Sarah Waters: The hot tip

If Waters is in any way affected by the slings and arrows of the Booker circus, she conceals it remarkably well
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Thursday night, while literary London gossiped and gasped at the Man Booker shortlist party at the London Library, Sarah Waters was addressing a group of women in Croydon. It was, she told them, only in the last few years that she finally felt like a "proper writer".

It was a characteristic comment - characteristically modest, of course, for a writer who has already won a clutch of awards, but characteristic, too, that she should eschew the Sauvignon, and the media, in order to honour a previous commitment.

This is the second time that Waters has been shortlisted for the Booker prize. If she is in any way affected by the slings and arrows, or accolades, of the literary circus, she conceals it remarkably well.

Surprisingly, for someone so apparently bookish, she didn't grow up in a bookish home. Television featured much more prominently than books in her Pembrokeshire childhood, and she still hasn't read the children's classics. Instead, she read ghost books and horror stories, sci-fi and Gothic.

It was enough to get her to the University of Kent to read English and once she started studying, she couldn't stop. Between her various bouts of studies - an MA at Lancaster and then a PhD in London - she worked in bookshops and libraries. Even when she took up teaching, for the Open University, she kept her Saturday job in a library. By the time she left, in 2000, she was shelving her own books.

Sarah Waters still looks like someone who might work in a library: fresh-faced, sensible and unassuming. It's not necessarily what you expect of a woman whose books have made the "lesbo-Victorian romp" into a new category of mainstream contemporary literature, and whose television adaptations, replete with tightly corseted young women and eye-popping dildos, have provoked - let's just say considerable interest and discussion. But perhaps that's appropriate for a writer whose fiction focuses so heavily on women's secret lives.

It all started while she was doing that PhD, at Queen Mary College, on the idea of history in lesbian and gay writing. While looking at what she has called "the hinge time" between earlier 19th-century work and the early modernist work - a time, in fact, when there were the first stirrings of a gay subculture - she hit on the idea of exploring an equivalent world for women.

Struck by the lack of ambition in most lesbian and gay historical fiction, she set out to write something more literary, revolving around the fin-de-siècle world of cross-dressing "mashers" and the London queer demi-monde of "Mary-Anns" and "Toms".

The result, Tipping the Velvet, published in 1998, was a picaresque romp that ranged from the fish parlours of Whitstable to the music-halls of Soho. Beginning with startling vivid descriptions of the Whitstable oyster (which, of course, ooze sexual overtones) it moves on to the local music-hall, where oyster girl Nancy spies an intriguing new male impersonator.

Her loss of innocence at that moment takes her on a journey which will, seven years and 500-odd pages later, lead her to the conclusion that sensation is not enough. In the meantime, however, she enjoys a spell as the sex slave of a society hostess, a stint as a housekeeper for a brother and sister in the Labour movement and even a brief - and ingenious - career as a male prostitute.

The title alone - "tipping the velvet" was Victorian slang for cunnilingus - is a testament to Waters' research, and indeed to her themes. When I reviewed the novel in The Observer, giving what I hoped was an accurate flavour of its subject, and range, I was stopped in the corridor at work by my boss. "I did enjoy your review" he told me, with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye. I had rarely seen him so animated.

Rejected by at least 10 publishers before Virago finally accepted it, Tipping the Velvet was hailed by the lesbian writer Emma Donoghue as "a lesbian Rake's Progress ... a delightful novel which sets a new standard for lesbian historical fiction" and by The Daily Telegraph as "the most important debut of its kind since that of Jeanette Winterson". The "of its kind" was, presumably, Telegraph-speak for "lesbian". And the Telegraph was right that this was the most significant work by a new lesbian writer to reach the literary mainstream for years.

Scholarly as well as entertaining, and cleverly infusing a highly particular historical setting with a contemporary sensibility, Tipping the Velvet attracted widespread attention across the board, but it was the lesbian audience that flocked to celebrate a new champion - a new icon, in fact.

Waters responded with her usual quiet grace. She talked to gay and lesbian groups, she answered - she still answers - every letter and email, but most of all she just went on writing.

Her second novel, Affinity, published a year later, was also set in Victorian London, this time in a women's prison. Its protagonist, Margaret Prior decides to pursue some "good work" with the lady criminals at Millbank gaol.

On one of her weekly visits, she hears "a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story" and, peering through a slit in the wall, sees a woman caressing her cheeks with a violet. This is the moment that seals her fate, sucking her into a strange new world of seances and spirits.

Affinity is beautifully written and brilliantly plotted. Giles Foden described it as "sexy, spooky, stylish ... a wonderful book from any perspective", and even A N Wilson, not known for his love of lesbian literature, dubbed Waters "such a brilliant writer that her readers would believe anything she told them".

Along with the praise, there were also the awards. Tipping the Velvet had won a Betty Trask award and been shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewelyn Rhys Prize. Affinity won the Somerset Maugham Award and Waters was named as the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

It was in 2002, however, the year that Waters finally decided to give up the Open University and treat writing as a real job, that things really began to take off. That was the year of Andrew Davies' memorable adaptation of Tipping the Velvet for BBC 1. Considerably less explicit than the novel, it was still extremely colourful. Never has a giant gold dildo caused quite such a stir.

It was also the year of Fingersmith. Shortlisted for both the Orange and the Man Booker prizes, adapted for BBC television by Peter Ransley and picked more than any other in the annual round of back-scratching known as the "books of the year", Fingersmith was the novel that won Waters some serious attention - and money.

The setting, once again, was Victorian London, this time an underworld of poverty and petty thieves. Narrated by two orphaned girls whose lives are linked, it's a tale of betrayal, sexual hypocrisy and love. Like all Waters's novels, it's full of surprises, combining exquisitely described period detail with a plot so gripping that you almost literally can't bear to put it down.

Packed with gloomy leitmotifs - pickpockets, orphans, prisons and lunatic asylums - it provoked, inevitably, comparisons with Dickens. Here was a master storyteller operating in a Victorian world, so why not? In fact, it's a comparison Waters refutes, and not just out of modesty. "Zadie Smith is a Dickensian writer because she's writing about society now," she says. "To write these faux Victorian novels is quite different."

The influences she admits to include A S Byatt, John Fowles and, perhaps more surprisingly, the historical novelist Philippa Gregory. Also, of course, Angela Carter. "She had that fantastic magpie quality, plundering high and popular culture" she told me earlier this year. "Very few people do that."

Very few people do, but Waters does - and she does it brilliantly. Night Watch, her first novel not set in Victorian London, is another tour- de-force, set in London during the Blitz and moving backwards in time from 1947 to 1944 and then to 1941.

Once again, the focus is on the (largely secret) love lives of women, and some men, out of the sexual mainstream. This time, however, it's done without ingenious plot twists or melodrama. The period detail - Waters "practically lived" in the Imperial War Museum - is superbly done and so is the dialogue. And so is the story, of course. No wonder Night Watch is this year's hottest tip for the Booker.

On Thursday night, after the event in Croydon library, Waters celebrated her Booker shortlisting with fish and chips and champagne. If she wins the Booker, she tells me, she'll do the same. "Just a quiet drink with my girlfriend and a few friends," says Water, who lives in a modest flat in South London. "But if I don't win, I won't be upset at all. I'm really not expecting to".

From many writers, you wouldn't quite believe this, but from Sarah Waters you do.

A Life in Brief

BORN Neyland, Wales in 1966

EDUCATION BA in English Literature from the University of Kent, MA from Lancaster University and a PhD on lesbian and gay writing at Queen Mary, University of London

CAREER First novel Tipping the Velvet published in 1998, won a 1999 Betty Trask award. Second novel, Affinity, published May 1999 and awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize. Fingersmith, Waters' third novel, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2002 and for the Man Booker Prize 2002. Tipping the Velvet was adapted by Andrew Davies for a three part BBC television drama in 2002. Named as one of Granta's 20 Best of Young British Writers in 2003. Fourth novel, The Night Watch, published February 2006

SHE SAYS "Why, oh why, did I ever allow the phrase 'lesbo-Victorian romp' to cross my lips."

THEY SAY "Like Dickens, she uses caricature brilliantly, as a way of expressing character rather than a straitjacket for it," Theo Tait, TLS

Comments