Keeley Hawes as Kitty Butler and Rachael Stirling as Nan Astley, the failed couple (touching portrait photo)
Rachael Stirling as Nan Astley and Jodhi May as Florence Banner the successful couple (concluding scene of Tipping the Velvet)
Dear friends and readers,
I began reading Sarah Walters’s Tipping the Velvet as part of my project studying Andrew Davies’s movies. It’s the source text for one of his delightful transgressive mini-series. I had written about this wonderful novel briefly with two others on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog, but have revised the blog to make it about just two of Davies’s highly unusual heroine’s text romances: Wilderness and Harnessing Peacocks. Tbis blog is a genuine summary and review of just Tipping the Velvet, film and book.
Sarah Waters shows the real harm our present sexual and social arrangements cause. We experience how repression of the full panoply of sexual instincts by ostracizing people can cause. It reveals how terrible in the cost of so many lives ruined, lost, given no chance by an utterly unequal and wasteful distribution of the wealth. The costume drama is a masquerade to speaking to the reader about today.
Central to this novel is that lesbian relationships are not acceptable. Early in the book Alice, Nan’s sister turns from Nan absolutely, with repugnance, disgust: very painful even if presented in the airy manner of relatively careless youth and innocence in the novel’s early scenes. Her family has no place for her to live out her true decent emotional life. I note that Nan does not dwell on this. She could have but this kind of ceaseless pain is omitted. Simply, she finds she cannot go home again. The extent to which she drops her family may be seen in my not being able to remember her mother’s first name. This enables the book to seem jaunty and cheerful as she does not dwell on such pain and exclusion but the book reveals the effects of this. That is in effect the story.
A moment from Kitty and Nan’s act
Further, it ends in pity. What broke our two loving heroines up, Kitty and Nan up, was Kitty’s understandable fear of the being rejected and jeered at and ending up without employment or beaten up as “Tom.” Kitty’s willingness to live an utterly compromised life (have sex with a man, be married to a man) is not what Nan can do. And Kitty is left to live alone, a fake life.
Keeley Hawes as Kitty Butler with Nan: meeting in Nan’s room at Whitstable Oyster house
Part 1, Chapters 1-7:
Waters’s is just such a wonderful book. It’s the tone that makes it. Maybe I expected alienation, melancholy, loneliness, indirect anger through paradox, many qualities I associate with lesbian fiction. But no. It’s totally frank and direct, warm, easy, comfortable with the self. The heroine writes in the first person; it makes her unhappy that she must hide her sexuality and it would not be accepted by her family, is not by her sister, but other than that the prejudice of others does not seem to seep into the text as deep unhappiness or duplicity or self-hatred at all. In Chapters 2-3, Nan becomes Kitty’s dresser and they move to London, where she meets Kitty’s promoter and patron, the enigmatic Mr Bliss (that’s not his “real” name we are told, nor is “Butler” Kitty’s real name) and the other theatrical members of the boarding house at Brixton. It’s just a joy to read because of the tone, but what happens is not such a joy. They are poor, so is Whitstable where the family survives by fishing and selling oysters in a cafe. Nan does not dare approach Kitty for sex.
It’s refreshing and real.
It must be that there is not much happening and we are mostly in Nan our heroine’s mind as she goes out after her job as oyster girl in the evening first to the theater night after night, is noticed by Kitty Butler, invited in, becomes her unofficial dressed, and then takes her home for a visit and is finally herself invited to accompany Kitty to London. Davies gets all the action in thus far and that’s remarkable since this is a nearly 500 page book and the mini-series but 3 episodes.
Nan moves to London with Kitty; she meets the enigmatic Mr Bliss (that’s not his “real” name we are told, nor is “Butler” Kitty’s real name) and the other theatrical members of the boarding house at Brixton. After Nan joins Kitty on stage, the nature or feel of their act becomes more obvious, and one night in a moment of high success they are heckled and booed as “Toms!”
This seems to unnerve and terrify Kitty and she falls back on Walter Bliss, but he retreats and Kitty and Nan move from their boarding house to a more overtly respectable place, Stamford. They are a commercial success and are taken in by a pantomime company and there are just wonderful descriptions of Christmas pantomime with much insight into why they gratify adults as well as children. There are ominous notes about how Nan doesn’t know what is in Kitty’s mind, that despite their active love affair, Nan is lonely and she determines to visit home — Antaeus to the earth. Kitty will not go with her.
In the film adaptation, when Nan returns to Kitty, she has a harsh shock and surprise.
Usually I don’t like picaresque fictions and this is one. One sign of this is the introduction of new characters casually with little introspection. So for example, on p 149 Nan suddenly elaborates on her and Kitty’s dresser, Flora and Flora’s boyfriend, a young black man, Albert called “Billy-boy.” How discovering he has no talent for singing, he lives by hanging on, then becoming a tech person, all the while soaking up and enjoying the atmosphere and pleasures. Nothing within. My guess is that it’s because the narrative is so suffused with Nan’s subjective presence, and we are led (I am) to like her, I don’t mind the lack of introspection. This lack helps the optimistic kindly tone too — it does not seem that improbable since as we go we see pictures of much poverty, hard times, making do, and all from the outside, the stage, not at home or in the separate rooms people go to. A sweet Cabaret is what we have thus far.
And while the Tipping the Velvet mini-series is not given much praise by Cardwell, said to be crude or over-done, this not true at all. It’s delicate and has the same kinds of rhythms and scenes as other of his classic film adaptations. I found I could not get on with the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s Crimston Petal and White — not because it was not interesting — but because it’s done in this epitomizing packed-in style where you really have to have read the book to understand the movie. So I put the film aside (Jim downloaded it for me).
The heroine has become Nan King, a meditative moment
Part 2, Chapters 8-11
So Nan goes home and does not fit in at all. Her presents are not appreciated, and her family does not rejoice in her successes at all. Indeed she does not tell them for they do not seem to want to know. Only questions are for things like, has Kitty as suitor yet? She returns to find Kitty and Walter in bed with one another.
Here I found the first real change in Davies. First Kitty goes home with Nan and so much of the discomfort is not seen. Thus Davies softens considerably the effect and it is not about how one can’t go home again. Second when Nan catches Kitty and Walter in the book, Nan becomes violent. She bites Kitty, she becomes frantic and uses frank language of sexuality and is mocked by Walter as incapable of what she claims she did. (I’m now avoiding some words lest it be picked up by Yahoo’s vigilant software eager to sell porn ads.) In Davies there is no violence in Nan, no ugly language, no accusations. In the film Walter does not (as in the book) rush in and protect Kitty; it’s merely that Kitty prefers him. In the film Kitty seems more powerful but the whole sense of the scene’s passion is muted plus Kitty’s real reason which is to be conventional and safe.
All the dislike of Nan’s sexual orientation and how it does not fit in and causes this break is basically muted in the film.
I am puzzled by the next chapter (9). In film and book why does Nan not go back and get her suitcase of clothes and her money? She does take some of her earnings she finds in the theater, but most of it was in their flat. I can understand she becomes deeply depressed, goes and lives in the cheapest ugly place she can, avoids going out for a long time until her money is near run out but it’s just too destructive to not bring with her her larger earnings and woman’s clothes. Yes Kitty and Walter would see her, but so what? They would not prevent her from taking what was hers. Yes she does dislike being a woman, but she appears to the new landlady is bedraggled women’s things and she needs them.
Still the narrative follows the mini-series more of less. Now Nan is a “renter” on the streets, but we have more broad comedy of a Victorian grotesque type for she is taken in by two “simple” women who don’t know enough of broader life to work out quite what she does for a living and are glad of her company and money. I’m sorry Davies omitted this pair, and they are a rewrite of Victorian types in fiction
The tone is probably unreal. We are expected to believe that this narrator can live on the streets in this way, service men in these degrading ways and remain cheerful. She also remains singularly upbeat up. She would have been beaten badly by this time I suspect tor been in ugly brawls. She’d drink more. But I admit it is the tone that makes the book such a delight. It reminds me of say Henry Fielding in his broad expansive acceptance of realities.
This is such a wish-fulfillment narrative and so strange to be one. It’s about this woman who falls to be a male prostitute doing the most degrading things; she lives with two desperately poor simple women. I think Davies chose to film it because he loves really odd stories that break taboos. We then (as in the film) get Nan meeting Florence. Florence is home-y, chunky, a social worker and they are attracted at first sight — across the way window to terrace and then while walking. (In the film the child is a baby her brother took in; in the book she comes and cares for other families and places them in decent housing when she can.) Then she is snatched up by the cruel selfish wealthy woman in the carriage (played by Anna Chancellor who is type cast this way — from Miss Bingley on) who startles Nan because she is a woman. That was where Nan was vulnerable: the chink in the armor was the unexpected woman. She was prepared for bad and violent and lying men.
Anna Chancellor as Diana with Nan dressed up as a Ganymede
Chapter 11 is a raw frank chapter. The descriptions of sex between the wealthy hard upper class exploitative Diana Lethaby (lethal is the allegory) are startling to me. Not lasciviously done, not prurient but graphic. For once Davies somewhat mutes his source. It’s clear too that Blake (played by Sally Hawkins in the film) is exploited as is Nan. Nan just gives herself over meekly. She also bids adieu to Grace and Mrs Milne. It’s a sad scene her deserting them. She also forgets her appointment with Florence. In the film she flees a restaurant she was in with Florence; this has less excuse. She is not frightened, guilty, uncomfortable, just forgets.
The point is really the desperation of everyone in this era for any chance at money or a comfortable life style.
Nan is startled at the artificial quiet of rich people’s neighborhoods. She has never experienced this before. The outward stateliness of money and its ruthless use by those who have it of those who don’t is before us. She is herself though becoming a worse person, becoming a thing too.
A street scene
Part 2, Chapters 12-14
When Nan as an impoverished street walker is picked up by the wealthy lesbian Diane Lethaby (the allegory stands for lethal), and brought to live with her in her mansion, Nan allows herself to be turned into a degraded toy. She is in effect owned by Diana, body and therefore soul. Lines show her like Lydia Bennet so thrilled with gifts, really toys, like her new watch, only this fiction shows us how painfully pathetic this is. We also get lines from Nan: as when she is paraded before Diana’s friends: “when I twitched and cried out there were smiles in the shadows; and when I shuddered, and wept, there was laughter” (p. 281). Nan loses all sense of time, space, as she is a kept enclosed despised thing.
Throughout the novel (as I said in my Reveries blog), Walters as Nan our narrator maintains this paradoxical cheerful or quietly sustained endurance tone, no matter how ugly or dangerous or foul her circumstances are (like when she works as a male prostitute in the streets). But now that Nancy has become Diana Lethaway’s doll gradually we see that the way Nan has gotten through life is somehow to anaesthetize herself, to cut herself off from real feelings. I asked why did Nan run away from Kitty and Walter that morning she caught them in bed without returning for her things at a minimum, and more money.
At last we are enabled to see it: for her birthday Diana dresses her up real fancy and takes her with a friend and the friend’s toy-woman-as-boy to the opera, and there Nan comes across for the first time in more than year someone from her old life. She breaks down completely. Her heart and pride can bear it no longer. And we hear of how it was intense paralyzed distress so great that kept her away from even those parts of London where she thought she might hear of Kitty.
Nan infuriates Diane by standing and talking to this friend. Then when she’s marched to her seat, she can’t stand the opera. I confess sometimes I dislike operas intensely too: people shrieking on stage, the antics often in the worst of taste (as in Mozart where the countess and her maid force the young boy page
into a frock and lock him into a closet – har har), and Nan flees (p. 291). She has been just such another object for too long. She has heard where Kitty is playing and gets herself there. And what does she see? Kitty is dressed as a boy, the child of Walter on stage who comes up to him suppliant like and plays to his wagging fingers like a dog. The audience likes this precisely because of
the humiliation implied too. Nan is sickened for her friend even if the friend doesn’t have the understanding and flees the theater.
It reminded me that this is what the world pays for. On TV reality shows. What are Kitty and Nan to do? Florence was a social worker living very meagerly and she is too plain to take Kitty and Nan’s options anyway. (Harnessing Peacocks for all its shallowness shows us a woman driven to prostitution, being
someone’s companion and cook in our era of joblessness.)
At last Waters has not been able to avoid it. She does not use anxiety as a tool to make us read on — which considering the desperate destitute straits to which Nan is reduced one would think she would. Or violence — as yet anyway. Rather desperation is the key motif.
Zena Blake (Sally Hawkins) appears to be assuaging loneliness in Nan’s kind arms
What happens is Nan becomes momentarily allied to Blake, the young maid in the house who is also sexually exploited. As in the film, Blake (played by Sally Hawkins) was rescued from an orphanage-reformatory and the way Diana bullies and terrifies her into obedience is to threaten to take her there. Comforting one another in part, Blake and Nan go to bed together, Diane catches them, and insane more with their defiance of her power than even her jealousy, she puts them back in the meager outfits she
picked them up in, and throws them out.
Nan and Florence begin to talk
Part 3, Chapter 15
Book 3 opens with them in the streets, no friends, no money, no where to turn. Something that could easily happen to women then.
Davies’s film omits Waters’s insightful horrified apprehension of how the women (and vulnerable people generally) are driven to degrade themselves to please a crowd and sell widely, but this more mainstream kind of critique of out society is there in spades in the film. They are show utterly destitute and clinging to one another in a filthy bed in a street hovel.
I became gripped by the book and couldn’t put it down, read
into late in the night steadily on and on (this is not a short book, these are not short chapters). Over on Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, I’d been saying that historical novels allow novelists to delve very uncomfortable material directly through the disguise of costume and analogous events.
Well as I read this one I thought about being homeless, I thought about destitution in our world There’s a sequence in Jane Eyre about this, when she flees Thornton Hall and it’s no coincidence the latest Jane Eyre film begins there and keeps coming back to Jane’s experiences of rejection, freezing, danger, hunger, a desperate hunt for someone to help her.
As in the film Blake (Zena is her first name) betrays Nan by stealing what money they have and fleeing. Unlike the film Blake is intensely angry at Nan, scolds her, blames her, and we get more of a sense that the betrayal is also a (unjustified but understandable) revenge.
The film has skipped Nan’s time with Mrs Milne and Gracie (the mother with her simple daughter) so we don’t get her return there. That’s a loss as she is so desolate because these two women were disinterestedly kind.
She then seeks out Florence (Jodhi May). It’s not as improbable as it seems that she does find Florence’s flat finally; she had seen Florence before because Florence resides in the same area among the same type people but doing social work. As in the film at first Florence is very hard and rejects her in part – though takes her in. Nan wins her over gradually by cleaning, cooking, being so eager.
Ironing: how one looks the role one takes
The brother is kinder from the get-go, as intrasexual antagonism is real. It’s overcome we see by fondness in Florence which is beginning to surface.
An improbability which has continued throughout: beyond the one sharp hard hit by Diana, Nan experiences no other violence, not in the streets, no where. No rapes. I don’t believe this especially after two long bouts of being a male/female prostitute too. Plus she ought to have frozen to death or starved. She is too well by the time she reaches Florence at any rate.
But we must have some fairy tale, must we not? or we would not have a happy ending. Costume drama does avoid real life and coming this close is bad enough.
At the Oyster Bar
Chaptera 17 – 18
The ending of Tipping the Velvet is upon me and what’s happened is Florence and Nan’s friendship and now near love liaison is flowering. They have gone to a bar filled with women couples, some dressed as men. Davies has this scene but he does not have Diana have a comeuppance which is unlikely. He also ends his series on a scene of Nan and Florence facing going home to Nan’s family. This is very good because this is hard. I can see that Waters’s does skip this and ends with a long conversation — a la Austen really — of Nan and Kitty talking where Kitty is trying to get Nan back. Austen often has a penultimate chapter with a long conversation between her heterosexual couple. Waters’s book seems to lack closure but the inconclusiveness and dialogue between Kitty and Nan brings us to a different aspect of what breaks women couples up.
While Davies does some things very right, he has to work within the limitations of his media: TV and a 3 part episode. Thus he does not do justice to the development of Nan’s relationship with Florence. We see how individual and unexpected people are. On the one hand, once Florence realizes Nan is a “Tom”, she opens up to Nan and they become fervent and she a frank bold lover; on the other, Florence is a strongly ethical woman and dismayed at Nan’s street life, her year with Diana, her apparent desertion of her family (though that is understandable she says given their reaction to you). Florence remains a strong socialist and Nan gets caught up in intense continual networking duties: the house becomes shabby again and Ralph (dear Ralph, so like men in many women’s novels, the sensitive brother type, no violent there) sweats away at his speech.
The treatment of the women by the men on the streets comes home to a modern woman reader — reminding me of the news-stories we’ve lately had and my own experiences. Historical fiction speaks to us today.
I know a meeting with Kitty is in the wings and know Nan turns her down. I’m glad I do or I’d be so anxious over it, for Waters had made Nan less than moral, capable of leaving the deep feeling Florence even now.
In the night
I finished this one last night and the conclusion got me to thinking what we differently mean by “comfort” book. I think the phrase must be so individual, for what one person derives from a book that comforts them must be from their own life.
It ends with Kitty coming over to see Nan at the desk at the labor party gala and festival which is so successful. Ralph does not quite make his speech without much help from Nan, but then he does and I believe fervently the speech on behalf of socialism is intended for us today — we can only be happy as a people across the board if we have safety and justice and decent opportunity for all. It’s a clarion call. Of course I liked this and like the book for this shaping perspective throughout (as I do Graham’s Poldark books).
Then we drop to Kitty suddenly appearing and asking an to return to their life together, said that Nan knows she loves Kitty more than she does Florence — and love here means sexual attraction, having sex too, as well as deep memories of a first experience, of leaving home and their first times on the stage together Kitty says to Nan you know you don’t really believe in these politics, you care for individuals and your mind runs on particulars and pleasure. But it would mean including Walter and also living a half-lie for that’s what Kitty would want. Not that Florence and Nan are all that open but there is something craven and shamed about Kitty’s approach that Nan can’t bear. Nan refuses Kitty and turns back to Florence.
Florence is half-bitter and asks Nan, why she did not go with Kitty. Florence too asserts that Nan loves Kitty more. It’s in Nan’s response that my comfort came. Nan says because this is my home now. You are my family now, you and Ralph. You are decent good people who took me in, and I do love you much much more. Nan says Kitty’s behavior and the time lapsed have killed her love. This tender place is where I can be me and live as me. Nan then says she knows she’s not Lily, not earnest, doesn’t care about polticis all that much. And Florence replies in kind, that she’s been missing Lily for so many years, it got in the way of seeing Nan.
The baby is there, they hear the cheers from the audience inside the tent with Ralph and the sun casts it shadow and day and novel come to an end.
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