The narrator of this book, Nancy Astley, began her life in an oyster-parlour on the Kentish coast in 1870. Her family runs this eating establishment that specializes in Whitstable oysters, or “natives,” which are “the largest and the juiciest, the savouriest yet the sublest, oysters in the whole of England.”
This is an apt introduction to this story about gender bending and sexuality and lesbian practices in late Victorian England. Oysters, long thought to be an aphrodisiac, have an even more important quality: there is no way to distinguish male oysters from females by looking at their shells. Not only that, but oysters can change their sex one or more times during their life spans. And finally, oysters produce pearls, products of the oyster’s response to foreign material trapped inside the outer protective layer. And in a nutshell, or an oyster shell if you will, these are the themes of Waters’ debut novel.
Nancy, who spends her days shucking oysters, visits music halls at night for entertainment. When she is eighteen, she first sees the male-impersonator singer-dancer Kitty Butler, and falls in love with her. The two get to know one another, and eventually Kitty reciprocates. Nancy, calling herself Nan King, joins Kitty’s act, and together they win moderate renown as a pair of mashers (girls dressed as boys who perform on the stage). But Kitty is a closeted lesbian clothed in self-denial; she would rather go straight than have anyone think she was a “tom.”
Later, Nan thinks ruefully back to an early conversation. When Kitty asks Nan if she knows how it feels to be given your heart’s desire, Nan thinks:
I did. It was a wonderful feeling – but a fearful one, too, for you felt all the time that you didn’t deserve your own good fortune, that you had received it quite by error, in someone else’s place – and that it might be taken from you while your gaze was turned elsewhere. And there was nothing you would not do, I thought, nothing you would not sacrifice, to keep your heart’s desire once you had been given it. I knew that Kitty and I felt just the same – only, of course, about different things.”
Nancy’s next relationship is with a wealthy woman in her late thirties – Diana – who exploits Nancy’s vulnerability and takes her on to be her “tart.” Diana is ego-dependent on the outré aspects of lesbianism, and uses Nancy to enhance her own image as a debauchee. Nancy grows more and more comfortable with her own male persona, but chafes under Diana’s class-tinged haughtiness and cruelty.
Finally, at the age of 25, she has the opportunity for a mature and mutually affirming relationship with Florence, who is comfortable being a lesbian, and whose socialist convictions allow her to see Nancy as an equal in every way. But Nancy must find a way to get past her first deep love for Kitty, and Florence has her own past obsession to overcome.
Discussion: This book is not for those who will be uncomfortable with explicit descriptions of lesbian and gay sex. Nor is the language euphemistic (although there is also plenty of slang and use of sexual terms common in the Victorian Era). But because the story is about coming out, and being comfortable with oneself while engaging in proscribed behaviors, the sex is an integral part of the plot.
When not describing sex, the author paints a detailed and fascinating portrait of late Victorian England with such immediacy that you feel as if you have stepped into one of the time period’s shadowboxes. You taste, see, and smell the oyster trade. You lose yourself in the heat, the magic, and the mystery of the music halls. You experience first-hand the threatening nature of street life in seedier areas, with its grim menace for women, its desperate poor, the exigencies of male solicitation, the noise and smell and dangers of darkly-lit alleyways, its gangs of ruffians, and even the potential danger of passing carriages. The author shows us squalid poverty and lodging houses and middling quarters and the possessions and perquisites and perversions of the wealthy. You learn the rituals of visitation, gift giving, party throwing, tea time, and the difference in eating and dressing and bathing habits between the rich and the poor. You share every tingle of the passions of women who love other women, and share every lance of indignation of people in search of economic justice. And you writhe from the petty and the cruel and the shallow and the predatory. Waters does an excellent job of bringing to life both the quotidian and the extraordinary in late 19th Century London.
The negatives for me had more to do with my own problems than the author’s. One problem I had was that I had read Waters’ fantastic book Fingersmith first. My expectations were so high afterward, that I was bound to feel a let-down not necessarily justified. Two is that there was something missing in the story for me. While Waters explores gender identity in many ways, I never felt I knew what brought any of the women characters to the point that they would flout all convention and expectation; endure rejection by their families and ostracizing by their friends; risk humiliation and possibly violence on the streets to satisfy a need that came from where? Nancy doesn’t spend much time looking inside herself. Nor do other characters. Maybe this is something that would be obvious to other readers. For me, I would like to have seen more beneath the surface, rather than just beneath the clothes. Still, I would agree with Nymeth (as I usually do) that this book is “an amazing journey—daring, colourful, unforgettable and intense.”
Evaluation: Waters is an extremely talented author. She has admirable skills in character and setting description. If you won’t mind a book featuring lesbian sex, you will find this a peerless portrayal of certain sectors of Victorian society, and a coming of age/sexuality story that is also about the sometimes long and convoluted path one must take to find mature love and happiness.