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Literature / Tipping the Velvet

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Tipping the Velvet is a 1998 novel written by Sarah Waters which was later adapted into a three-part serial for The BBC starring Rachael Stirling and Keeley Hawes.

Set in Victorian England, it tells the story of Nancy "Nan" Astley, an unsophisticated oyster girl from Whitstable, who falls in love with Kitty Butler, a music hall male impersonator trading the boards whose lifestyle causes outrage in Victorian society.



  • Ambiguously Bi: It's left unclear if Kitty really had feelings for Walter, or he's just her beard, as she also tries to get back with Nan later.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Tony (in the film) when Nan opens the stage-management door it looks like he was getting pretty close to another man. He plays it off cooly, but later on Alice finds it not so ambiguous...
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Something's off about Gracie, even if it's not clear what; she acts very young for her age, and has an odd fixation with certain colors. Probably justified because of the period, as 'feeble-minded' people were rarely classified more finely than that.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Diana Lethaby and her decadent friends. They cruelly exploit lesbians younger than themselves in their parties and for sex overall.
  • Attempted Rape: Nan is nearly raped by one of her gay male customers who won't take "no" as an answer when she refused to do anal sex. She's rescued by Diana's manservant before this happens.
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  • Bifauxnen: Nan can easily pass for a pretty young man-so easily that her first proper costume as Rackity Jack had to be altered so she'd be less convincing.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Kitty has hers cut short to perform in her drag king act, with Nan later doing the same when joining it. They also become lovers as well, with this echoing Nan's self-realization that she's a lesbian.
  • Butch Lesbian: We see a number of lesbians who seem to prefer men's clothing and masculine mannerisms. Nan also gets a bit more butch over the course of the series.
  • Cast Full of Gay: The main character and most supporting characters are lesbians.
  • Chummy Commies: Florence and Ralph. Both are committed socialists and easily the nicest people aside from Nan in the story. Nan joins them later.
  • Closet Key: Nan didn't know she was a "tom" before she met Kitty, while in retrospect saying that it explains her lack of attraction for her fiance.
  • Coming-Out Story: Nan realizes she's a lesbian on meeting Kitty, who becomes her lover, and she later tells her younger sister. However, her sister is negative about this and doesn't want to hear any more. At the end though she comes to visit her family again with her next lover Florence.
  • Death by Childbirth: Little Cyril's mother died giving birth to him. As a result, Ralph and Florence adopted him.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It ends happily, just not as you might have expected. Or wanted, depending on your favored couple. Nan makes her peace with her past and seems to be happy after going through great hardships, but she does not get back together with Kitty nor find fame and fortune. However, she finds new love with Florence.
  • Gaydar: Nan seems to sense, or at least hope, that Flo is a lesbian like her. At first she thinks she's mistaken as Florence seems to be married with a child. It turns out that's her brother, while the child is one they adopted. Later it's confirmed that Florence really is a lesbian, and the two get involved.
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: Quite a few examples, most notably the title. "Tipping the velvet" doesn't seem like something dirty... but historically, it meant cunnilingus.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The language is consistent with the time period the story is set in. This means that "gay" is routinely used to mean "happy" and "queer" is routinely used to mean "strange."
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Nan becomes a kind prostitute, although she technically works as a rent boy. Regardless, she stays her sweet self.
  • Iris Out: In the TV version, obviously. Usually on Nan, since she's the narrator. Each episode closes on the scene by doing this, in the last one with a heart shape after Nan finds true love with Flo.
  • Last Girl Wins: Florence is the one Nan ends up with in the end; Nan actually met her in the middle of the story and then forgot about her when Diana came along, but she didn't get to know her until afterward.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Kitty may dress up as a boy for the stage, but is conventionally feminine outside the theater. Ms. Lethaby, Zena and Florence could also qualify. Nan, however, gets more butch as the story goes on. We also see a number of minor lesbian characters who have feminine looks.
  • Lover and Beloved: A number of the rich lesbians in Ms. Lethaby's circle have partners much younger than them who are kept women. Nan is Diana's Beloved ostensibly, though she's more essentially a sex slave.
  • Masculine–Feminine Gay Couple: A lot of the lesbian couples the series display this dynamic. Here it's shown as with working-class butch women who are in men's clothing beside aristocratic rich feminine lesbians wearing fine dresses, hats etc., the accepted high society attire of the day.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Nan is quite pretty, and shows a lot of nudity, including in sex scenes. To a lesser extent her first lover Kitty too, who is also beautiful (and shares many of those sex scenes).
  • Sex Slave: Nan later describes her relationship with Diana as being essentially this. As her kept woman, Nan is less really her lover than her slave. Some of the other rich lesbians may also have this with their younger partners.
  • Streetwalker: For a period of time, Nan works as one, servicing gay men who mistake her for a man. She conducts all her business on the streets, as she can only give out handjobs and blowjobs, since they might find out otherwise if she had anal sex.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Due to her work as a male impersonator, Nan is an expert at this. After leaving that work, she first dons a male outfit to avoid street harassment from men, then after she gets hit on by gay men keeps doing it for sex work.
  • True Companions: Nan eventually creates a family for herself made up of Florence, Ralph, and Cyril. There's even a scene where the adult members speculate as to who would be in their personal heavens with them and each one lists all the others.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Subverted. At first Nan is quite comfortable with being a streetwalker and perfectly safe. Then however a client tries to rape her after she's unwilling to do anal sex with him. She becomes the kept woman of Ms. Lethaby, which also seems okay at first. Over time however Lethaby becomes far more exploitative and controlling to the point Nan describes herself later as her slave.
  • Where Everybody Knows Your Flame: Nan brings Florence to a lesbian pub after they get together, though at first Florence thinks some of the women there are men, given they're cross-dressing. It's mostly filled with butch lesbians, although some feminine ones are seen too (like the aforementioned two).
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Nan finds that she's more comfortable in men's clothing even when offstage as this saves her from harassment by men, and thus starts dressing like that most of the time. She is always portrayed positively, never changing from a sweet young woman.

Alternative Title(s): Tipping The Velvet