On Thursday 15th February, Waterstone’s in Nottingham Broadmarsh was visited by one of the most up-coming authors of this generation, and arguably, also one of the most controversial. Sarah Waters was born in Wales 1966, and went to school locally before going to university in Canterbury where she gained a PhD in English Literature. She now lives in South London.
Her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, won a 1999 Betty Trask Award and was short listed for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. She was also awarded the Somerset Maugham Award and was the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2000. in addition to this she was named Author of the Year three times – the British Book Awards, The Booksellers’ Association and Waterstone’s Booksellers, and named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003.
So, a very successful, fully packed career – especially for an author who fell upon fame accidentally – or so she claims.
Waters was inspired to write Tipping the Velvet while working on her PhD thesis on lesbian historical fiction that underlined the inadequacies and potential of the contemporary lesbian historical genre. As part of her research, she read many nineteenth-century novels and claims to have fallen in love with that world – with all the ruffles, bawdiness and secret lives, hidden under the surface propriety that reigned. Waters was also required to read nineteenth-century pornography and dictionaries of slang and vulgar words, which she evidently found invaluable when writing her own novel – as anybody who has read a Sarah Waters’ novel, or seen the television adaptation of Tipping the Velvet which catapulted her to fame. Indeed, ‘tipping the velvet’ is Victorian slang for cunnilingus.
Raunchy, explicit, exciting, lesbian, sexual encounters and relationships are all recurring themes in Sarah Waters’ books, three of which are set in the Victorian era. Her most recent novel however, and the reason she visited Nottingham, is set later: before, during and after World War Two. Despite moving away from well-tested ground, and Waters’ self-confessed favourite era, The Night Watch enters a new genre of writing for Waters – still set in the past, but in a decidedly more modern setting.
All of Waters’ novels have an underlying darkness running through them, holding the relationships between the characters together. Waters’ creates her characters in such a way that we as readers cannot help but fall in love with them, and experience what they experience, as they experience it. This is also a result of her use of very strong female characters – indeed, much of the audience at the Nottingham Waterstone’s event was made up of women. Women who were moved by Waters’ representation of a strong, sexually independent, convention flouting, ambitious female. Women who wished they could have the strength to be a Waters’ character, or indeed be Waters herself – who, like her characters, has flouted convention and entered a controversial sphere of literature. Waters is a female author writing about lesbian prostitutes, lesbian ambulance drivers, and women dressing as men.
Yet for Waters, this in itself gives reason to her writing. She told her audience that she began writing Tipping the Velvet for herself, never expecting it to be published, and certainly never expecting to rise to fame, and to have her literary effort televised for all to experience. The response to her stories show how women need something and someone to believe in; role models to show us that regardless of what society may say, we can do anything and should follow our desires – be they personal or professional. Sarah Waters shows this to her fans both through the lives of her extraordinary characters and through her extraordinary life of writing.
Sarah Waters is the author of Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith and The Night Watch.