adapted: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

 List Progress: 5/30

Adapting a story that takes place over a long period of time is a particular sort of challenge. Novels have so much more time to show the full length of a person’s life than a movie does, or even a miniseries, and that’s before we get to the casting issues of showing the same character at multiple stages of their life. The 2002 mini-series adaptation of Sarah Water’s 1998 novel Tipping the Velvet does a good job of capturing the spirit of the first half of the book, but it is clearly more interested in some parts of the story than others and gives those sections more time. Reading the book second, I was surprised by how much the main character, Nancy Astley, is allowed to mature and grow as a person. We see seven years of Nancy’s life, and boy is there a lot in it.

Tipping the Velvet takes place in 1890’s England and follows Nancy’s journey from an oyster fisher’s daughter in Whistable to a music hall performer in London after she falls in love with Kitty Butler, a dashing performer and male impersonator. She becomes caught up in the thrills and glamor of Kitty’s life, but soon discovers that the world is much more comfortable with queerness packaged as an entertaining product than with real life lesbians living their lives and loves. After an ugly parting of ways, Nancy spends years throwing herself from one thing to another: she lives in turn as a recluse, a back alley male prostitute, a kept woman to a rich and cruel “Sapphist”, a beggar, and an aspiring socialist. While she takes her experiences from the music halls forward with her, they are just one part of her life, and not the absolute center that the mini-series makes it out to be. The series particularly underserves the socialism of the final section of the book, and the passionate activist character who becomes a love interest. But both book and show have enough joy and energy to keep the audience invested, just as Nancy herself does.

Those who don’t enjoy sex scenes may be a bit turned off of this book; when the title is an old-timey slang term for cunnilingus, it comes with the territory. But the sex and romance feels like it evolves naturally out of Nancy’s journey. Her love for Kitty is bright and naive because she is 18 when she meets her, and it naturally feels different than the relationships she makes in her mid-twenties. Being inside Nancy’s heads means you get to feel her grow and flourish over the years and mature into the woman she wants to be. The mini-series is a lot of fun and does many things well, but that growth and sense of change is something you can only get from the slow journeys of the book. But whatever you are in the mood for, original or adaptation, Tipping the Velvet is a lot of fun.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

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