This week my spotlight is on an author who drew me in with her incredible Victorian historical novels. I was knocked out by the depth of research, the incredible storytelling and how sexy they were compared to the rather buttoned-up novels from the period. I first became aware of her work when the BBC serialised her novel Tipping the Velvet – a beautiful, but obscure pornographic reference to performing oral sex on a woman. Of course much of the hysterical and prurient coverage in the media was about the sexual aspect of the story. Mostly, I think, due to the relationships and sex scenes being between women. This obsession with sexuality totally bypassed the novel’s picaresque structure, it’s likeness to the work of Charles Dickens and our heroine Nan’s journey of self-discovery. It completely missed what Waters was doing; the book is always described as a lesbian romp, but it is much more than that. Waters was writing back to this point in history and the period’s literature which is largely populated and preoccupied with heterosexual couples and the institute of marriage. The art and literature acceptable to the establishment was influenced by the middle class family values presented by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The literary canon mirrors what society presented as the norm or even the ideal. I’ve heard people say that homosexuality and bisexuality is ‘everywhere’ now and ‘you didn’t hear about lesbians in my day’. Actually, the last phrase is more accurate than we might think. No, we didn’t hear about the LGBTQ+ community, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist, but because they were not open with their sexuality and certainly didn’t write about it. Waters openly admits she isn’t writing about characters that existed, lesbianism was so undercover in Victorian London that there is no record of it at all. Waters is redressing that balance. She’s creating characters to represent these minorities and the hidden subculture where they might have belonged.
I was fascinated with the research Sarah Waters must have done to create the rich and vivid worlds that she portrays. One page in and you know exactly where you are, because she engages all of your senses immediately. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan’s upbringing was in Whitstable, Kent. Her working class family own an oyster restaurant and Nan helps out, so when she first meets the performer Kitty Butler she is ashamed of how her hot hands smell. Kitty removes her gloves to shake hands and Nan is mortified by “those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had ceased, entirely, to notice them”. Nan is mortified that she smells like a herring, but Kitty assuages her fears, kissing her hands and telling her she smells like a mermaid. This type of description reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s prose in The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the opening where the lush lilacs are in bloom and the scent is heavy, overpowering and intoxicating to the point of nausea. The descriptions have an element of synaesthesia and wrap themselves around the reader like a mist, taking us to that exact moment. I also loved the switching of gender, allowing characters to experience Victorian London as both sexes in one person and what a different place it could be. Men were largely the only sex who could have these picaresque adventures or ‘romps’ as they are sometimes called, but Waters opens up a whole different world to her characters in just a change of clothes. Waters uses clothes erotically with scenes of dressing and undressing and to represent the gender gap. When Nan and Kitty dress as men the clothes are simpler, they allow an ease of movement and a freedom that women don’t have. She then describes the putting on of chemises, stays, stockings and ribbons, both in the erotic sense of being tied up or bound like a gift, but also to represent the restriction of women. In the most dramatic sense the corset restricts even the woman’s ability to breath. Whereas when Kitty is performing as a ‘masher’, a male drag act, her clothing physically gives her the freedom to perform, but also gives her a pass to be comical and bawdy.
While I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. I loved Affinity. It has that deliciously gothic feel alongside the same themes of feminism and sexuality. It is a much darker novel, especially if we compare it’s conclusion with the arguably happy ending and the self-actualisation she allows Nan in Tipping the Velvet. Affinity looks at power and possession, it’s very sensual rather than a ‘romp’ and could be categorised as a psychological thriller in the same vein as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Set in late September 1874, we meet Margaret Prior, who is thirty years old and described as plain. She hasn’t been sought after on the marriage market and has to find a way to make her life meaningful, but respectable. So she becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank Women’s Prison, hoping to find purpose after suffering a period of mental breakdown and enforced rest at her parent’s home for the last two years. The pentagonal Millbank corridors seem endless and the doors with their inspection slits become symmetrical, until she opens one and hears ‘a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story.’ This sigh belongs to the medium Selina Dawes. Margaret’s charitable role is to bring comfort to the women behind bars, but this woman is incredibly different to the poor, sad and often downtrodden women she’s seen until now. This plain woman on the verge of thirty has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. Margaret is instantly transfixed by the vision she sees in the ‘eye’ of the door. Selina is captured in a private moment (or is she?) with her face turned towards the sunlight stroking her own cheek with a violet. Margaret finds this pose sensual and records in her diary that ‘she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…” Could Margaret be that violet?
Selina Dawes is not only beautiful, she’s intelligent and exciting to talk with. The conversations between the two women are thrilling and charged with sexual tension. Selina challenges Margaret’s views on spiritualism as fanciful and suggests that since such a place as Millbank exists, couldn’t anything be real? Strangely, Margaret does become confronted with evidence of the supernatural. First a locket disappears from it’s place in her room, then on another occasion, flowers magically appear. Most strange of all is how much Selina knows about her, even the things she keeps hidden, and very soon she tells Margaret she loves her. Waters weaves Margaret’s weekly diary entries with past ones that reveal a previous attachment to the woman who is now her sister-in-law, including a plan to abscond together to Italy. Clearly, this adventure never happened. We are also privy to Selina’s writing, mainly about her life before prison and how she came to be there. As the visits go on, Margaret starts to accept that Selina has some sort of supernatural power and believes that she is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Selina asserts that she did not assault a woman at a séance, but were those séances real or fraudulent? I felt desperately sorry for Margaret who appears to have a better life, but in reality both women are in prison. Margaret’s prison is built on class and convention, a mother who doesn’t give her any space and the knowledge that her desires will never be acceptable to her family or society. I was so desperate for her escape.
The third of her Victorian novels is Fingersmith and it really is her masterpiece in my opinion. We’re back in the Dickensian-esque back streets of London and the world of the fingersmiths or pickpockets. The first half of the book is about Sue Trinder, brought up in a nest of thieves with a female Fagin called Mrs Sucksby at the helm. Then one of Mrs Sucksby’s associates comes to her with a plan. ‘Gentleman’ has been planning a con and if it pays off they’ll be very rich; even better than that, it’s all legal. It all depends on Sue to play the part of a lady’s maid to a rich and very isolated young woman. The Gentleman has been wooing this wealthy heiress, who goes by the name of Maud. Very sheltered, with only her Uncle for company, Maud was born an orphan in the asylum where her mother gave birth. Sue’s job is to become her maid and gain the lady’s confidence, so that she can influence Maud into accepting Gentleman’s proposal of an elopement. As soon as they’re married he controls her fortune and if between them they can gaslight her into an asylum, he will make it worth Sue’s while. However, Sue likes Maud and they begin sharing confidences and become friends. Now Sue is conflicted about their plan, but it’s here that Waters has created a twist to end all twists. It’s the best twist in literature and I won’t be convinced otherwise! I can’t tell you anymore about the book without ruining it for those who haven’t read it yet and if you haven’t I’m so jealous that you get to experience it for the first time.
These three novels are not linked by anything except their historical period, but in each one you are immersed completely into the 19th Century and the most unsavoury locations and aspects of it. We recognise these filthy streets, this poverty and these villains thanks to Dickens and his Nancy, Bill Sykes and Fagin. When I pick up one of these novels for a re-read I feel like I’m indulging myself because they’re so rich, evocative and sumptuous in both world-building and storytelling. I enjoy her later novels too, but these three were the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling of being a child and discovering the incredible storytelling of Little Women or Jane Eyre for the first time. They always take me back to that formative experience of falling into a book and never wanting to come back out into the real world.