It’s strange how, as someone who had to read books at such an insane rate during my course and the fervour with which I look for more, noteworthy books still manage to slip me by. I obviously get wind of massive book releases and I’m very familiar with many (most?) works that feature prominently in the English lit canon but others stay on the peripheral of my reading knowledge and with limited resources to pay for new books, they tend to stay there.
Sarah Walters is the award winning author of Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, all of which have been adapted to screen as TV shows and a film. This alone demonstrates the popularity of these books and at some point I must have either heard of the shows or the books themselves. This means that when Tipping the Velvet was dropped into my hands by a friend I had that strange moment when you know you’ve heard of this book somewhere before but can’t for the life of you remember if you wanted to read it or not, whether your initial reaction was intrigue or scorn. In the end, I decided to read it and promptly gobbled it up. Then I hounded my friend for the other two I knew she had and ate them as well. Now with three Sarah Walters’ books freshly read and digesting in my brain, what do I have to say about them overall?
Overall Impressions On These Three Sarah Walters’ Books Before We Get Into Specifics
The three books that I read were all of a relatively similar vein. Historical fiction set in late Victorian England featuring working class characters as the backbone of the story. And I can’t go on without lauding the amazing detail in these worlds. The research is impeccable and there are 101 instances and details that make each novel come alive with the world of past London town. There is no romance, it’s shown in all it’s dirty, haphazard and unfair glory. This is very much the same world of Oliver Twist but Walters’ approaches it from the perspective of the women who live there. Thieves and crooks, liars and cheats, ladies and gentlemen of all creeds and cuts. It’s a cruel and dirty mess yet Walters’ still manages to present the city as Grand, a home for everyone of her characters that couldn’t fathom why they’d ever leave. Their pride shines through, even reaching a big-city-phobic-lass like myself.
These three books also contain lesbianism, which I think has been part of the reason why they’ve gained such note. It’s wonderful reading books where homosexual couples are presented simply as couples. The obstacles that they face are the dice-roll of circumstance and the actual love and passion they experience is just as real and vivid as any other relationship. This is a big reason why I enjoyed the LGBT aspects of these books but I also tip my hat at Sarah Walters’ for the diverse relationships she covers. Whilst sometimes it seems as though literally every character is gay, it doesn’t make too little sense that those who were during such dangerous times would band together so closely. After a while, I thought I had a good idea of how Walters’ stories tended to play out and I think I approached my final read with the feeling that I could make assumptions. It was truly wonderfully to have the rug pulled out from under me with a twist that was unlike anything I’d read in the other two books. Sitting in my room -staring at that final page in awe- is certainly something that I’ll always remember when it comes to my reading of Sarah Walters. And now that I’ve managed to share that experience spoiler-free (phew!) you can check out some quick reviews below!
Susan is a humble girl who lives happily with thieves and con artists. She is given the opportunity to elevate her family above their poverty with a single big con, which she must assist in by becoming the maid of a wealthy heiress. As the two girls forge something dangerously like friendship, the con becomes ever more complex. This was one of those great reads where the author takes you right back to the start again and you don’t begrudge them doing that one bit. Several story developments had me on the edge of my seat and I had to see this book through to its conclusion at the cost of just about everything else in my life!
The only story I read with a non-working class protagonist, Affinity tells the story of Margaret and her trips as a visiting lady to a women’s prison. A much gloomier book than the other two where considerably less happens thanks to one of the main characters being incarcerated, a relationship blooms from the sterile cells between Margaret and a convicted medium. The two women show how women could be so easily trapped in this era, with Margaret’s torment throughout and practical hysteria at the lack of control she has over her own life often making for an emotional read. An interesting exploration of spiritualism during the Victorian times, the plot that forms and thickens throughout this story is of a much slower pace but to a jaw-dropping finale.
A young woman from Kent joins the stage circuit after an instant attraction of a performer, whom she becomes the dresser for and even a co-star alongside. This complex story follows the rise and falls of her life as a lesbian and “Tom” (transvestite) who will not relent in her desire to be comfortable with herself. The more lighthearted if the books, despite some of the desperate situations the protagonist finds herself in, this was very enjoyable and featured such a complex web of events that it really did feel life. What I mean is that nothing happens to co-incide and there is no happy fate to help (perhaps until right at the end), instead the protagonist survives on her grit and seeks her own path (well, when she has to, she also has a habit of just attaching to people when she can). This was probably the book which featured the most “everyone’s a lesbian” themes and I couldn’t help feeling that the protagonist is still pretty damn damaged by the end of the novel. It felt to me that she’s still completely co-dependent and would have ended up with whomever had taken her in and shown her kindness. That said, I might be being unfair and certainly Walters’ doesn’t seem to demand that we believe this to be the perfect relationship, she doesn’t demand we think that of any of her relationships. They’re just human relationships, as wonderful and stupid and foolish as anything we’re ever likely to encounter ourselves. I can’t help but like that. Also, on a personal level it was wonderful living as a Tom vicariously through Nan. I have attempted to dress up as male on several occasions with disastrous results so what she manages to accomplish is something deliciously out of my reach.
So, where next with my new found admiration of Sarah Walters? Well, to The Night Watch and more, of course!