Sarah Waters: Affinity and Tipping the Velvet
…I felt all at once quite dazed. I thought I had become her sister, as she wanted. I thought I had my queer desires cribbed and chilled and chastened. Now I knew only that her arm was about me, her hand on mine, her breath hot upon my cheek.
– Tipping the Velvet
For a straight girl like me, reading lesbian fiction is kind of an odd experience. It’s exactly the way I imagine a lesbian would feel reading heterosexual romance — kind of like a person without a sweet tooth who finds herself at a dessert bar. The experience might be sort of interesting to the observer, who might out of curiosity enjoy hearing the chocophiles rhapsodize over this cake or that mousse, but the idea of participating would not be entirely appealing.
That’s basically how I felt about reading Tipping the Velvet and Affinity by Sarah Waters. Each of these novels was well-written and probably interesting to any historical fiction fan; I liked them both, to different degrees, but I know I would have liked them more if I was at least bi-curious.
Tipping the Velvet was Sarah Waters’ debut novel, and it’s brilliant. This story of a Victorian girl from a family of fishmongers who falls in love with a burlesque actress is sure to appeal to fans of Michael Faber and Judith Merkle Riley. Nan, the main character, travels through all social strata of London society in the 1890s, in a picaresque novel that reviewers link with Moll Flanders. I disagree with that connection for several reasons, one of which being that Moll Flanders is not really about sex, and Tipping the Velvet most definitely is. Still, if Waters’ main goal was to write a great story and bring lesbian fiction more into the mainstream, I’d say she’s achieved it.
One caveat: This book might lead readers to believe that Victorian lesbianism was far more common and far better documented than it actually was. Waters has already said that her goal was, “…not to be authentic, but to imagine a history that we can’t really recover,” which is fine so long as it’s clear that she is in fact imagining and not discovering or researching.
Devoted relationships between women who lived together without men did exist in the 19th century (see Boston Marriage), but it’s hard to speculate on the exact nature of those relationships. And since Victorian male homosexuality was viewed very differently from how it is today, the same is probably true for females, and a modern understanding of lesbian relationships applied to the Victorian era is not likely to lead to an accurate understanding of actual Victorian lesbianism.
But moving on to the other novel I read by Waters, Affinity. This story is about an unmarried woman of about the age of 30 who had a nervous breakdown and now, after her recovery, goes to visit the female inmates in Millbank Prison as a way to stay occupied and, I suppose, perform her Christian duty. While there, she meets a psychic named Selina Dawes, who claims to be able to communicate with, and even summon, spirits of the dead.
This book is certainly not as riotously fun as Tipping the Velvet — which it is, despite all I’ve said! Nan is a great character, the people she meets are colorful and exciting, and the settings seem to always have a red curtain or a lit marquee somewhere in the background.
But Margaret, the protagonist of Affinity, is an unhappy person living in a dreary house, visiting a dank and oppressively depressing prison. Even Waters admits that “writing about characters who are unhappy is quite miserable, actually…[Affinity]was a very gloomy world to have to go into every day.” It’s almost as miserable for the reader, I would say, though Water’s nearly perfect prose does something to counterbalance that feeling.
The excellent prose goes a long way to bringing Water’s work to an audience that would not ordinarily delve into lesbian fiction. Despite what I said about the dessert bar, I was impressed enough with these two novels that I will definitely be checking out Fingersmith, which is Waters’ third novel and was short-listed for the Booker prize. A Book Worth Buying, despite me not being part of the target audience? We’ll see!