Tipping the Velvet (1998) is a historical novel by Sarah Waters; it is her debut novel. Set in England during the 1890s, it tells a coming of age story about a young woman named Nan who falls in love with a male impersonator, follows her to London, and finds various ways to support herself as she journeys through the city. The picaresque plot elements have prompted scholars and reviewers to compare it to similar British urban adventure stories written by Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe.
The novel has pervasive lesbian themes, concentrating on eroticism and self-discovery. Waters was working on a PhD dissertation in English literature when she decided to write a story she would like to read. Employing her love for the variety of people and districts in London, she consciously chose an urban setting. As opposed to previous lesbian-themed fiction she had read where the characters escape an oppressive society to live apart from it, Waters chose characters who interact with their surroundings. She has acknowledged that the book imagines a lesbian presence and history in Victorian London where none was recorded. The main character's experiences in the theatrical profession and her perpetual motion through the city allow her to make observations on social conditions while exploring the issues of gender, sexism, and class difference.
As Waters' debut novel, Tipping the Velvet was highly acclaimed and was chosen by The New York Times and The Library Journal as one of the best books of 1998. Waters followed it with two other novels set in the Victorian era, both of which were also well received. Reviewers have offered the most praise for Tipping the Velvet's use of humour, adventure, and sexual explicitness. The novel was adapted into a somewhat controversial three-part series of the same name produced and broadcast by the BBC in 2002 and a stage play in 2015.
Nancy "Nan" Astley is a sheltered 18-year-old living with her working-class family and helping in their oyster restaurant in Whitstable, Kent. She becomes instantly and desperately enamoured with a "masher", or male impersonator, named Kitty Butler, who performs for a season at the local theatre. They begin a friendship that grows when, after Kitty finds an opportunity to perform in London for better exposure, she asks Nan to join her. Nan enthusiastically agrees and leaves her family to act as Kitty's dresser while she performs. Although Kitty and Nan acknowledge their relationship to be sisterly, Nan continues to love Kitty until a jealous fight forces Kitty to admit she feels the same, although she insists that they keep their relationship secret. Simultaneously, Kitty's manager Walter decides that Kitty needs a performing partner to reach true success, and suggests Nan for the role. Nan is initially horrified by the idea, but takes to it. The duo become quite famous until Nan realises she is homesick after being gone from her family for more than a year. Her return home is underwhelming, so she returns to London early to find Kitty in bed with Walter. They announce that the act is finished and they are to be married.
Astonished and deeply bruised by the discovery, Nan wanders the streets of London, finally holing herself in a filthy boarding house for weeks in a state of madness until her funds run out. After spying the male costumes she took as her only memory of her time with Kitty, Nan begins to walk the streets of London as a man and easily passes. She is solicited by a man for sex and begins renting, but dressed only as a man for male clients, never letting them know she is a woman. She meets a socialist activist named Florence who lives near the boarding house, but before she can get to know her, Nan is hired by a wealthy widow with licentious tastes named Diana. Although realising—and initially enjoying—that she is an object to Diana and her friends, Nan stays with her for over a year as "Neville", dressed in the finest men's clothes Diana can afford. The relationship erodes, however, and Diana throws Nan into the streets.
Nan stumbles through London trying to find Florence, which she eventually does; Florence is now melancholy, however, with a child. Nan stays with Florence and her brother Ralph, working as their housekeeper. Nan and Florence grow closer during the year they live together, and Nan learns that the previous boarder with Florence and Ralph had a child and died shortly after giving birth. Florence was deeply in love with the boarder but her affections were not returned. During an outing to a women's pub, Nan is recognised by former fans, to Florence's astonishment, and Nan divulges her own spotty past to Florence. Cautiously, they begin a love affair. Putting her theatrical skills to use, Nan assists Ralph in preparing a speech at an upcoming socialist rally. At the event Nan jumps onstage to help Ralph when he falters, and is noticed once more by Kitty, who asks her to come back so they can continue their affair in secret. Realising how much shame Kitty continues to feel, how much of herself was compromised during their affair, and that her truest happiness is where she is now, Nan turns Kitty away and joins Florence.