Nancy Astley lives an adequate life in Whistable working as an oyster girl in her parents' parlor. She has a respectable suitor named Freddy, and her closest confidant is her older sister, Alice. They spend much of their nights the summer of 1888 watching shows at the theater where Alice's beau works. During a warm-up act at one of these shows, Nancy is captivated by Kitty Butler, a singer who performs as a male impersonator, and Nancy’s perfectly predictable life is turned upside down.
“When I see her, it’s like - I don’t know what it’s like. It’s like I never saw anything at all before. It’s like I’m filling up, like a wine glass when it’s filled with wine. I watch the acts before her and they are like nothing - they’re like dust. Then she walks on the stage and - she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet … She makes me want to smile and weep at once. [...] I never saw a girl like her before. I never knew there were girls like her…”
After watching Miss Butler’s show every night for a week, the two strike up a friendship. Nancy eventually becomes Kitty’s dresser and leaves her home for London, where the pair create a double-act and fall into a secret affair.
Through Nancy's observations as she finds different ways to financially support herself, the novel explores themes of first love and first heartbreak, as well as the social constructs of sexuality, gender, classism, and sexism. Though the novel takes place during the Victorian era, Waters manages to make parallels between that time period and these same accepted ideals in modern society.
“Four nights before I had stood in the same spot, marvelling to see myself dressed as a grown-up woman. Now, there had been one quiet visit to a tailor’s shop and there I was, a boy - a boy with buttons and a belt.”
While impersonating a male is strictly for the sake of Kitty’s stage performance, when Nancy dons a suit and cuts her long hair, she finds herself more comfortable in her own skin. She makes people around her uncomfortable by being “too real” as a boy, resulting in their stage manager altering her suits and applying her makeup to emphasise her femininity. Once Nancy leaves the stage, she keeps her suits and experiments with presenting as male in public, and finds a new freedom she had never experienced while roaming London as a woman.
“I think she was never quite sure if I were a girl come to her house to pull on a pair of trousers, or a boy arrived to change out of his frock. Sometimes, I was not sure myself.”
Waters uses the two main characters in part on of the story to inspect personifications of sexuality. Once Nancy understands that she is in love with Kitty and that women sometimes are attracted to other women, she never shies away from that part of her. Kitty, on the other hand, has always known she is a lesbian and has had other trists before her relationship with Nancy, but actively avoids any association with “Toms” or the underground gay community around her. When doubt is cast on her heterosexual public presentation, she quickly goes to drastic measures to solidify a heteronomative image.
As Nancy stumbles through various careers and positions in the city, the reader glimpses the Victorian class system, much of which still exists today. Through the different characters she meets and interacts with, we see the shocking disparity between the struggle of the working class and the privilege of the obscenely wealthy.
“How old are we likely to be when we die?”
“What if I were a lady? [...] What if I lived in Hampstead or - or St John’s Wood; lived very comfortably, on my shares in Bryant and May? What is the average age of death amongst such ladies?”
“It is fifty-five.”
Tipping the Velvet is a timeless story that is still relevant over one hundred years after it’s setting, and twenty years after it’s publication. Nancy’s struggle to find love and self-identity is gritty and passionate, and leaves her audience with a warm glow of acceptance, as well as a desire to Do Better in the world around us.