Fiction – Kindle edition. Riverhead Books, 2009. Originally published 1998. 480 pgs. Purchased.
In the afterward to my Kindle edition, Waters sums up the plot of her novel in the most perfect way possible: “…oh dear, how lurid it sounded, how improbable, above all how niche — the tale of a Victorian oyster girl [named Nancy] who loses her heart to a male impersonator, becomes her partner in bed and on the music-hall stage, and then, cruelly abandoned, has a spell as a cross-dressed Piccadilly prostitute and the sexual plaything of a rich older woman before finding true love and redemption with an East End socialist”.
Sounds like a lot, no? In the afterward, Waters also examines all the aspects of the novel that, in hindsight, she would have changed about her first novel, including an overhaul to the ungenerosity and selfishness of her main protagonist, Nancy.
Despite the luridness of her actions for the Victorian setting, I found Nancy to be a rather plain, unremarkable character, which may be why I stalled out with this novel during my first attempt at reading it in August 2017. I reached the end of Part One and felt satisfied enough with Nancy’s journey at that point that I had zero inclination to move forward with the novel.
This time, I found the novel to be an intriguing presentation of how woman carve out spaces for their identities and sexualities in a strictly patriarchal society. Kitty, Nancy’s first lover, is terrified of being identified as a “tom”, so much to the point that she ends her economic independence and her relationship with Nancy in order to find cover for herself.
Diana, Nancy’s second lover, behaves much like the cads and villains of modern-day Victorian literature, focusing entirely on her own pleasure and abusing the women in her household as a means to an end. She tosses Nancy into the street with the same ease men could display towards mistresses, scullery maids, and unwanted wives.
It was still a slog for me, especially the third part when Nancy meets her third and final lover. The rosy ending to the novel was too neat, too pretty for a novel filled with so much suffering and debauchery. This plus the problems I had with the pacing are not enough to turn me off her as a writer, but it certainly falls in somewhere in the middle of all her books that I’ve read. Not my favorite, but also not my least favorite.