Tipping the Velvet: The axis of powers shaping Nancy’s gender identity


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 Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.

Judith Butler – Gender Trouble

Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet

Sarah Walter’s lesbian romance novel ‘Tipping the Velvet’ takes us into an exhilarating journey of Nancy’s playful sexuality. It crosses the boundaries of the strictly heteronormative society of a Victorian England during the 1890s and shows the fluidity of gender in the context of different regulatory frames of desire, culture and class.

Walters divides the book into three major parts of Nancy’s life. Each part unfolds in a set of different events that helps shape Nancy’s fluctuated gender. She examines Nancy’s gender transformation against the powerful drive of desire, performativity, language, melancholia and class. In the first part she introduces Nancy to the world of male impersonators through the character of Kitty the performer, in the second part she examines the power of class in shaping gender expressions through the character of the rich woman Diana, and in the last part she places a matured Nancy into a world of philanthropy and social activism through the character of Florence.

Nancy, the protagonist and the narrator of the book, starts her story by showing us her childhood life in Whistable (a small town in Kent that is famous for its delicious oysters). She presents herself to be like any other normal girl; she lives with a family who run an oyster parlour, she has a dear sister and a beau “a boy named Freddy” (p.5). She describes herself to be:

a slender, white-faced, unremarkable-looking girl, with the sleeves of her dress rolled up to her elbows, and a lock of lank and colourless hair forever falling into her eye, and her lips continually moving to the words of some street-singer’s of music-hall song. (p.4)

She does not show to be troubled with her gender as a girl but she still shows a notion of vulnerability or maybe an understandable lack of self confidence as a teenager in the way she perceives her femininity. When her mother points out that she should be on stage for having a pretty voice, she rationalizes that she cannot do that because she is not as feminine or as pretty as other girls; those girls whom according to her description look like the ones we tend to see on glossy magazine covers have cherry lips, curls that dances around their shoulders, bosoms that juts, elbows that dimples, and ankles that are as slim and as shapely as beer-bottles. In contrast, she thinks of herself to be tall with a lean figure, flat chest, dull hair, and a drab and uncertain blue eyes (p.7). That perception of her femininity does not go hand on hand with how others perceive her. She proves to be a pretty girl when she takes care of herself, and that is shown during her second trip to the theatre to watch Kitty; she dresses up and manages to catch the eyes of boys along her journey.

I put on my Sunday frock, the frock I usually wore to go out walking in with Freddy. Davy whistled when I came down all dressed up; and there were one or two boys who tried to catch my eye all through the ride to Canterbury. (p.16)

The articulation of herself being less of a woman is nowhere to be found. Nevertheless, her sense of gender identity unfolds throughout the comparisons of herself along members of both the same and opposite genders. She barely crosses the realm of the enforced gender binary and her achievement of her sense of gender goes in line with  Judith Butler’s proposal in ‘Gender Trouble’. It gets materialized by differentiating herself from the opposite gender (and I add the same gender as well).

The articulation “I feel like a woman” by a female or “I feel like a man” by a male presupposes that in neither case is the claim meaninglessly redundant. Although it might appear unproblematic to be a given anatomy (although we shall later consider the way in which that project is also fraught with difficulty), the experience of a gendered psychic disposition or cultural identity is considered an achievement. Thus,“I feel like a woman”is true to the extent that Aretha Franklin’s invocation of the Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire defining Other is assumed: “You make me feel like a natural woman.” This achievement requires a differentiation from the opposite gender. Hence, one is one’s gender to the extent that one is not the other gender, a formulation that presupposes and enforces the restriction of gender within that binary pair. (p.29/30)

In addition to that, I see her character’s gender unravels along the lines of Butler’s theory of performativity. Performativity, for Butler, must be understood not as a singular or deliberate “act,” but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names (‘Bodies that Matter’ (p.2)). Nancy, in that sense, is pushed into becoming a male impersonator on stage because of her love for Kitty. It is not something that she consciously pursue, but rather it grows under her skin by a reiterative and citational practices, by her male performance on stage (later on street, and in Diana’s house).

It is unclear where the strong infatuation of Nancy towards Kitty comes from. Perhaps it has to do with Kitty’s daring boyish performance on stage in front all of those people in relation to Nancy’s feelings of being less feminine than other girls and unconsciously denying or fighting a slight identification with the other gender. Kitty on stage,as Nancy describes her, wears a suit like a handsome gentleman and has a short brown hair that fits her head like a little cap.

She was a pretty boy, her face was a perfect oval, and her eyes were large and dark at the lashes, and her lips were rosy and full. Her figure, too, was boy-like, and slender, yet rounded, vaguely but unmistakably, at the bosom, the stomach and the hips, in a way no real boy’s ever was..[] (p.12/13)

Her love for Kitty grows to be profound. It dwarfs her feelings towards her family, her dear sister Alice and her beau Fred. She becomes to repulse Fred’s hand upon her, and his lips at her cheek. She gets annoyed by the pressure of Alice against her arm and the warmth of her Father’s face against her neck while watching the show of Kitty (p.22). She sums her feelings for Kitty to her sister Alice in these simple but striking words:

‘She makes me want to smile and weep, at once. She makes me sore, here.’ I placed a hand upon my chest, upon the breast-bone. (p.20)

That love presents the very first experience of Nancy’s breaking off the gender boundaries of being a woman at that time and space. For Butler, sexual practices (can we say sexual desire as well?) do not necessarily produce certain genders, but she adds that under the conditions of normative heterosexuality, policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality (Gender Trouble (p.xii)). Counteractively, I believe it is safe to say that crossing heterosexual territories shakes and breaks gender boundaries.

When she first shares a room with Kitty in London at Mrs Dendy house, she does not even feel at ease with the new physical intimacy.

I was still not used to the easy caresses, the hand-holdings and cheek-strokings, of our friendship, and every one of them made me flinch slightly, and colour faintly, with desire and confusion (p.71).

She acknowledges her feelings towards Kitty as ‘queer and inconvenient lusts’. Nevertheless, she shows readiness to suppress that lust when Kitty describes their relationship to be a sister-ship (p.78). Kitty becomes to be her object of happiness, she grew in her to the point of self denial.

‘For to be Kitty’s sister is better than to be Kitty’s nothing, Kitty’s no one’. (p.78)

Same sex desire in not the only thing that Nancy experience after meeting Kitty, she also picks up on the habit of smoking cigarettes. A habit that was considered as a masculine act in that societal context, and happens to be the second act I record of her crossing gender boundaries.

..and when Kitty took out her packed of Weights and a match, someone cried, ‘Thank God, a woman with a cigarette!..[] (p.80).

When had I started smoking? I couldn’t remember. I had grown so used to holding Kitty’s fag for her while she changed suits, that gradually I had taken the habit myself (p.96).

The third act comes on stage after Walter suggests that she joins Kitty as another male impersonator to spice up the show. He rationalizes that Kitty’s novelty as a single male impersonator on stage has been worn out with many other women doing the same. The popularity of male impersonation is kind of ironical in a highly regulated heteronormative society. It is an act that is only tolerated as a performance on stage though gender in itself is no less of a performance and life in itself is not different than a play’s stage. Perhaps that popularity has to do with the manifestation of the public’s daily gender performativity to affirm their own gender, and thus the amusement of shattering it on stage.

‘Why does every young lady who wants to do her bit of business on the stage these days want to do it in trousers?’ Walter asked. (p.87)

For Nancy, taking on that role felt ‘saucy’ to her. Dressing like a boy and performing on stage is not something she desires but fears (p.118).

It seems strange to think that, in all my weeks of handling so many lovely costumes, I had never thought to try one myself; but I had not. (p.113)

She agrees on playing that role when Walters suggests to find an alternative to her, another lady who would take her role on stage beside Kitty and who would pose a threat to her relationship with her.

Her queer lusts for Kitty geta backbone, another push towards the other gender role, when she first puts on a trouser.

I felt as though I had never had legs before – or, rather, that I had never known, quite, what it really felt like to have two legs, joined at the top. (p.114)

She suddenly feels having two legs, something that she associates with wearing a trouser which is in its tern associated with being a man. That is a brilliant demonstration by Sarah Walters in regards of the relationship between clothes, gender identity and sexuality in general. How much power does a gendered piece of fabric have in disrupting one’s sense of gender? In Nancy’s case, it even does more than that, it arouses her. It gives her a kind of sexual pleasure that paints her character more of a cross-dresser than someone troubled with her gender identity. She cross-dresses for sexual pleasure more than she does that to affirm a need for playing the opposite gender role. This is clear in the instances where she articulates her sexual arousal while dressing up in clothes of the opposite gender ‘[]..if I were to be beside you, in these..[]..of Kitty, I don’t think I should be able to keep from kissing you! (p.114)’. When she cuts her hair shorter for the show, she says this about her desire for Kitty ‘..I seemed to want her more and more, the further into boyishness I ventured (p.124).

Nevertheless, when she dresses like a boy, she looks like a real one. Even ‘Too real’ as Mrs Dendy, their landlord at that time, puts it (p.118). That realness of the role performed does not feel good for stage as they need another male impersonator, a girl in boys clothes where the audience can still tell she is a girl, for otherwise, they would have brought in a real boy instead. Ironically enough, Walters feels obliged to tame her boyishness and make her look more girly (p.119)! It is admirable what Sarah Walters is doing here, toying with gender in relation to social spaces provided, showing how gender is shaped based on the amount of tolerance the culture of that societal context provides.

After that – 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)

Nancy and Kitty see much success performing together on stage and that leads Nancy to believe that she would never achieve such success as a girl. It may partly has to do with her awareness of the limitations imposed on women at that time of London in a Victorian England. And I suppose that realization plays part in her future choices of gender roles as we sail further into the events of the novel.

The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly. as a boy. (p.123)

But before reaching to this point of the narration, Sarah Walters paves the ground for Nancy’s new role by having Walter asking both her and Kitty to go about the city and study ‘the men’. He encourages them to catch men’s characters, their little habits, their mannerism and gaits. He encourages them to think about these men’s histories, their secrets, ambitions, hopes and dreams, to think about whether these men have sweethearts, aching feet or empty bellies (p.83). If gender is performative, then that kind of study is essential for oneself to excel in such performance.

What is also very interesting in how Walters manipulates Nancy’s gender is making her feel for the first time in her life as a grown-up woman, right before pushing her into dressing up as a boy. That happens in the end-of-season party at Marylebone Theatre where Kitty buys her a fine dress that bring out the woman in her.

I wasn’t used to thinking of myself as a grown-up woman, but now clad in that handsome frock of blue and cream, satin and lace, I began at last to feel like one and to realize, indeed, that I was one; (p.95)

That attractive grown-up woman manages that night to bring up the attention of a boy. The boy pulls her into a dance and triggers Kitty’s jealousy in a scene that breaks Kitty’s resistance and pushes her into making out with Nancy for the first time, turning the sister-ship relation into a sweethearts-ship while starting a phase of the happiest days in Nancy’s life (p.102). A short period of success and love that does not last because of Kitty’s fear about her reputation. A fear that is triggered by the power of words and the articulation of the label ‘Tom’. A Tom which is according to Kitty means girls who make – a career – out of kissing other girls (p.131). Kitty fears the word and rejects it as a label or identification of herself and her relationship with Nancy. On the other hand, Nancy finds a refuge in the word and instantly adopts it as something that gives meaning for who she is. When she first sees the comic singer and her dresser being intimate together, she relates to that relationship on the spot and sees it as a copy of hers and Kitty’s. Kitty rushes to dismiss it and tells her ‘They’re not like us! They’re not like us at all. They’re tomes’ (p.131).

We do not get any further explanation of what the word ‘Tom’ means as the narration goes on, but we see Nancy articulating it on several occasions when she identifies with other girls who show emotional and sexual interests in girls. It seems to hold the same dimensions of what we understand today of the meaning of the word ‘lesbian’. For Nancy, it may not just hold a new definition for her sexual attraction but also a whole new perspective of how she perceives her gender as well; more of an alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level of language as Butler puts it:

If gender itself is naturalized through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given (Gender Trouble preface 1999)

Kitty’s fear of identification with the word Tom reaches a climax when a drunk man on stage calls her and Nancy ‘a couple of tomes!’ (p.140). An incident that highlights the beginning of their failure on stage. It also drives Kitty to make a decision to hide away her queerness by marrying Walter and dismissing Nancy. A devastating event that shatters Nancy’s world.  What’s ironic about it is Kitty’s lame excuse for betraying Nancy ‘“You are too much – Nan, you are too much like a boy…” (p.171). As if Kitty has nothing to do with summoning this boy!

But how much of a boy does Nancy become to be?

When she runs away from Kitty and stumbles upon Mrs Best lodge, Mrs Best does not see any boyishness in her: “I think she took me for a gay girl” (p.183) Nancy states. And when she decides to go out into the city after a long period of mourning Kitty and staying in her room, she finds it hard to roam across the streets of London being a girl without being sexually harassed.

I was a solitary girl, in a city that favoured sweethearts and gentlemen; a girl in a city where girls walked only to be gazed at. (p.191)

That acknowledgment of the city’s bias towards gentlemen builds also on her pervious realization that she was successful on stage for being a boy. She herself rationalizes this as her drive to start dressing up like a boy on streets.

I thought then what a cruel joke it was that I, who has swagered so many times in a gentleman’s suit across the stages of London, should now be afraid to walk upon its streets, because of my own girlishness! If only I were a boy..[] (p.191)

Reading the course of events that unfolds here, I believe that Nancy’s gender identity disruption at this point has to do more with her mourning of Kitty rather than her fear of being gazed upon in streets, the sexual pleasure she gains by cross dressing, or her gender identity materialization through performativity. It can be explained more by Freud’s inrerpretation of the effect of mourning than Butler’s theory of performativity. In ‘Gender Trouble’, Butler explores Freud’s work on the relation between melancholia and gender in both of his essays ‘The Ego and the Id’ (1923) and ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917). She gives a detailed read of Freud’s explanation of the formation of a gender identity in relation to one’s mourning state at the stage of the separation from the mother. In our case, Nancy’s gender identity formation is not related to her mother, but has more to do with her separation from Kitty.

In the experience of losing another human being whom one has loved, Freud argues, the ego is said to incorporate that other into the very structure of the ego, taking on attributes of the other and “sustaining” the other through magical acts of imitation.The loss of the other whom one desires and loves is overcome through a specific act of identification that seeks to harbor that other within the very structure of the self: “So by taking flight into the ego, love escapes annihilation” (178). (p.73/74)

Butler proceeds to affirm that it is not merely character that is being taken from the other in Freud’s argument but gender identity as well.

As this chapter on “The Ego and the Super-Ego (Ego-Ideal)” proceeds, however, it is not merely “character” that is being described, but the acquisition of gender identity as well. (p.74)

Nancy’s ego has already incorporated Kitty’s into the very structure of itself even before she loses Kitty. Performing with Kitty on stage, she grows to love herself by becoming Kitty as she states:

..I had fallen in love with Kitty; now, becoming Kitty, I fell in love a little with myself. I admired my hair, so neat and so sleek. I adored my legs..[] (p.126)

And, in order to escape annihilation, Nancy’s love takes flight into her ego by sustaining some magical acts of imitation. It is a sad state that Nancy finds herself in roaming the streets of London as a boy and taking on pleasuring other men, doing it as a simulation of what she thought Kitty has been doing for Walter.

[].. when I knelt, it was as if it were someone else who was kneeling, not myself. I thought, This is how Walter tastes! (p.199)

This is a powerful sentence that shows how much of Kitty is still there in her. It is Kitty the ‘someone’ else she feels here. I believe it is Kitty’s voice ‘you are too much like a boy‘ (p.171) that is internalized here to berate Nancy’s ego. It is the self-critical attribute of the melancholic Nancy that Freud interprets in ‘Mourning and Melancholia”

the lost object is set up within the ego as a critical voice or agency, and the anger originally felt for the object is reversed so that the internalized object now berates the ego. (p.78)

It is Nancy’s way to deal with the internalized critical words of Kitty. She tries to prove that she is not too much of a boy or that she can dress like a boy and still pleasure men like Kitty does. She even sees the same Walter in one of the men she pleasures.

The man had looked like Walter; I had pleasured him, in some queer way, for Kitty’s sake; (p.199)

One would assume that she adheres to pleasuring men in streets either for money or as a new found pleasure on her part but she makes it clear that it is neither.

I never felt my own lusts rise, raising theirs. I didn’t even need the coins they gave me. I was like a person who, having once been robbed of all he owns and loves, turns thief himself – not to enjoy his neighbours’ chattels, but to spoil them. (p.207)

Alternating her gender performance between being a girl where she lives at Mrs Bests and being a boy on streets proves to be a tough task for her. She states that she does not want to live as a boy full-time (p.193), but then being a boy means losing her room at Mrs Bests. She manages to find a knocking shop in Berwick Street and does her transformation discreetly there. And here, she shows a climax in her confusion about her gender, and for the first time she speaks out that she is not sure if she is a girl or actually a boy.

I think she 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. (p.195)

That confusion does not last long. Nancy’s gender identity gets a push towards the boyish side once she meets Diana. Diana, the thirty eight year old rich powerful widow, picks Nancy off the streets and offers her a life of luxury in her grand, high, pale villa in the well-swept square of St. John’s Wood – Felicity Palace; a life of pleasure as Diana puts it. Part of that pleasure comes from the imbalance of power in that relation which Sarah Walters uses to place Nancy in a magnified foucauldian space where power becomes the main drive of shaping Nancy and her sexuality.

To be sexed, for Foucault, is to be subjected to a set of social regulations, to have the law that directs those regulations reside both as the formative principle of one’s sex, gender, pleasures, and desires and as the hermeneutic principle of self interpretation. (Gender Trouble p.122)

Judith Butler eloquently sums up Foucault’s words: ‘The body gains meaning within discourse only in the context of power relations’ (p.117). It is the power of class and age here that give Nancy’s body a new meaning. In their first sexual encounter, Nancy describes her feelings as ‘I felt like a man being transformed into a woman at the hand of a sorceress.’ (p.240), in what I consider to be one of the most interesting ambivalent lines of transgender literary. Diana does not just dress her as a boy all the time but she also changes her name to Neville instead of Nancy (p.279). For Nancy, it is just another gender performance ‘like dressing for the halls again’ (p.264). Her performing role of the male extends to take various shapes of a gendered male for the amusement of Diana and her friends. In Diana’s private space, Nancy performs as Perseus, with a curved sword and a head of the Medusa, and sandals with straps that were buckled at the knee. She performs as Cupid, with wings and a bow. She performs as St. Sebastian, tied to a stump. She even performs as Hermaphroditus which I read more to be for the amusement of Sarah Walters rather than for the amusement of Diana or Nancy (p.281). It is Walters’s way of showing how gender is constituted differently in different historical context, an extension of what she has been doing with Nancy’s character along the story of playing different shapes of the gendered male.

Now, since my very first trouser-wearing days at Mrs Dendy’s, I had sported a wonderful variety of gentlemen’s suits. From the plain to the pantomimic, from the military to the effeminate, from the brown broad-cloth to the yellow velveteen – as a soldier, sailor, valet, renter, errand-boy, dandy and comedy duke.[] (p.268)

And it comes as a direct reflection of Butler’s words about the intersection of gender with race, class and sexuality.

If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. As a result, it becomes impossible to separate out “gender” from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained. (p.6)

For Nancy, her boyishness reaches a special climax when she puts on the expensive suit Diana buys her. She feels like a lord with all of the power being a lord holds; being male, upper class and handsome. It reminds me of Kitty’s fine dress gift that made her feel as a grown woman for the first time.

I looked not like myself at all, but like some living picture, a blond lord or angel whom a jealous artist had captured and transfixed behind the glass. I felt quite awed. (p.270)

I see another interesting peek of the narration that comes in the fact that Nancy can be a boy where ever she goes with Diana except for the lesbian space of the Cavendish Ladies’ Club (p.270); a demonstration by Walters of the effect of culture and class in creating the rules of gender expression. A lesbian space that breaks the bounds of heteronormativity fails short of accepting transgendering.

Nancy’s life as Diana’s boy is short lived. She tosses away all of the pleasure and comfort she has when she stands up for Zena (Diana’s maid). They both end up in the street without any money to support themselves. They only have Nancy’s gentlemen suits which Zena suggests they have to sell off in order to be able to pay for somewhere to spend the night at. Nancy agrees to do that with a slight hesitation despite how dear those suits are to her (p.333). I, personally, expected to see a stronger resistance from Nancy to let go of the clothes that shaped her gender identity in the past few months, but thinking about it, I can see that she is in a survival mode here where her basic physiological needs of food, water, shelter and safety are not met and thus her gender identity and sexual pleasure had to take a back seat.

Having no one to turn to after Zena runs away with the little money she gets from selling her suits, she fetches Florence, the philanthropist girl who helps poor people and whom she once woes as a boy (p.221). In the first few days in Florence’s house, not being aware of the tommish side of Florence, she totally dismisses her gender performance as a boy and even weeps and blames Diana for making her a boy (p.349). She begs Florence to let her stay in her house and shows readiness to live the life of any other regular girl.

I could sleep in here, like I did last night. I could clean and cook, like I did today. I could do your washing..[]..I could look after your little boy while you are at work (p.371).

She does not show any difficulty in living as a girl again. She lets her hair grow and she exchanges her bonnet and rusty frock for a hat with a wired flower and a dress with ribbon at the neck (p.381). Yet, and while remembering that she has been a handsome girl before, her sense of being a girl fails to match that before wearing the gentlemen suits.

[]..I seemed to remember that I had been known then as a handsome enough girl. But it was as if wearing gentlemen’s suits had magically unfitted me for girlishness, for ever..[] (p.371).

At the end, she comes to be more relaxed and free to play the gender she desires once she learns that Florence is indeed a tom like her and that there is a kind of a tolerant tommish community within that rights-focused working class society she becomes to belong to.

I would say that it is the sexual pleasure that she gets being in a gentleman’s suit that drives her to play that role again, but then, that is not her only drive here. Like in many different parts of the novel, her gender performance is still shaped by the axis of powers; class, culture and desire. She still has to dress and behave along the tolerable boundaries of that working class. I do not think being a lord is one of them.

References 

1. Walter, S. (2002), Tipping the Velvet, Virago.
2. Butler, J. (1993), Bodies That Matter. Routledge.
3. Butler, J. (1999), Gender Trouble. Routledge.

Bibliography 

1. Butler, J. (1993), ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Routledge.
2. Foucault, M. (1990), The History of Sexuality: Volume One, An Introduction. Penguin Books.
3. Freud, S. (2010), ‘The Ego and the Id’, The Ego and the Id. Pacific Publishing Studio.
4. Freud, S. (2006), ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, The Penguin Freud Reader Edited by Adam Philips. Penguin Books.

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