For the oyster, you see, is what you might call a real queer fish—now a he, now a she, as quite takes its fancy.’ —Tipping the Velvet

Gustatory motifs, and in particular that of the oyster, constitute a complex symbolic, political, and aesthetic framework in Sarah Waters’s 1998 novel, Tipping the Velvet. Waters takes the reader on a picaresque journey through late-Victorian London’s music halls and Sapphic demi-monde with Nancy, a lesbian male impersonator (or, in music-hall slang, a ‘masher’). This neo-Victorian novel, I will argue, uses the interpretative lens of alimentary appetite to examine and represent not only the novel’s dynamics of power, gender, and sexuality, but to fictively historicise the emergence of a collective and politicised queer consciousness at the end of the nineteenth century. I follow what I believe is Waters’s novelistic lead in suggesting that the late Victorian period saw one of numerous historical shifts in the conceptualisation of queer communities, or one particular instance of ‘coming to consciousness’, as Carl Jung’s phrase has it. This is not necessarily to construct an entirely originary movement; indeed, as I will show, the Sapphist circle Nancy enters is very much engaged with queer traditions that go back to the ancients. My analysis deals only with a sense, at this particular historical moment, of emergence (or perhaps re-emergence) of a queer communality.

This paper locates Waters’s creation of an alternative history within the context of what M.L. Kohlke calls the ‘new (meta)realis[m]’—’that which is more paradoxically more real than the thing it imitates’ (2004, p. 156), a textual strategy that Kohlke suggests is characteristic of the neo-Victorian genre. Kohlke’s conception of neo-Victorian fiction thus runs counter to Oscar Wilde’s assertion in ‘The Decay of Lying’ that ‘life imitates art far more than art imitates life’ [2004, p. 367], while also placing such fiction within the context of a debate on mimesis reaching back to Plato and Aristotle. It examines why, and how, alimentary tropes and figures are so important to this particular example of neo-Victorianism. The protagonist’s journey to sexual self-discovery and political self-assertion, both represented and complicated by the narrative evolution of her appetites, parallels the development, within the world of the novel, of a political and personal queer community, represented by the group of ‘toms’, or openly gay women, within whose circle Nancy finally finds redemption and fulfilment. Motifs of food and appetite work in several ways to achieve the fictive legitimisation of the portrayal of a nascent subculture, from providing an authenticating historical verisimilitude to developing the sexual psychology of its queer characters.

The novel follows small-town oyster-girl, Nancy, as she discovers her lesbian sexuality—first, through a relationship with Kitty, an alluring music-hall performer who plays a man in her onstage routines, but ultimately forsakes both Nancy and her own lesbianism for conventional heterosexuality. Nancy then becomes infatuated with Diana Lethaby, an aristocratic Sapphite, who keeps her as a sexual plaything before throwing her penniless onto the streets. Finally, she meets Florence, a plain but honourable woman and a dedicated Socialist, who introduces Nancy to a circle of similarly socially committed lesbians, and through whom Nancy finally finds love, acceptance, and political purpose—or, at least, political awareness. As is evident from this simple précis, the novel is primarily concerned with Nancy’s romantic and sexual adventures, and Waters’s explorations of the workings of sexual appetite are often explicitly, and sometimes graphically, represented. Nonetheless, Waters is also deft with her use of metaphor. The social and sexual symbolism of food, in particular, is skilfully employed, either to suggest or comment on sexual appetite, or to support or complicate characterisation. Perhaps most prominent, and significant, is the oyster motif that runs throughout the novel.

The opening lines describe the ‘Whitstable natives’, or oysters, that provide the Astleys’ living; in the first paragraphs, Nancy invites us to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a Victorian oyster-parlour: ‘Can you recall the tables with their chequered cloths—the bill of fare chalked on a board—the spirit-lamps, the sweating slabs of butter?’ (Waters 1998, p. 3). Further on, she details her labours in the family business:

Some people like their oysters raw; and for them your job is easiest, for you have merely to pick out a dozen natives from the barrel, swill the brine from them, and place them with a piece of parsley or cress, upon a plate. But for those who took their oysters stewed, or fried—or baked, or scalloped, or put in a pie—my labours were more delicate. Then I must open each oyster, and beard it, and transfer it to Mother’s cooking pot with all of its savoury flesh intact, and none of its liquor spilled or tainted. (p. 5)

These passages are clearly intended to create a sense of historical authenticity. They work not only to draw the reader into the world of the novel with an implicit invitation (‘Can you recall…’), but to signal that the text is a product of dedicated socio-historical research and is to be read as representative of nineteenth-century reality. Many reviewers and readers have been convinced. The Historical Novels Review enthused: ‘From the very first paragraph, the reader is plunged into the Victorian period with exquisite attention to detail and atmosphere. I could feel the rough oyster shells, hear the hiss from the gas lamps, smell the sweat and the greasepaint and taste the excitement’ (Harrison 1998, p. 25). The reader’s response is not merely intellectual but sensual, almost corporeal—she tastes the novel. Waters’s intention here is to create a sense that the novel provides access to an unmediated nineteenth-century reality that is the closest possible thing to first-hand experience—this fictive reality is ‘more real than the thing [i.e., reality] it imitates’ (Kohlke 2004, p. 156). This, in turn, enables the reader to accept the possible historical validity of later events in the novel that may be less immediately credible for a mainstream readership (for example, narratives of aristocratic lesbian orgies and underground socialist-lesbian circles). Thus, passages such as these not only legitimise Waters’s claims to historical authenticity, they indirectly serve a political agenda that attests to a lesbian subculture that has been all but erased from the historical record.

Importantly, Nancy herself is conspicuously characterised as having ‘oysterish sympathies’: ‘I was raised an oyster-girl, and steeped in all the flavours of the trade…Whitstable was all the world to me, Astley’s Parlour my own particular country, oyster-juice my medium’ (Waters 1998, p. 4). The significance of this characterisation becomes clear when Kitty visits Nancy’s family for an oyster-tea, and Mr Astley informs her of the oyster’s ability to change sex: ‘”For the oyster, you see, is what you might call a real queer fish—now a he, now a she, as quite takes its fancy.”…Tony tapped his plate. “You’re a bit of an oyster, then, yourself, Kitty,” he smirked’ (p. 49). In fact, it is Nancy who is truly oysterish—Kitty merely parodies masculinity on stage, and her audience is always aware of her ‘true’ gender. The first time she sees Kitty onstage, Nancy observes: ‘She looked, I suppose, like a very pretty boy. … Her figure, too, was boy-like and slender—yet rounded, vaguely but unmistakeably, at the bosom, the stomach, and the hips, in a way no real boy’s ever was; and her shoes, I noticed after a moment, had two inch heels to them’ (p. 14). Nancy, on the other hand, once she follows Kitty into the music-hall as a male impersonator, displays an all-too-convincing ability to transform herself, to inhabit her onstage masculine personas and to genuinely fool others. This is unsettling because, as Jeanette Winterson has noted:

What you…have in the nineteenth century is music hall, even music hall camp, and you can have pantomime, but it’s all got to be clear that what we’re seeing is a girl dressed up as a boy or a boy dressed up as a girl. We’re not supposed to believe in it, we’re not supposed to be troubled by it, it’s supposed to be a joke. (Qtd. in Wachtel 1997, p. 145)

Though this mimicry is impressive in its detail and similitude, it is never intended to convince—Kitty underscores her own femininity even as she parodies masculinity, in order not to unsettle her audience. As King notes, ‘Kitty’s act is…transgressive only within limits. …[S]exual difference is not eliminated by this kind of cross-dressing but enhanced, the masculinity of the clothing bringing the femininity of the performer into sharper focus’ (2005, p. 147). Nancy, on the other hand, displays an all-too-convincing ability to transform herself, to inhabit her masculine personas and to genuinely fool others. The first time she dons male clothing, as she, Kitty, and their manager Walter develop a double male impersonation act, the effect is unsettling:

‘It’s not quite right,’ he said. ‘It grieves me to say it, but—it just won’t do.’…Walter shook his head again. ‘It’s a perfect fit,’ he said. ‘The colour is good. And yet there’s something—unpleasing about it. What is it?’ Mrs Dendy gave a cough. …’She’s too real,’ she said at last, to Walter. ‘Too real?’ ‘Too real. She looks like a boy. Which I know she is supposed to—but, if you follow me, she looks like a real boy. Her face and her figure and her bearing on her feet. And that ain’t quite the idea now, is it?’ (p. 118)

Kitty shares this sense of discomfort at the evidence of Nancy’s troubling tendency to meta-realism, her ability to be more real than the thing she imitates. Kitty’s anxiety at the transgression of gender and sexual boundaries is echoed in her ultimate fear of both her own sexuality and society’s discovery of it. She insists Nancy promise to tell no one of their relationship, and fiercely dissociates herself from more public lesbianism:

Now, when Kitty said it, she flinched. ‘Toms. They make a—a career—out of kissing girls. We’re not like that!…We’re not like anything. We’re just—ourselves.’
‘But if we’re just ourselves, why do we have to hide it?’
‘Because no-one would know the difference between us and—women like that!’ (p. 131)

Kitty thus finds herself unable to commit to an alternative sexuality: when she rejects Nancy and their clandestine affair for married life, she also ceases to play men on stage. Nancy, however, launches her career onstage ‘clad not exactly as a boy, but, rather confusingly, as the boy I would have been, had I been more of a girl’ (p. 120). This inversion/perversion of the sexual dichotomy not only foreshadows the orgiastic sexual anarchy of later scenes, but also points to Nancy as carnivalesque heroine: aberrant because she is protean, polymorphous, refusing stasis and categorisation, neither one thing nor the other. Her ‘oysterishness’ marks her with the characteristics that, Michel Foucault suggests, were discursively ascribed to the homosexual in the nineteenth century:

We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterised…less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. (Foucault 1986, p. 43, my emphasis)

As Rebecca Stott notes, this ‘hermaphrodism of the soul’, or sexual fluidity, is closely linked to performance in Tipping the Velvet: ‘[Nancy’s] oysterish upbringing and the constant references to her oyster childhood in the novel are a perfect counterpoint to the sexual ambiguity and fluidity of the oyster itself’ (Stott 2004, p. 165). The sexually intense nature of the developing relationship between Nancy and Kitty is prefigured when, with her family looking on uncomfortably, Nancy shows Kitty how to open an oyster:

I slipped the shell carefully into her hand, and felt her fingers warm and soft against my own as she cupped them to receive it. Our heads were very near. She raised the oyster to her lips and held it for a second before her mouth, her eyes on mine, unblinking. I had not been aware of it, but I had spoken softly, and the others had quieted to listen. Now the table was hushed and still. When I took my eyes from Kitty’s I saw a ring of faces turned my way, and blushed. (p. 48)

Here, Waters makes narrative use of the well-known sexual symbolism of the oyster, as both an aphrodisiac and as representing the female sexual organs. Stott notes that the oyster’s erotic associations were clearly recognised by the Victorians:

In the late nineteenth century two of the most notorious pornographic magazines were named The Oyster and The Pearl, their titles playing provocatively on the notion of purity (the pearl, pearls before swine) and the consumption of flesh (the oyster)…if the oyster is associated with female availability—the flesh to be consumed—a woman eating oysters or breaking open oysters is then perhaps doubly eroticised. (Stott 2004, p. 158)

As Kitty and Nancy move towards an erotically charged world of sexual signifiers, cross-gender role play and emotional doubleness, the scene also foreshadows the ‘queerness’ of their relationship to the outside world and the necessity of ‘dressing up’, or disguising, their urges. A performance of heterosexual normativity begins almost as soon as the girls realise their first erotic glance at one another has been judged inappropriate; it proves to be a performance that is unsustainable for Nancy, but essential for Kitty.

Ironically, it is the sexual connotations of oysters and Nancy’s bodily associations with them that first arouse Kitty’s sexual interest. When Kitty kisses Nancy’s hand upon their first meeting, Nancy says:

I flushed with pleasure—until I saw her nostrils quiver, and knew, suddenly, what she smelled: those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks. …I made at once to pull my hand away, but she held it fast in her own, still pressed to her lips, and laughed at me over the knuckles. …
‘You smell,’ she began, slowly and wonderingly, ‘like—’
‘Like a herring!’ I said bitterly. …
‘Not at all like a herring,’ she said gently. ‘But perhaps, maybe, like a mermaid. …’ And she kissed my fingers properly, and this time I let her; and at last my blush faded, and I smiled. (p. 33-4)

Later, Kitty admits that she first began to think sexually of Nancy ‘when I smelled the oyster-liquor on your fingers’ (p. 108). Here, as above, oysters function as a metaphor not merely for sex, but for sexuality—for a specifically lesbian sexual discourse. This engenders a romantic exclusivity even more intense, perhaps, than a heterosexual coupling; of their lovemaking, Nancy says, ‘We fitted together like two halves of an oyster-shell—you couldn’t have passed so much as the blade of a knife between us. I said, ‘Oh Kitty, how can this be wrong?”’ (p. 132). This exclusivity is particularly relished by Nancy; while she grows weary of the need for secrecy, the (sexual) pleasure she derives from performing alongside Kitty is heightened by the erotic knowledge to which only they are party, as I will discuss in further detail below. This passage works to legitimise and naturalise lesbian sexuality, stressing its instinctive quality. It’s important to note here that Nancy, who acknowledges her lesbianism, makes her plea to Kitty—who, by denying and dissociating herself from her own ‘peripheral sexuality’, to use Michel Foucault’s term, becomes the representative of the dominant discourse. The scene is thus a fictional example of the ‘reverse discourse’ that Foucault asserts was made possible by the so-called ‘discursive explosion’ pertaining to homosexuality in the nineteenth century; as Foucault tells us, ‘homosexuality began to speak on its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or “naturality” be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified’ (1986, p. 101).

In a more general sense, motifs of alimentary appetite, or the lack of it, also work to suggest the various emotional and psychological states Nancy moves through in the course of her picaresque adventures, and her own developing awareness of her sexual difference. After meeting Kitty, she says, ‘It’s like I am filling up, like a wine-glass when it’s filled with wine’ (p. 20). The phrase suggests that Nancy has become aware that she existed previously in a state of unrecognised lack or hunger, with a sense of depletion that, as the relationship and her own acceptance of her sexuality develop, begins to be appeased. Similarly, Kitty’s later betrayal leaves Nancy in such a state of raw, emotional nullity that she begins to identify herself as a carcass, taking a flat near Smithfield, site of centuries of executions and butchery:

[I grew conscious] of a smell: some rank, sweet, sickening odour I vaguely recognised but could not name. I walked more slowly, and felt the road begin to pull, a little stickily, at the soles of my shoes. I opened my eyes: the stones I stood upon were red and running with water and blood. …I was at Smithfield, at the Dead Meat Market.
I gave a kind of sigh to know it. (p. 182)

Her brief, liberating affair with male impersonation and the sexual freedom it entails is over (for now), and Nancy is once more diminished to the feminine abject, self-identifying as nothing more than a piece of meat. Degraded by Kitty’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship, Nancy finds that ‘the thought of meat upon my tongue made me nauseous, and I had stomach for none but the blandest of foods. Like a woman quickening with child I developed a curious appetite: I longed only for sweet, white bread’ (p. 185). Nancy’s repulsion towards meat and her penchant for easily digested, sugary morsels adhere exactly to nineteenth-century notions of appropriate diet for women, who were thought to be constitutionally unsuited to rich or flavoursome ‘masculine’ foods (meat was often seen as a particular threat, with the capacity to upset the delicate balance of sexual nature) (see Brumberg 1997). Her lack of appetite reflects the vulnerability she experiences as she is forced to assume feminine dress again.

In this overtly politicised novel, in which the opposition of the working classes and the aristocracy is made explicit through the characters of Diana and Florence, food and meals are often freighted with political significance. The meals eaten by working people function as signifiers of simple domesticity, sincerity, comradeship, and familial nurturing. When Nancy first sees Florence, for example, the latter is on a philanthropic mission, visiting a working-class family into whose parlour Nancy voyeuristically peers: ‘All of these figures were gathered around a table, upon which stood a jar of flaccid little daisies and the remains of an economical supper: tea and cocoa, cold meat and pickle, and a cake. Despite the long faces and forced smiles, there was something celebratory about the scene’ (p. 220). The Dickensian echoes apparent here point not only to Waters’s penchant for intertextual homage to her Victorian predecessors, but also hint as to where the novel’s political sympathies lie. At Smithfield, the servant girl Mary tries to nurture the (self-) starving Nancy with simple but robust street food: ‘”You’ll perish, miss,” she would say, “if you don’t get your wittles”; and she would hand me baked potatoes, and pies, and eels in jelly, which she bought hot from the pie shops on the Farringdon Road’ (p. 186). Here, Nancy’s lack of appetite indicates the deadening of her soul (a correlation that is later re-emphasised by the characterisation of Diana Lethaby), and Mary’s attempt to nourish her is an indicator not only of her simple good-heartedness, but of the nurturing generosity that typifies the novel’s working class characters.

Gradually recovering her appetite, Nancy moves into a new flat with the humble Mrs Milne and her daughter, Grace: ‘By supper-time I had become “Nancy” to them both; and supper itself—which was a pie and peas and gravy, and a blancmange in a mould—was the first that I had eaten, at a family table, since my last dinner at Whitstable just over a year before’ (p. 215). The simple meal becomes a feast when imbued with the emotional significance, both for Nancy and the Milnes, of family bonds, friendship and loyalty—a loyalty Nancy will betray when she leaves for the spectacular indulgence of Felicity Place. References to food during Nancy’s time at Mrs Milne’s are frequent: ‘There were sausages for supper, and later cake. …I could wake wretched, plagued with memories, and she would pile my breakfast plate the higher, asking nothing’ (p. 215); ‘”Shall we have gooseberries for supper, or a Battenburg cake?”‘ (p. 216). Nancy appears to be entering a process of spiritual recovery, indispensably assisted by the bodily nourishment and emotional succour this makeshift ‘family’ provides.

A true picara, however, Nancy is unable to remain content for long, and soon she deserts the increasingly cloying kinship of the Milnes to take up residence at the ironically named Felicity Place, as Diana Lethaby’s kept ‘tart’. She is initially wary of her enigmatic, somewhat sinister mistress:

[T]he lady fed me coffee, and warm rolls spread with butter and honey. She herself only drank and, later, smoked. She seemed to take pleasure from seeing me eat…but still, there was that disconcerting thoughtfulness about her that made me long for her honest, cruel kisses of the night before. (p. 247)

From the outset, Waters’s narrative makes it clear that Diana is not to be trusted; the reader is reminded of a snake observing its prey, or a fairytale witch fattening her catch. Not averse to luxury, Nancy appears to be following the path of many an archetypal hero/ine, allowing herself to become blinded by the material pleasures placed before her; and reassuring herself that the exchange of sexual access for luxurious consumption is a purely commercial transaction and poses no threat to her psychological or emotional autonomy. Waters’s description of their first formal meal together provides many clues to the nature of the developing relationship:

We had been served cutlets and sweetbreads, all very fine…Diana, however, did more drinking than eating, and more smoking than drinking; and more watching, even, than smoking. …[A]t last I said no more, and neither did she, until the only sounds were the low hiss of the gas-jets, the steady ticking of the clock upon the mantel, and the clink of my knife and fork against my plate. I thought involuntarily of those merry dinners in the Green Street parlour, with Grace and Mrs Milne. I thought of the supper I might be having with Florence, in the Judd St public. But then I finished my meal, and Diana threw me one of her pink cigarettes, and when I had grown giddy on that, she came and kissed me. And then I remembered that it was hardly for table-talk that I had been engaged. (p. 261)

Here, it becomes clear that Nancy’s role is to be objectified and consumed by Diana. In stark contrast to the ‘merry dinners’ she has enjoyed with various (mostly working-class) companions, the silence and formality of this grand meal serve to highlight the sexual tension and sense of danger that permeates the atmosphere. The drugs Diana provides before advancing on her further sharpen Nancy’s already-heightened senses. Diana is characterised by her unnatural appetites: she never eats—a sign, as we have seen, of spiritual decay—but sexually, she is insatiable. While Nancy, with a recklessness born of emotional trauma, allows herself to become increasingly dependent on Diana, she is on some level instinctively uncomfortable with this arrangement (she ‘involuntarily’ thinks of other meals and friends), which, she recognises, dehumanises and objectifies her for Diana’s (and her friends’) salacious consumption.

Felicity Place is, in fact, entirely concerned with not merely the satisfaction, but the determined indulgence, of dissolute appetites. The household, which Nancy rarely leaves during the months she spends there, functions around a nexus of luxury, excess, and spectacle. As Nancy is drawn further into this world she herself becomes dependent upon the thrill of excessive consumption; as part of her birthday present Diana gives her ‘[a] pair of shoes of a chestnut leather so warm and rich I felt compelled at once to apply my cheek to it, and then my lips; and finally, my tongue’ (p. 268). This image works to illustrate the inexorable process of increasing sensual appetite that comes with unlimited access to wealth. Nancy’s appetite for luxury, initially a source of deep pleasure, becomes destructive when given free reign.

Diana’s Sapphic circle, also, is primarily concerned with the gratification of its own lecherous appetites: ‘”Now, my dear, you must satisfy our appetite. We want the whole sordid story of your encounter with Diana”‘ (p. 273). Nancy eventually begins to recognise the tenuousness of her situation when she glimpses her status as consumable commodity: ‘”Diana’s caprice,” they called me, as if I were an enthusiasm for a wonderful food, that a sensitive palate would soon tire of’ (p. 278). This section of the narrative reaches its climax when Diana hosts a lavish, Roman-style feast (for Sapphists only) on her fortieth birthday:

There was champagne to drink, and brandies, and wine with spice in: Diana had this heated in a copper bowl above a spirit lamp. All the food she had sent over from the Solferino. They did her a cold roast after the manner of the Romans, goose stuffed with turkey stuffed with chicken stuffed with quail—the quail, I think, having a truffle in it. There were also oysters, which sat upon the table in a barrel markedWhitstable; however, one lady, unused to the trick of the shells, tried to open one with a cigar-knife. The blade slipped, and cut her finger almost to the bone; and after she had bled into the ice, no one much cared for them. Diana had them taken away. (p. 307)

The evocation of the era of the Ancient Romans, with its orgiastic feasts, infamous appetites and openly practised homosexuality, is particularly apposite here. Indeed, Diana’s circle all but fetishise the ancients and their perceived sexual freedom, with Nancy regularly performing for them a variety of poses plastiques of mythical figures. Waters’s Sapphic demi-monde defines itself in part by a sumptuous excessiveness, which its members see as a continuation of and homage to a lost culture that celebrated sexual alterity as well as culinary indulgence. As Waters notes in a 1995 article on Antinous (a beautiful male servant of the emperor Hadrian, and one of the figures Nancy plays), ‘With relatively few recognized or prestigious historical models and traditions of their own, lesbians have been frequent visitors to classical scenes of erotic male bonding’ (“The Most Famous Fairy” 2005, p. 212). Yet, as Diana recalls, the Romans are popularly known for a legendary cruelty as much for sybaritic decadence. In the passage quoted above, the spoiled oysters function as a metaphor for Nancy’s own despoiling, and Diana’s casual dismissal of them foreshadows her own ruthlessness, later that evening, in summarily evicting Nancy after she is caught seducing the maid, Zena.

For all her cruelty, however, Diana is one of the few who perceives exactly what drives Nancy. When they first meet, she challenges Nancy’s attempts to ignore her own sexuality: ‘”It is your own sex for which you really hunger! You thought, perhaps, to stifle your own appetites: but you have only made them swell the more!”‘ (p. 249). Later, Nancy admits that Diana ‘had awakened particular appetites in me; and where else, I thought, but with Diana, in the company of Sapphists—where else would those queer hungers be assuaged?’ (p. 282). As Nancy is inducted into the ways of Felicity Place, she simultaneously practises the subtle self-justification that necessarily accompanies the unrestricted indulgence of pleasure; convincing herself that there is nowhere else she can be satisfied, she reinforces her own dependence on the satisfaction of these ‘particular appetites’, regardless of the dangers to autonomous subjecthood posed by unlimited gratification.

However, upon meeting the working-class social activist and single mother, Florence, Nancy begins another emotional phase in her picaresque journey. During the slow process of recovery, she regains her spiritual integrity and sense of moral responsibility, and by the conclusion of the novel, Nancy has learnt how to fulfil the appetites of others without becoming exploited or denying herself. This is most clearly demonstrated by an episode that occurs as the narrative draws to a close. As she falls in love (not, significantly, in lust) with Florence, Nancy begins once more to display concern for others, and hatches a plan to ‘fatten up’ (p. 383) the thin, self-denying Florence. An ‘indifferent’ cook, she is initially unsuccessful, but when the oyster season begins, Nancy’s past life, with its associations of family and simple, home-cooked meals, returns to her as a sense memory: ‘[A]s I put the blade to the hinge [of an oyster], it was as if I turned a key which unlocked all my mother’s oyster-parlour recipes, and sent them flooding to my finger ends’ (p. 384). Nancy’s delicious oyster dishes penetrate Florence’s hardened, ascetic exterior and, as eating becomes a source of pleasure to her, she flourishes and the relationship blooms. Florence, who has experienced her own struggles with desire, initially suppresses her feelings for Nancy out of guilt over her dead lover; as a friend admonishes her, ‘”It’s unnatural, what you’re doing. It’s like—it’s like having a roast in the pantry, and eating nothing but bits of crusts and cups of water”‘ (p. 408). The Victorian characterisation of homosexual desire as unnatural is here inverted, and it becomes the suppression of the ‘queer appetites’ with which Nancy has struggled throughout the novel that is seen as unnatural. Nancy, a mistress of hedonism and in need of a lesson in restraint, and Florence, well versed in self-denial, achieve an appetitive synthesis that makes them, paradoxically, a perfect match. Clearly, this will be a nurturing relationship of equals.

As Mariaconcetta Costantini has observed, Sarah Waters’s reconstructions of the nineteenth century avoid ‘historicistic games’ (2006, p. 20) such as those utilised by other postmodernist authors in order to destabilise historiographical practices. Rather, Waters synthesises an earlier, ‘realist’ mode of historical representation, based on thorough research and a drive for authenticity, with a radical sexual and social politics that allows her to create a Victorian world that is at once recognisably ‘authentic’, and simultaneously provocatively dissimilar from prevailing notions of nineteenth-century social reality. Her use of alimentary tropes, and particularly the motif of the oyster, points to the novel’s ‘meta-realism’, thus aligning it with a movement within neo-Victorian fiction. Paradoxically, this rhetorical work in turn helps to legitimise both a previously unauthenticated version of history and the authenticity of the neo-Victorian reality the author creates, as it problematises accepted historical narratives of Victorian sexuality.


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Costantini, Mariaconcetta (2006). “‘Faux-Victorian Melodrama’ in the New Millennium: The Case of Sarah Waters”, Critical Survey Vol.18, No.1, Jan. 2006 (New York: Berghahn Books)

Foucault, Michel (1986). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, tr. Robert Hurley (New York: Random)

Harrison, Bronwen (1998). “Tipping the Velvet”, The Historical Novels Review Vol.25, May 1998 (Historical Novel Society)

King, Jeannette (2005). The Victorian Woman Question in Contemporary Feminist Fiction(Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Kohlke, M.L. (2004). “Into History Through the Back Door: The ‘Past Historic’ in Nights at the Circus and Affinity”, Women: A Cultural Review Vol.15, No.2, Aug. 2004 (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Stott, Rebecca (2004). Oyster (London: Reaktion)

Wachtel, Eleanor (1997). More Writers and Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (Mississauga: Vintage Canada)

Waters, Sarah (1995). “‘The Most Famous Fairy in History’: Antinous and Homosexual Fantasy”,Journal of the History of Sexuality Vol.6. No.2, Oct. 1995 (Austin: University of Texas Press)

— — — (1998). Tipping the Velvet (London: Virago)

Wilde, Oscar (2004). “The Decay of Lying: A Dialogue”, in Barnet, Sylvan, ed (2004). The Best of Oscar Wilde: Selected Plays and Literary Criticism (New York: Signet Classics-Penguin)