As Tipping the Velvet makes its stage debut at Lyric Hammersmith, The Resident asks Kennington author Sarah Waters how it feels to see her first novel come to life

Words: Victoria Purcell

It’s 20 years since south London novelist Sarah Waters wrote Tipping the Velvet, but the story is about to burst back into life with its stage debut at the Lyric Hammersmith.

‘It’s always lovely to see your work being brought to life like that,’ says Sarah. ‘It’s even more so the case with Tipping the Velvet because it’s such a theatrical book, not just because a lot of it takes place in the music hall – even the bits that aren’t based in the theatre are about the idea of performance. They’re larger than life. The whole thing has a lot of Victorian kind of fun to it.

‘What [playwright] Laura Wade has done in her script and what they’re really going for in the theatre is bigging up the theatricality of it. I think it’ll be a really energetic and lively performance. I’m really looking forward to it.’

The audacious best-selling novel, set in 1887, tells the story of Nancy Astley, a naïve 18-year-old who lives with her family in Whitstable, helping out in their oyster restaurant. But a night at the local music hall changes her life, when Kitty Butler, a male impersonator, takes to the stage. The two form a friendship that takes Nancy on an unexpected journey of love, jealously, the thrill of the theatre and London’s dark underbelly. The stage production is being directed by none other than Lyndsey Turner, fresh off the back of directing Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at The Barbican.

RADA graduate Sally Messham will play Nancy Astley in Tipping The Velvet, alongside Laura Rogers as Kitty Butler

RADA graduate Sally Messham will play Nancy Astley in Tipping The Velvet, alongside Laura Rogers as Kitty Butler

Sarah wrote Tipping the Velvet in 1995, shortly after finishing a PhD on gay and lesbian historical fiction.

‘As part of my research I’d looked at the lesbian and gay underworlds of the Victorian period,’ says Sarah. ‘We know quite a lot about gay male life in that period, partly because of things like the Oscar Wilde trial that pushed it into the public realm, but we know a lot less about lesbian life in that period. So I used what I did know about gay men’s life as a starting point to imagine this alternative history for women. It was always going to be a very playful book.

‘I wrote it in the 90s, which was a very interesting time for lesbian and gay life in London,’ she continues. ‘It was a time when lesbian bars started to appear and DIVA magazine came out and the whole lipstick lesbian thing was taking off. It was an exciting time to be gay and I wanted to set some of that excitement in the novel.’

Sarah’s books often revolve around a lesbian protagonist (Sarah has been called the ‘queen of the tortured lesbian romance’), but she’s not so much trying to drive the lesbian agenda as just representing the world as it is.

It was an exciting time to be gay and I wanted to set some of that excitement in the novel

‘I think we should see LGBT life reflected in books and films because it is part of life. If we lived in a world where we never saw gay life represented in books or films that would be misrepresenting the world. So it has to be there. It’s always been a big part of my life, not exactly because I feel I’ve been on some sort of crusade about it, but simply because it is a big part of my life. I’m interested in the history of gender and the history of sexuality. I feel like the past is still bursting with untold stories, so part of my writing agenda I suppose has been to try and tease out some of these secret hidden histories.’

Given the choice of topic for her PhD and the fact that her first three novels – Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith – were all set in the Victorian period, not to mention the huge amount of research Sarah does for each of her novels, I think it’s fair to say that she is somewhat obsessed with Victoriana.

‘I was really really taken with it for those first three novels,’ she says. ‘I think it’s an era that’s well beyond living memory now and in that sense it’s quite opaque and antique to us, and that makes it interesting to me. We like to think that we’re not at all like the Victorians, we have all these myths about the Victorians, like they wouldn’t show their piano legs, but I like tracing the continuities between Victorian life with our own. It’s that mix of the familiar and the strange.

‘Then there’s the fact that the 19th century is when so many modern things were born – the modern city for example, things were being done on a big scale for the first time, the big work houses and big asylums and big feats of engineering,’ she says.

‘There was a tremendous energy going on in that period and I think that was reflected in its fiction. You look at Dickens and there was this incredible kind of energy and a huge overview of society and I love that elaborateness.’

Sarah lives in Kennington, and one can’t help noticing that south London crops up a lot in her novels. Borough featured in Fingersmith and her latest novel, The Paying Guests, is set around Champion Hill and Walworth Road.

‘There’s a bit of south London in The Night Watch too, a bit of Lavender Hill. Tipping the Velvet was set mainly up in north London because that’s where I was living then, in the Hackney area. But I’ve lived in south London since 2000 and I love it,’ she says. ‘People think north London is the ‘real London’, but it seems to me that south London is ‘real London’ because it’s much more down to earth. It’s got lots of residential streets bursting with stories.

‘I love living in Kennington, it has a good sense of community and is very close to town. Tonight I’m going to a play at the National Theatre and I’ll just walk in and walk home and I absolutely love that. It seems to me such a luxury to live pretty central, but also to have a garden. It’s the perfect combination.’

Tipping the Velvet is at Lyric Hammersmith from 19 Sept-24 Oct. Tickets £15-£35