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Historical Fiction and the Revaluing of Historical Continuity in Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet

Mandy Koolen
Contemporary Literature, Volume 51, Number 2, Summer 2010, pp. 371-397 (Article)
Published by University of Wisconsin Press

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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cli/summary/v051/51.2.koolen.html

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MANDY KOOLEN

Historical Fiction and the Revaluing of Historical Continuity in Sarah Waterss Tipping the Velvet

he tendency of queer historians to celebrate studies of differences between past and present sexualities over studies of historical continuities has recently been called into question by queer theorists such as Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon, who argue: we need to question the premise of a historicism that privileges difference over similarity, recognizing that it is the peculiarity of our current historical moment that such a privileging takes place at all (1609).1 Sarah Waterss novel Tipping the Velvet, which is set in Victorian England, shows that queer historical ction may not only aid theoretical revaluings of studies of historical continuities but also destabilize the idea that studies of differences and similarities across time must exist in tension and opposition to each other. While incorporating factual historical detail in order to convey the specicity of life in Victorian England, Waterss ctionalized history also encourages readers to recognize similarities between past breeches performances and drag-king

I would like to thank Sarah Brophy, Lorraine York, Heather Love, and Grace Kehler for their encouragement, detailed feedback on my writing, and general support of my research. 1. See also Louise Fradenburg and Carla Frecceros introduction to their 1996 collection Premodern Sexualities, which critiques the binary and hierarchy operating between studies of historical alterity and continuity and questions the notion that recognizing similarities between past and present expressions of same-sex desire is necessarily an essentialist move devoid of disruptive political force (xix).

Contemporary Literature 51, 2 0010-7484; E-ISSN 1548-9949/10/0002-0371 2010 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

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performances today.2 By exploring the power dynamics that exist in audience-performer relationships, Tipping the Velvet troubles the potentially dangerous myth that queer communities necessarily provide safe spaces for the expression of cross-gender identication. This novel thus demonstrates that historical ction may use the past to comment on issues of contemporary concern and, by establishing temporal distance between readers and characters, make difcult social critiques more likely to be heard and taken seriously. Contemporary privilegings of studies of historical differences can be traced back to the 1990s, when central queer historians, such as David Halperin and Jeffrey Weeks, began to argue in favor of studies that focused on differences between the past and present and, in turn, distanced themselves from earlier gay and lesbian-feminist historians whose studies emphasized similarities across time and thus were charged with promoting essentialist, trans(a)historical understandings of sexuality and gender.3 In their 1995 introduction to a special queer issue of
2. Male impersonations, often referred to as breeches or trouser performances, were a popular mode of entertainment in Victorian England. For accounts of the various forms that these performances took, see Garber, Mullenix, and Shafer. I use breeches performances to refer primarily to diverse theatrical acts in the past in which women adopted male dress, while I employ drag in reference to contemporary onstage crossdressings. 3. Halperins One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990) reects a privileging of historical alterity as he argues for examining more closely the many respects in which Greek sexual practices differ from our ownand do not merely conrm current cherished assumptions about us or legitimate some of our favorite practices (2). In Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity (1991), Weeks warns against attempts to assert a mystical continuity between our desires and their desires across the ranges of cultures and histories (93). For a more recent example of a similar celebration of historical discontinuity, see Julian Carters essay On Mother-Love: History, Queer Theory, and Nonlesbian Identity (2005), in which Carter maintains that mother-love springs into focus as a historical phenomenon only when we make the queer turn away from a lesbian history motivated by the desire for the recognition of the present in the past, a turn away from the search for continuity in the experience of same-sex love (108). My use of the term trans(a)historical in this article works to counter uncritical conation of the terms transhistorical and ahistorical. While I use trans(a)historical to refer to studies of historical continuities that are also ahistorical in nature, I employ the term transhistorical to denote comparative studies of the past and present that closely attend to the specicities of historical continuities and ahistorical to refer to studies of historical continuities and/or discontinuities that display a lack of attention to historical

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Radical History Review, Jeffrey Escofer, Regina Kunzel, and Molly McGarry assert: Historians have . . . moved from a search for lesbian and gay ancestors, a project that characterized the rst stage of lesbian and gay history, to more nuanced analyses of the culturally and historically specic meanings attached to samesex erotic and sexual ties (2). Such articulations of a productive shift in lesbian and gay historical studiesfrom an essentialist search for similitude in the past to a more nuanced socialconstructionist focus on differences between past and present same-sex desiressuggest that queer historians may distance themselves from their forerunners in order to appear more intellectually rigorous and objective. While the emphasis placed on the newness of analyses of historical alterity may be read as an understandable attempt to legitimize sexuality studies within the broader discipline of history, focusing only on historical differences inhibits understandings of how present sexualities and genders grow out of and exist in response to the past. The value of closely attending to both historical continuities and discontinuities can be seen in the rich and alluring portrayals of the past provided in many queer historical novels. Norman Jones argues that historical ctions tend to emphasize points of connection alongside differences: similarities enough to make the past readable (literally and guratively), and differences enough to keep it interesting (2). By coupling historical research with ctional characters and events, authors like Sarah Waters bring the past to life and provide readers who feel alienated by fact-based, objective, and/or heterosexist histories with a way of engaging with the past. Although historical ction has been charged with being ahistorical and critiqued for fostering identications across timea move that queer historians such as Halperin argue results in gay chauvinism, a homosexual essentialism (How to Do the History 16)queer historical novels do the important work of lling in gaps in the historical record by speculating about past experiences of same-sex desire that have been erased or neglected in many historical studies. These
detail. Historians who have developed trans(a)historical analyses of the past include Susan Cavin and Lillian Faderman. See also Rich.

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novels may thereby provide a sense of historical belonging to contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirited (LGBTQ2) people and educate heterosexual readers about homophobic and transphobic oppression in both the past and present.

Rhetorical Anachronism and the Tracing of Historical (Dis)continuities Waterss use of the term queer in Tipping the Velvet highlights the capacity of historical novels to call readers attention to historical continuities and discontinuities and foster critical analyses of the present. Emily Jeremiah argues that [p]resent-ness is . . . stressed in Tipping by the repeated use of the word queer . . . whose insistent use appeals to and afrms a contemporary queer sensibility (133). Waterss use of this term playfully reminds readers that rather than being a period piece, this novel belongs to the realm of contemporary historical ction. Building on Jeremiahs analysis, I maintain that Waterss use of the term queer establishes not only the presentness of this historical novel but also the specicity of its historical setting. Tipping the Velvet calls upon readers to consider similarities and differences between past and present meanings of queer and, in turn, to attend to continuities and discontinuities between experiences of same-sex desire then and now.4 For instance, after Waterss protagonist, Nan, writes to her sister describing her love for the breeches performer Kitty, she receives a letter back in which her troubled sister asserts, I can never be happy while your friendship with that woman is so wrong and queer (134). As historical ction calls upon readers to read the past through the present and the present through the past, Alices description of Nans same-sex relationship with Kitty as queer may evoke awareness of past denitions of this term to mean Strange, odd, pecu4. Waters also uses this technique in other novels. As Rachel Carroll asserts, the use of the term queer in Waterss neo-Victorian novel Afnity (1999) is placed simultaneously within the late-nineteenth-century continuum of the peculiar and within a latetwentieth-century continuum of desire (145).

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liar, eccentric (Queer) as well as present uses of queer to denote same-sex desire and sexual deviancy. The former denition very much informs contemporary uses of the term, whether in hate speech that denigrates sexualities considered to be odd or, on the other hand, in queer theoretical and activist celebrations of sexual strange[ness].5 By bridging the past and present, Waterss rhetorical choices reveal that studies of historical differences and similarities are not incompatible and, rather, can work together to encourage nuanced readings of the past. Waterss playful use of terminology is also seen in Nans name change, from Nancy Astley to Nan King, upon beginning her stage career as a breeches performer (125). Waterss anachronistic evocation of the contemporary term drag king signals to readers that her depiction of male impersonation in Tipping the Velvet has much to say about not just past breeches performances but also contemporary drag practices and audience interpretations of these acts.6 Her rhetorical choices encourage readers to adopt double reading practices by considering what this novel has to say about the past and also how it speaks to issues that are of concern today. As Helen Hughes explains in her analysis of historical romances, in these novels, features of present-day society may be presented for criticism [in order to] defamiliarize them, encouraging a stricter scrutiny (5). The ability of historical ction subtly to convey contentious social commentary through the use of defamiliarization is seen in Tipping
5. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, queer has been used since the end of the nineteenth century as a slang term for homosexual; esp. a male homosexual (Queer def. n. 2). While the rst known use of this term in such a manner was in 1894, after the time in which Tipping the Velvet is set, readers familiar with contemporary uses of queer to refer to same-sex desire will register the double meaning of this term. For theoretical analyses of contemporary reclamations of queer, see Butler (Excitable Speech) and Sedgwick. 6. I use the term male impersonation to refer to both breeches and drag performances and, in turn, to signal the continuities between these temporally disparate crossgender acts. My use of the term male impersonation to bridge the past and present is not meant to erase the specicities of drag today or past breeches performances but, rather, to show that there are compelling continuities between the two. As Jay Sennett and Sarah Bay-Cheng note in their critique of Judith Halberstams attempt to distinguish between the drag king, the male impersonator, and the drag butch, there are gaps and overlaps between these distinctions and denitions (41).

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the Velvets critique of queer audiences in the Victorian period for objectifying and exploiting male impersonators, a critique that may raise awareness of power imbalances operating in queer spaces today.7

The Political Potential and Limitations of Male Impersonation Unlike many drag-king theorists who celebrate the queer audiences acceptance of cross-gender expression and the drag kings ability to disrupt gender norms, Waters promotes understandings of audience reaction and performer intent as existing on a spectrum: while some performers and audience members experience these acts as personally and politically transformative, others consider them to be playful fun presented purely for the audiences entertainment. This spectrum is apparent in Tipping the Velvet through the difference between Nans erotic identication with Kittywhich leads to her rst relationship with a woman and, eventually, to her own cross-dressing both onstage and offstageand the eroticization of Nan by her later lover Diana and Dianas friends, who value Nan solely as an eroticized and dehumanized object of desire. By exploring the diversity of audience reading practices, Tipping the Velvet highlights the importance of considering both the power and limitations of onstage cross-gender performances and of recognizing that the
7. Reecting on the use of terms like queer, lesbian, and gay in reference to past sexualities, Norman Jones argues that the threat of anachronism can be overstated and that the anachronistic connotations of contemporary terms do not render them ineffective (7). Considering that historical ction highlights similarities and differences between the past and present, I maintain that it is appropriate and important to use contemporary terminology when speaking about these novels, but to do so in ways that highlight and challenge tendencies to uncritically project the present onto the past. To that end, when writing about historical ction, I enclose in quotation marks many identity labels that did not exist during the periods in which these novels are set, including lesbian and queer, a move that, while still allowing for this language to evoke awareness of historical continuities, signals the possible dangers and limitations of applying contemporary terminology to the past and encourages close examination of the specicities of given social and historical contexts. This approach resembles Valerie Traubs decision to italicize the words lesbian and lesbianism in The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England in order to remind readers of their epistemological inadequacy, psychological coarseness, and historical contingency (16).

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political potential of drag depends not just on the performers intent or audiences response but, notably, on the interplay between the two. Waterss outlining of the disparate effects that male impersonations may have on individual audience members resembles Judith Butlers theorizing on drag. Butler views drag as having the power to disrupt essentialist beliefs in gender originals: The notion of an original or primary gender identity is often parodied within the cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities (Gender 174). Yet Butler also reects, Parody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony (17677).8 The subversive potential of drag is related to the type of gender parody that a given drag performance offers: while some drag encourages us to identify with the performers and their gender transgressions or, alternatively, to reect upon what our discomfort with these acts says about our own gender expressions, other performances prompt viewers to disidentify with and ridicule the performers and their cross-gender expressions. Tipping the Velvet suggests that the political messages conveyed by drag are determined through an intricate interplay between the characteristics of the performer and the performance space and the audience members personal experiences of sexual desire
8. Butler further examines the limits of the political potential of drag in her discussion of ambivalent drag in Bodies That Matter. While observing that drag is subversive to the extent that it reects on the imitative structure by which hegemonic gender is itself produced and disputes heterosexualitys claim on naturalness and originality (125), she explains that there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion, and that drag may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and reidealization of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms (125). Although drag may call into question the naturalness of heterosexuality, Butler recognizes that this denaturalization of opposite-sex desire may be coupled with a continued idealization of heterosexual norms. Sara Salih points to the lm Mrs. Doubtre, in which Robin Williams portrays a female nanny, as an example of a form of drag that is not subversive, since it reinforces, rather than undoes, existing distinctions between male and female, masculine and feminine, gay and straight (58).

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and gender expression. The sexual and gender transformations that Nan experiences after watching Kitty perform suggest that viewing male impersonations may strongly inuence ones life choices and subjectivity. Yet the fact that the inuential power of drag is depicted as a relative anomaly in Tipping the Velvet implies that those who experience these performances as transformative are often consciously or subconsciously searching for gender and/or sexual alternatives. This novel thus indirectly calls into question the potential of male impersonation to inuence the beliefs and subjectivities of those who are not open to experiencing such transformations.9 Nans fascination with Kittys breeches performance is informed by Nans inability to personify the feminine ideal and her subconscious longing to access the music-hall stage.10 Before watching Kittys male impersonation for the rst time, Nan reects, I had a fondnessyou might say, a kind of passion for the music hall; and more particularly for music-hall songs and the singing of them (5). Nans passion for the music hall is coupled with an understanding that the stage is closed off to her because of her lack of feminine charm. Although Nan enjoys singing music-hall songs and her mother tells her that she should be on the stage (7), Nan notes: When she said it, however, she laughed; and so did I. The girls I saw in the glow of the footlights, the girls whose songs I loved to learn and sing,

9. While it seems that Nan is alone in her experience of male impersonation as lifechanging in Tipping the Velvet, near the end of the novel, she is recognized as Nan King in the womens space the Boy in the Boat by toms who express much appreciation for Nans past music-hall performances. As Jones explains, Nans early suspicion that her audience includes girls who share her sexual desires . . . turns out to be correct [as she] learns [that] her performances won her many fans among the toms (lesbians) who still relish their recollections of her act (98). It is unclear in Tipping the Velvet whether these women are aware of their same-sex desires before watching Nans cross-gender acts or if, like Nan, their lesbian desires are triggered by or only recognized after seeing women dressed as men. 10. Upon joining Kittys act, Nan reects that she has never wanted to be on the stage (112). Yet her earlier statements about her love of the music hall contradict these later assertions of personal disinterest in stage performance. This inconsistency suggests that many women in the Victorian period repressed their desires because of the constraints placed on them as women and, as is apparent in Nans case, as less feminine women.

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they werent like me. They were more like my sister: they had cherry lips, and curls that danced about their shoulders (7). In contrast to these shapely and feminine girls, Nan says: I was tall, and rather lean. My chest was at, my hair dull, my eyes a drab and uncertain blue. Nans subconscious desire to perform for an adoring audience is thus thwarted by her lack of feminine appeal. Seeing Kitty perform signals to Nan that it is possible for her not only to access the stage but also to experience same-sex love and desire, and thus Kitty makes two seemingly unavailable realms accessible to Nan. Nan rst sees Kitty performing at the Canterbury Palace; she is immediately captivated by her and repeatedly travels on her own from Whitstable to watch Kitty perform. While Nans interest in Kitty is clearly sexual in nature, it also reects her long-standing yet suppressed passion for becoming a music-hall performer and inspires her later interest in cross-dressing. Nan reects, we had had male impersonator turns at the Palace before; but in 1888, in the provincial halls, the masher acts were not the things they are today (12). Nan seemingly does not identify with the male impersonators she has seen before Kitty because they undermined their performance of masculinity by wearing tights and bullion fringe (12). Kittys alternative, modern, and more realistic performance of masculinity makes evident to Nan that there are different ways to be on the stage and, possibly, in everyday life. Nan may identify with Kitty because Kittys act makes Nan realize that performing for an audience dressed as a man could provide her with a means of making her unremarkable gender extraordinary and worthy of celebration. After they meet, Nan and Kitty become friends, and eventually Nan assumes the role of Kittys dresser, which allows Nan a more intimate view of Kitty and of the erotics of the stage. Eventually Nan and Kitty move to London and, in order to make Kittys act more unique and increase her fame, Nan agrees to become her stage partner. When Nan rst dresses in a suit, it becomes apparent that her drab appearance lends itself to male impersonation. Although in Tipping the Velvet breeches performances provide a means for women who do not t the feminine ideal to receive acclaim for

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their gender, Kittys assertion that Nan looks too real (118) when she is wearing a mans suit highlights the social danger of actually passing as male, even in theatrical spaces where crossdressing is celebrated. As Laurence Senelick explains, Victorian theatergoers were rarely confronted with a woman plausibly playing a mans man. The male impersonator of the 1860s who did set out to convey a convincing impression of the opposite sex was embarking on a risky enterprise (301). Kitty and her manager, Walter, ensure that Nan avoids this danger by altering her suit to produce the illusion of female curves (119). These feminine tucks work to contain Nans gender transgression by calling on audiences to read her as a breeches performer, and thus really a woman; she is not to be read as threatening the binary between female and male because she is just temporarily performing masculinity for the audiences entertainment.

The Erotics of Cross-Gender Performances In addition to troubling the notion that audiences who watch male impersonations experience these performances as subverting gender norms, Tipping the Velvet provides insight into the performers experience of these cross-gender acts and, in turn, counters historical disavowals of the link between female transvestism and sexual gratication.11 Waters emphasizes the erotic thrill that Nan and Kitty receive from cross-dressing. Similarly to contemporary drag kings who describe performing as thrill[ing], arous[ing], titillat[ing] (Neevel 33), and plea11. In their analysis of a study of sixteen men and one woman (207) conducted by Magnus Hirschfeld (18681935), who developed the term transvestism in the early twentieth century, Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough note that while Hirschfeld concluded that the dominant sexual urge [of male-to-female transvestites] was focused on themselves dressed in womens nery rather than on other persons of either sex (208), he spent less time speculating on the motivations of female cross-dressers and maintained that a desire for the role of the man rather than for the clothing of the man appealed to these women (212). The male bias of this study is apparent not only in the disparity between the number of male and female research subjects but also in the reading of the one woman in this study as not gaining autoerotic pleasure from cross-dressing; this interpretation may reect the patriarchal tendency to disavow female sexuality when it is not directed at men.

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surable (Bradford 25), Waters emphasizes the sexual enjoyment that one may derive from cross-gender expression. Reecting on performing in drag, Neeve Amy Neevel asserts that lipsyncing, mirrored swaggers, and meticulously drawn beards are not for want, rather they are for desire, meant to satisfy my masculine wiles and beguile the willing audience (33). Neevel is aroused not only by donning drag attire but also by her belief in the subversiveness of her act.12 In her description of performing as Johnny T., a parody of John Travolta, K. Bradford notes: As Johnny T., I get totally charged up by and in charge of my body, my movement, my multipleand multiplyin!desires. Johnny T. knows how to strut his stuff, how to make his moves, electrify both himself and his audience (28). Bradfords description of her performance emphasizes the power that she has over both her pleasure and the audiences pleasure. Bradford asserts, Johnny T. is electric, hes greased lightning because hes magnetic, because he throws his hot stuff around and demands that you throw hot stuff back at him. Johnny T.s demand to be desired shows that sexual objectication and lack of agency need not be synonymous. While in Tipping the Velvet Nans agency varies greatly depending on the context in which she performs and how she is treated by her audience, it is evident that she receives much sexual pleasure from wearing and performing in male clothing. After they become lovers, Nan tries on a pair of Kittys pants and blushes while reecting on the difference between her past experience wearing a suit to a masquerade party and wearing Kittys trousers. Nan asserts:
it was quite different, now, to pull Kittys handsome trousers up my naked hips, and button them over that delicate place that Kitty herself had so recently set smarting. I took a step, and blushed still harder. I felt as though I had never had legs beforeor, rather, that I had never known, quite, what it really felt like to have two legs, joined at the top.
(114)

12. I place female pronouns in quotation marks when referring to drag kings in order to signal that many drag kings are transgender; thus one should not presume that they identify as female offstage.

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This later cross-dressing is presumably more enjoyable because it involves wearing the trousers of the woman she loves, which heightens Nans desire for Kitty and, in turn, makes her aware of the erotic delicate place where her two legs join. This scene shows that Nans enjoyment of mens clothing is linked to her sexual desire for women.13 Nan thinks, there was something rather thrilling about embracing [Kitty], in such a costume, with Walter so near and so unknowing (114). By depicting Nan as receiving a sexual thrill from the double taboo of expressing same-sex desire while wearing male clothing, Waters shows that, rather than being just emotionally damaging and oppressive, the closet may also be erotically charged. Erotic Agency and the Question of Consent Although Waters highlights the pleasure that women may receive from adopting male dress, she provides a more ambivalent depiction of this eroticism in Tipping the Velvet than is offered by contemporary drag-king theorists. Waterss description of Nans mistreatment by Diana and Dianas friends shows that eroticizations of male impersonators may be of a violent nature and, as a result, undermine the agency of these performers. As violent eroticizations involve the appropriation of a person who is used to sexual ends, it is important to consider the issue of consent when studying such dynamics. Does the performer agree to being objectied and/or eroticized upon taking the stage? If so, what is the nature of such consent? And, importantly, how does this consent vary according to the audience present? Although initially Nan enjoys performing in front of musichall audiences who are unaware of her sexual relationship with Kitty and thus unknowingly celebrate her gender and sexual transgression (128), as time goes by, she yearns to share the plea13. Nan also experiences an erotic rush upon getting her hair cut for her rst stage performance: I had blushed because my new, shorn head, my naked neck, felt saucy. I had blushed becausejust as I had done when I rst pulled on a pair of trousersI had felt myself stir, and grow warm, and want Kitty. Indeed, I seemed to want her more and more, the further into boyishness I ventured (124).

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sure she receives from both donning male clothing and her samesex desire with a knowing and appreciative audience. After discovering that Kitty is having an affair with Walter, Nan leaves her, ends her career in the theater, and decides to cross-dress in order to avoid being harassed as a single woman walking the streets of London. Eventually this cross-dressing leads her to perform as a gay male sex worker. Reecting on her seduction of men who believe that she too is a man, Nan asserts:
My one regret was that, though I was daily giving such marvellous performances, they had no audience. I would gaze about me at the dim and dreary place in which my gentleman and I leaned panting, and wish the cobbles were a stage, the bricks a curtain, the scuttling rats a set of blazing footlights. I would long for just one eyejust one!to be xed upon our couplings: a bold and knowing eye that saw how well I played my part, how gulled and humbled was my foolish, trustful partner.
(206)

Nans longing for an audience that recognizes and accepts her performance of female masculinity is eventually fullled by Diana, an upper-class widow who, unbeknownst to Nan, watches from a carriage while Nan acts the part of a male sex worker. Nans strong desire for a knowing audience that admires and gains erotic enjoyment from her performances has destructive consequences. Nan becomes Dianas tart (248), kept as an object of desire whose sole purpose is to give pleasure to Diana and her Sapphic circle of friends. The abuse that Nan endures in order to have her performances appreciated by Diana and her friends provides a complex commentary on the issue of eroticization and consent. Although Nan appears to be part of this Sapphic circle, Diana and her friends are interested in her only for her ability to stimulate their sexual desires, and thus they strip her of her subjectivity. As the wealthy Diana rescues Nan from renting on the streets, the relationship between them is based upon an extreme class hierarchy. The power imbalance resulting from Nans class otherness deeply informs the desire that Diana and her upper-class friends feel for Nan. Trans theorist Viviane K. Namaste examines how eroticization can be used to mask the marginalizing of certain othered

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groups within queer spaces. She argues: The relegation of drag queens to the stage is a supplementary move that excludes transgendered people even as it includes us. Appropriate objects to look at, we are not subjects alongside whom one marches (11). Similarly, as the object of the upper-class gazes of Diana and Dianas friends, Nan is not truly a part of this community: wherever she goes with Diana, she is conned to a gurative stage, since she is expected to perform the role of Dianas tart and accept that she is valued solely as an object of desire. Waterss critique of class-based oppression in Tipping the Velvet encourages critical awareness of differences among community members and the ways in which they may exploit and oppress one another. Whereas Waterss earlier emphasis on the erotic enjoyment that Nan gains from male impersonation works to demonstrate her agency, the pleasure she receives from performing for Diana and Dianas friends is fraught in that it is linked to her sexual exploitation. Reecting on the fact that Diana had watched her perform her role as a male sex worker before approaching her, Nan thinks:
It made me horribly uneasy to think she really had been observing me, all those times. . . . And yet, was it not just such an audience that I had longed for? . . . I thought of all the parts I had handled, the gents Id knelt to and the cocks Id sucked. I had done it all, as cool as Christmas; now, the idea that she had watched me went direct to the fork of my drawers and made me wet.
(237; rst ellipsis in orig.)

Although Nan feels uneasy about unknowingly being the object of Dianas desiring gaze, this discomfort is coupled with desire, and thus Waters depicts the power imbalance between Diana and Nan as erotically charged and shows that sex can blur the line between pleasure and exploitation. By encouraging readers to identify eroticallybut not politicallywith the dynamic between Nan and Diana, Tipping the Velvet couples a queer theoretical celebration of the erotic potential of power with a more lesbian-feminist commentary on the importance of critically interrogating and eradicating power imbalances in relationships. This historical novel thus bridges the divides not only between

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the past and present, fact and ction but also between two seemingly disparate theoretical approaches. After moving in with Diana, Nan is encouraged to spend her days preening herself for Dianas gaze (263). She is objectied by not only Diana but also Dianas friends, who liken her to various inanimate objects. Nan notes that after she rst talks in front of Dianas friends, Mrs. Maria Jex responds, But it speaks! . . . All thisshe gestured to my face, my costumeand the creature even speaks! (273). Maria dehumanizes Nan by referring to her as both a creaturea term that likens the workingclass Nan to an animaland it, a word used to refer to lifeless objects. Furthermore, by describing her as a nd, Maria compares Nan to a statue or a clock that Diana had picked up for a song in some grim market (277). As this description indicates, Diana and her Sapphic circle exploit their class privilege by essentially buying people for their entertainment. While Nan is clearly objectied, she is not depicted as passive or powerless at the beginning of this relationship. She reects:
The ladies watched meindeed, even while they laughed and chattered, they studied all my movements, all my parts. When I leaned to knock the ash from my cigarette, they blinked. When I ran a hand over the stubble at my hairline, they coloured. When I parted my trouser-clad legs and showed the bulge there, Maria and Evelyn, as one, gave a shift in their chairs; and Dickie reached for her brandy glass and disposed of its contents with one savage swig.
(275)

Nan is aware that her performance of female masculinity inspires the desires of the women around her. Although she courts these womens attentions to gain sexual power over them, this is the only form of power that Nan has while she is Dianas tart. Notably, Nan is allowed to exert this control only in order to make the others jealous of Dianas sexual prowess and, in turn, further their respect for Diana. Reecting on being eroticized by these women, Nan says: being admired, by tasteful ladies well, I knew it wasnt being loved. But it was something. And I was good at it (277). In revealing the disturbing nature of this admiration, Waters alludes to the mistreatment that those who

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are lonely and socially marginalized may endure because of their desire for acceptance. The objectifying dehumanization of Nan by Diana and her friends points toward how assumptions that male impersonators are staging their gender transgressions solely for the pleasure of others may lead to these performers being stripped of their offstage subjectivities by their audiences. Regardless of the fact that Nans masculinity is central to her eroticization, she may be read as embodying a perverted version of the feminine ideal, since she is valued solely for her body and encouraged to view her physicality as the only aspect of her that is of worth. Tipping the Velvet thereby shows that performing masculinity does not necessarily free women from gender constraints and the valuing of female bodies over minds. During Dianas parties, Nan is exhibited like an inanimate object that can be visually and tactilely enjoyed without consequence. The private, upper-class stage on which Nan performs in Dianas home reinscribes a severe class imbalance and allows for direct access to Nans body that would be more difcult for audience members to gain in public music halls. Nans reection that Dianas friends see her as a statue is ironic considering that she later performs tableaux vivants for thema form of performance popular in Victorian music halls wherein performers tried to replicate the composition of original works of art and women simulated nudity by wearing body-stockings (Davis 117). Nan recounts that Diana grew tired of gentlemens suits; she took to displaying me in masqueradehad me set up, behind a little velvet curtain in the drawing-room. . . . and when she was ready, Diana would pull a tasselled cord and uncover me (28081). This uncovering becomes increasingly literal, and the gradual shift toward nudity works to highlight Nans exploitation by these women as she is transformed from male impersonator into stripper. First Diana has Nan display one breast, then both, and nally Nan is presented as Hermaphroditus: I wore a crown of laurel, a layer of silver greasepaintand nothing else save, strapped to my hips, Dianas Monsieur Dildo (281). Although Nan leaves the streets upon becoming Dianas tart, it is questionable whether she stops being a sex worker, since she

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is expected to share her body with the women that she entertains, and Diana pays for Nans sexual and theatrical services by providing her with erotic and material pleasures. In addition to enjoying Nan herself, Diana may be read as pimping Nan out to her friends. After Nan is presented as Hermaphroditus, Diana leads her amongst the ladies and had them stroke the leather of the dildo until Nan orgasms (281). Because Nan climaxes when these women touch the dildo, she associates herself with the renters gent rather than the renter. Yet her agency is questionable, since her description of this pleasure is not celebratory; rather, she asserts, when I twitched and cried out there were smiles in the shadows; and when I shuddered, and wept, there was laughter. The pleasure that Nan describes seems, in actuality, to be that of her smiling and laughing audience rather than her own. As Nan is understood by Diana and Dianas friends to be performing for their gratication, her pleasure or distress is treated as inconsequential and ultimately erased. In light of the power imbalance and sexual exploitation that occurs here, Nans reection that she feels like the renters gent may be read as a strategy that she adopts in order to survive this abuse. Although Nans body reacts to being touched and she does orgasm, her physical responses denoting discomfort are ignored, or perhaps even enjoyed, by her audience, and thus this scene, which reads like a rape, provides a powerful critique of uncritical idealizations of queer audience reading practices and the supposed safety of male impersonators in lesbian spaces. Tipping the Velvet implies that public performances of tableaux vivants in music hallsspaces that were considered by many during the Victorian period to be morally impurewere safer for female performers than private performances for wealthy audiences. By depicting private spaces of afuence as more morally corrupt than the supposedly deviant Victorian music halls, Waters offers an alternative interpretation of classed spaces and alludes to the bias underlying many Victorian condemnations of music halls.14
14. See Bailey and Davis on the association of the Victorian music hall with depravity and immorality.

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Although Nan does not defend herself from sexual exploitation, she protects Dianas maid, Zena, and thus indirectly challenges Dianas sexual and class power. In order to nd out if there is truth to the claim that the clitorises of working-class women are enlarged, Diana and her friends decide to physically examine Zena, who was a slum-girl before coming to work for Diana (313). Diana demands that Zena lift her skirts, telling her, Good gracious, girl, we only want to look at you! (314). This description of the upper-class, lesbian gaze as harmless contrasts with the violence of this scene. Nan notes that Diana had put her hand upon Zenas skirt, and I could see the other ladies, all gripped, in their turn, by her wildness, making ready to assist her. The sight made me sick. I stepped out of the shadows and said, Leave her, Diana! For Gods sake, leave her alone! Although Nan does not resist her own sexual assault at the hands of Diana and Dianas friends, she defends Zena, with whom she feels an afnity because she too is a class other in this afuent space. While Nan later comes to describe Diana as a kind of devil (431), she remains with her until she and Zena are kicked out after they are caught having sex, an act of class rebellion that allows them to resist Dianas sexual and nancial power. Given that upon meeting Diana, Nan had reected, I felt for a secondwhat I had not felt, it seemed, for a hundred yearsthe thrill of performing with a partner at my side (235), the length of her stay with Diana suggests the intensity of Nans desire not only for a same-sex relationship but also for an audience that recognizes and appreciates her gender and sexual transgressions, even if that audience is abusive. Nans acceptance of exploitation is seemingly also informed by a longing for a community of same-sex-desiring women, since such a community allows for a normalization and open expression of lesbianism. Tipping the Velvet thus indicates that the idealization of queer communities as spaces of acceptance and belonging because they provide an alternative to hostile, homophobic environments is dangerous, as it may lead queer women to tolerate other destructive forms of exploitation and oppression in these spaces.

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The mistreatment of Nan by Diana and Dianas friends troubles celebrations of the reading practices of queer audiences as seen in many accounts of drag-king performances, in which queer spaces are described as safe for the expression of crossgender identication. K. Bradford, for instance, asserts, With drag kinging, audience is communitya community with a range of histories, realities, meanings and fantasies, that recognizes, validates and celebrates your act (2728). Such idealistic interpretations of the queer audience and community ignore the hierarchies that exist within these spaces and the possibility that audience reading practices may deviate from that which the performer expects and desires.15 Jean Bobby Noble argues that drag audiences in queer spaces are made up of . . . desiring and identifying boys and girls, actively reading against the grain of hegemonic gender and desire, desiring and authorizing not just the complex performances onstage, but reading and read by the many other performances offstage (62). Tipping the Velvet complicates the notion that drag audiences necessarily read against the grain of hegemonic gender and desire by showing that the lesbian gaze may assert an oppressive hierarchy between the audience and the performer. While it is questionable to celebrate the queer community for authorizing cross-gender expression, Noble importantly points to the difculty of instating a rm divide between onstage and offstage performances, as is apparent in the fact

15. Even though audience members may enjoy onstage cross-gender performances, this does not mean that these performances necessarily provoke an awareness of the restrictiveness of binary gender norms, or that these audience members would accept such cross-dressings if they occurred offstage. Namaste aptly questions, What would happen if a drag queen was not on the stage but rather cruised one of the many dark corridors of K.O.X. [a gay male bar] in search of a sexual partner? (11). Upon leaving the stage, the drag queen is transformed, for many audience members, from an eroticized, enjoyable, and contained symbol of gender transgression to a threat to sexual and gender coherency and thus may encounter hostility and violence. The transphobia that pervades many queer spaces is apparent in Anne Wheelers lm Better than Chocolate when Judy, a transsexual woman who is a singer at a queer nightclub, gets attacked by a lesbian after leaving the stage and entering the womens washroom. Although Judy is not harassed onstage, when she enters the real world of the washroom, she is viewed as a threat that must be contained and, if possible, eradicated.

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that Nans erotic identication with Kitty leads her rst to express a transgressive gender onstage and, later, to perform masculinity offstage in her everyday life. Whereas much of Tipping the Velvet complicates tendencies to celebrate queer and women-only spaces as safe and supportive, the community of toms that Nan nds near the end of the novel when she starts seeing Florence provides a more favorable depiction of the lesbian gaze by showing that it may be respectful and mutual. During the evening that she spends at the Boy in the Boat, a working-class bar largely populated by toms, Nan is eroticized and visually appreciated by many women. The working-class lesbian gaze is depicted as desiring and respectful rather than exploitative. Upon entering the Boy in the Boat, Nan notices the bartender, Mrs. Swindles, watching her as she runs her ngers through her hair and hopes that she is thinking, Well, Florence has a fancy new uncle, all right! (415). Nan welcomes this favorable assessment by one of Florences friends, as it entails an external recognition of their blossoming relationship. Later on, she reects: The evening passed: I began to think that I had never spent a pleasanter one. I gazed at Ruth and Nora, and saw them lean together and laugh. I looked at Annie: she had her hand upon Miss Raymonds shoulder, her eyes upon her face. I looked at Florence, and she smiled (418). It is telling that Nans description of the warmth of this community involves her watching these women and noting how they gaze at each other and at her with love and caring. Nan is not merely gazed at in this space; she returns the gaze. Yet Nan has not entirely shed her association of the lesbian gaze with exploitation and danger, as is apparent when she realizes that she is being assessed by a group of toms who are playing billiards. She reects, I began to grow a little uncomfortable: perhapswho knew?I had breached some tommish etiquette, coming here in short hair and a skirt (418). Although Nan fears that she is being judged because she has broken a community rule, in actuality these women are trying to gure out if she is the famous music-hall performer Nan King. After Nan admits that she is Nan King, these women celebrate the erotic legacy that she left behind when she ended her music-hall career, and

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thus the working-class lesbian gaze is once again associated with appreciation and respect. Although these women pressure Nan to perform for them, they take the stage before her, a move that works to neutralize the usual power imbalance between audience and performer. Nan initially describes these womens asking her to sing as a terrible dream (421), thus once more associating community and the stage with exploitation. These working-class women differ from Dianas upper-class Sapphic circle, however, in that they demonstrate an empathetic awareness of Nans discomfort and begin to sing in order to motivate Nan to perform for them. Reecting on the difference between Kitty singing the song alone on stage and this chorus of twenty women, Nan says of the song:
[I]t had a certain trueness, too, and a new sweetness all of its own. I listened to the boisterous girls, and found myself beginning to hum . . . In a moment I had knelt upon my seat and joined my voice with theirs; and afterwards they cheered and clapped me, and I found I had to put my head upon my arm, and bite my lip, to stop the tears from coming.
(422; ellipsis in orig.)

By taking the stage rst, these women establish a collective and welcoming performance environment in which Nan is willing to sing. Nan is transformed from audience member to performer and back to audience member when she does not know the next song that these women choose to sing. Performing in this space is emotional for Nan since, for the rst time, she has not only a knowing audienceas she had with Diana and her Sapphic circle of friendsbut also a respectful one that celebrates the homoerotic legacy that she left to women who experience same-sex desire and cross-gender identication. The striking differences between the community of toms in the Boy in the Boat and Dianas friends emphasizes that there is not one lesbian community but, rather, many communities that have differing power dynamics. These differences are clearly linked to class within Tipping the Velvet; whereas the workingclass lesbian community is associated with egalitarianism and mutuality, Dianas upper-class Sapphic circle is hierarchical and competitive. While providing an interesting class commentary,

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Waterss celebratory depiction of the Boy in the Boat implies that hierarchies do not exist in working-class communities and thus may foreclose on important critiques of power imbalances among people in working-class spaces. Performance and Gender Performativity Many critics argue that Nan gains agency at the end of Tipping the Velvet by shedding her desire to perform and developing a relationship with Florence that is more authentic than her previous relationships with Kitty and Diana. Cheryl A. Wilson, for instance, maintains that, with Flo, Nan does not have to hide her feelings, as she did with Kitty, or live in a state of constant performance, as she did with Diana, and she begins the painful separation of her sexual identity from her music hall performances and the memories of Kitty that have pursued her (302). By linking Nans relationships with Kitty and Diana to performance and pain, Wilson implies that Nans dynamic with Flo, in contrast, is therapeutic and signals a rejection of both the literal and gurative stage. This tendency to idealize Nans relationship with Flo is also apparent in Jeremiahs argument that Nan progresses from oyster-girl to dresser, to music-hall artiste to rent boy, to sex slave to housewife/parent and socialist orator. She journeys towards a mature relationship with Florence, and social awareness (135).16 Considering that Nan lies so that Flo will take her into her home and seems to perform the role of political activist not because she is committed to socialism but, rather, in order to win Flos affection, it is questionable not only whether this relationship can accurately be described as mature but also whether it aids Nans personal development.17
16. Likewise, Mark Llewellyn argues that the end of Tipping the Velvet shows Nan and Florence actively engaging in a social revolution; embracing the possibilities of literature, thought and sexual desire in one and the same moment (19899). 17. Stefania Ciocia complicates the notion that Nan achieves social awareness at the end of this novel in her argument that Nan undergoes a theatrical apprenticeship, rather than a sentimental education [in Tipping the Velvet]: her decision to settle down with Florence does not imply a heartfelt subscription to her lovers values and code of conduct, but is motivated, in part at least, by the desire to step off the traditional stage (Queer par. 16).

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While there seems to be a repudiation of the literal stage when Nan says farewell to both Diana and Kitty at the end of Tipping the Velvet, rather than signaling the end of performance in Nans life, this curtain call (Ciocia, Journeying par. 17) may indicate a break from the type of performance that Nan gave during her relationship with Kittythe performance of heterosexuality so that their same-sex love would not be recognized by their music-hall audiencesand the performance of subservient and eroticized object of desire while living with Diana. Although at the end of the novel Nan resists Kittys control over her by telling Kitty that Nan aint my name, and never was (467), she cannot entirely shed her past as Nan King nor fully repudiate the stage, since her past experiences are part of her present persona and will continue to inform her future identity. By detailing how Nans onstage cross-dressings have inuenced her subjectivity and gender expression, Tipping the Velvet shows that performances may have performative effects. In her explanation of gender performativity, Judith Butler asserts that gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed (Gender 33). Butler further explains, Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being (4344). Butlers choice to use gender parody and drag as examples of gender performativity has resulted in much confusion among readers who, consequently, have interpreted Gender Trouble as saying that if gender is performative it must be radically free (Butler, qtd. in Osborne and Segal par. 5). In response to this confusion, Butler has emphasized the difference between performativity and performance (par. 9). As Sara Salih explains, whereas performance presupposes a preexisting subject, performativity contests the very notion of the subject (57) and, rather, is what leads to the illusion of a natural sort of being. While differentiations between performativity and performance importantly trouble the notion that gender can be created and changed at will, Tipping the Velvet and other drag narratives indicate that drag may indeed be a performative act. Drag per-

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formances involve a repetitious doing of gender in that they are often rehearsed and performed multiple times; they consist of a repetition of acts that may, in turn, affect the performers gender expression and overall subjectivity. While Butlers move to distinguish clearly between performance and performativity is an understandable response to misreadings of her theory, her use of drag as an example of performativity may be read as productive since it alludes to the way that onstage acts can alter the identities of performers. Bradford highlights the performativity of drag in her reection that her character, Johnny T., is more and more . . . part of my daily walk and my identityhe pops up when I am out doing errands and the assorted mundanities of daily life (23). Likewise, the masculinity that Nan begins expressing when she is onstage persists after she ends her theatrical career, as is apparent once she begins to pass as a man on the streets of London. Nan reects that the madam who kept her changing room during her days of passing was never quite sure if I were a girl come to her house to pull on a pair of trousers, or a boy arrived to change out of his frock. Sometimes, I was not sure myself (195). The ability of onstage cross-dressings to inuence ones everyday expression of gender is also seen when Nan decides to wear trousers and cut her hair after she begins living with Flo. Tipping the Velvet thus shows that cross-gender performances may penetrate beyond the stage and have material effects on the genders of performers and, possibly, those of audience members as well. While Waterss depiction of the way that Nans past on the stage has affected her present subjectivity shows that there is continuity between her past and present identities, Tipping the Velvet also emphasizes Nans personal transformation from her days as an oyster girl in Whitstable. The continuities and discontinuities in Nans personal history reect the (dis)continuities that are apparent between the LGBTQ2 past and present. By encouraging awareness of differences and similarities between Victorian and contemporary England, Tipping the Velvet avoids both reinscribing an uncritical celebration of historical alterity and constructing a trans(a)historical depiction of the past. Waterss decision to set this novel in the Victorian era establishes

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temporal distance between contemporary readers and her characters and thereby potentially makes readers, especially queer women, more receptive to her critical depiction of queer audience reading practices and lesbian communities and relationships. By highlighting the diversity among lesbian audiences and relationships, Tipping the Velvet complicates homogenizing views of lesbians that allow for the development and dissemination of reductive stereotypes about queer women. Tipping the Velvet uses the past to encourage critical awareness of the hierarchies that exist in contemporary queer spaces and, in doing so, may inspire readers to take action in order to make these spaces more inclusive and supportive.
Laurentian University (Thorneloe College)

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Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence. 1980. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 22754. Salih, Sara. On Judith Butler and Performativity. SAGE Publications. 2002. Web. 12 Nov. 2007. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993. Senelick, Laurence. The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 2000. Sennett, Jay, and Sarah Bay-Cheng. I Am the Man!: Performing Gender and Other Incongruities. Journal of Homosexuality 43.34 (2002): 3947. Informaworld Journals. Web. 10 May 2007. Shafer, Yvonne. Women in Male Roles: Charlotte Cushman and Others. Women in American Theatre. Ed. Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2006. 6578. Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. New York: Cambridge UP, 2002. Waters, Sarah. Tipping the Velvet. 1998. New York: Riverhead, 2000. Weeks, Jeffrey. Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram, 1991. Wheeler, Anne, dir. Better than Chocolate. Perf. Christina Cox, Wendy Crewson, and Karyn Dwyer. TVA Films, 1999. Film. Wilson, Cheryl A. From the Drawing Room to the Stage: Performing Sexuality in Sarah Waterss Tipping the Velvet. Womens Studies: An Inter-Disciplinary Journal 35.3 (2006): 285305. Informaworld Journals. Web. 25 May 2007.