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Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters Essay

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Updated: Apr 21st, 2022

Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet enables the readers to better understand the Victorian society with its values and norms. To a great extent, this work focuses on gender distinctions and behavior patterns that were considered to be appropriate for men and women. The main female characters try to evade and violate these norms by impersonating themselves as men.

Overall, clothing plays an important role for them for two reasons. Cross-dressing, drag, and passing as men offers the main character more opportunities and freedom. These strategies allow Nancy to better understand the society in which she lives and people’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Secondly, in this way she is able to express her lesbian identity without incurring the indignation of other people who were normally prejudiced against any form of homosexuality or deviance from existing norms.

It should first be noted that Tipping the Velvet has the element of a picaresque novel which means that it describes the adventures of a character, who impersonates oneself as someone else and overcomes various difficulties in effort to achieve happiness or success (Hermans, 136). Traditionally, in picaresque novels, women act mostly as supporting characters who accompany and help men.

Sarah Waters departs from this tradition and describes women’s adventures in the world of men. However, her characters can acquire new roles in the world of men only by cross-dressing, in other words. wearing the clothes associated with members of the opposite sex.

Overall, Sarah Waters emphasizes the importance of cross-dressing and impersonation because these themes allowed her to develop the plot and create female characters who can reject the gender rules accepted by the society.

The story revolves around Nancy Astley, who lives a conservative life and helps her family run an oyster restaurant. Yet, she meets a woman named Kitty Butler, who acts as a male impersonator and her lifestyle greatly appeals to her.

This is how Nancy describes her reasons for joining Kitty and wearing men’s clothes, “whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy” (Waters, 123). Thus, one can argue that cross-dressing lets Nancy have a more fulfilling life. For example, they can go pubs that were not deemed suitable for women, except prostitutes.

In this regard, one can also remember Nancy’s speech at the rally of the socialist party. Thus, by passing as a man, Nancy is able to attract men’s attention. She might not be able to do it without impersonation. Certainly, political aspects of this novel are less important than sexual identity of the main character.

However, this example indicates that women who lived in the Victorian society, found it extremely difficult to express their views on society and politics. Provided that Nancy had acknowledged that she was a woman, other people would have taken her seriously. Moreover, if Nancy had never met Kitty, she might have lived in a conventional patriarchal family. However, she would never have been satisfied with her life.

Nancy, who at first is a timid, continues to dress as a male, even when the situation does not call for wearing men’s clothing. Passing or disguising herself as a man helps Nancy better understand the nature of her sexuality. She even begins to act as a male prostituting, but she never lets other people learn about her true identity.

Nancy’s experiences in the streets of London let her see that homosexuality could often be concealed by people, yet, it was a widespread phenomenon. Its existence could hardly be denied, even though the majority of people chose to turn a blind eye to it. On the whole, homosexuality was regarded as something non-existent or almost invisible by people who were bound by rigid social norms.

Nancy is also unwilling to accept her lesbian identity. For instance, she becomes extremely confused when one of the male visitors calls her “a tom” which was a substitute word for a lesbian (Waters, 129). At that point, Nancy could openly admit it. Only later when she established an intimate relationship with Kitty, homosexuality became an inseparable part of her identity.

Another concept that is important for the novel is drag or theatrical impersonation of members of the opposite sex (Senelick, 287). Drag plays several roles in this narrative. First, in a way, Nancy and Kitty show how women can view men and their behavior. In this way, they parody social norms that require men and women to be dressed only in a certain way.

Yet, drag is also significant because it enables Nancy to express her lesbian identity. Moreover, she hopes that there may be another woman who feels in the same way. She says, “in every darkened hall there might be one or two female hearts that beat exclusively for me” (Waters, 129). This is how she met and fell in love with Kitty.

In this way, she shows to other lesbian women that they are not alone, and that there is nothing that they should be ashamed of. By dressing as a man, Kitty demonstrates that gender roles are often determined by cultural norms; yet, a person can break these boundaries. This argument can be applied not only to gender roles, but also to sexuality. This is one of the issues that are explored in this novel.

Overall, this novel enables readers to better understand the values and norms of the Victorian society. In this case, one can speak about inability to express their sexual identity (Tamagne, 27). Homosexuality was something that people chose to deny even to themselves. Nancy decided to admit her homosexuality, and it was a courageous step that could not be taken by every person.

Certainly, she did not explicitly proclaim her homosexuality. Yet, she did not reject it as many people did. On the whole, this rejection of homosexuality was typical not only of the Victorian society. People are forced to make such choices even nowadays.

Overall, in Tipping the Velvet Sarah Waters shows that very often individuals are unable to express his or her identity. Nancy Astley discovers her lesbian identity and strives to express it through cross-dressing, drag, and passing as a male. Overall, the author emphasizes the role of clothing because in this way she can show that masculinity or femininity are social constructs that do not always reflect the inner world of a person.

Yet, the key issue that the writer addresses is the sexuality of a person. This novel shows that it is sometimes difficult for an individual to express his or her homosexuality. Nancy Astley does with the help of male impersonation.

Works Cited

Hermans, Theo. The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation. New York: Routledge, 1985. Print.

Senelick, Laurence. The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Tamagne, Florence. A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919- 1939. London: Algora Publishing, 2006. Print.

Waters, Sarah. Tipping the Velvet. London: Riverhead Trade, 2000. Print.

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