I have seen this book regularly described as a “lesbian classic” and, having read it, would like to take issue with the appending of “lesbian” to that phrase. This book is a big, bawdy, history-soaked classic – to try and put it into a sub-genre of classic lit does it a disservice. It belongs front and centre in the ‘classic’ pile!
Waters has crafted a perfect window into a period of time, from rich descriptions of oystersellers and music halls to the beautifully wrought recreation of the lesbian sub-culture of the upper classes, alive again in these pages, to the passion and dedication of the social activists and the squalour and poverty of those they were charged to protect. She has great immediacy of description – the music halls come alive as vibrant, hot, buzzing places of entertainment. Her description of their scent was magnificent – reminiscent of the unique smell of English pubs that wafts doorwards from the shabbier establishments in the central London sidestreets of the present day – with a smattering of the odours of Victorian England thrown into the ephemeral mix.
This is a first person narrative and I’m always wary of these because so much is reliant on the author’s ability to create a believable character that the reader can empathise with. Waters does an admirable job with Nan, who is far from flawless and at times even callous and selfish, but who I liked throughout – her imperfections making her more real, her reactions more natural. It is through her eyes that we are taken on a journey through Victorian England.
Much is made of the lesbian theme of the novel, but what is often overlooked is that this is a great character novel and Nan typifies this. Her relationship with Kitty and the changes it undergoes show the development of Nan as an individual. From the outset, it seems that Nan is more willing to embrace her own sexuality than Kitty. Early on Walters describes Nan’s feelings of being ‘bound and fettered’,’chained and muzzled and blinkered’ by her inability to publicly display the affection she demonstrates for Kitty in private. Kitty comes across as an ambitious user from the beginning. What is interesting about the dynamic of their relationship is how it seems to undergo a transition of emotional dominance, despite the fact that Nan is controlled by her love for Kitty. Initially it is Kitty that seems worldly and superior, but as the relationship develops, Nan becomes more self-assured and comfortable with her own sexuality (although she sees it more specifically as her love for Kitty alone). I believe this is because, for Nan, Kitty’s approval is most important. For Kitty, on the other hand, it is society’s approval that matters most. Could Nan be described as naive here? Possibly so, but in that naivety, Nan shows how simple it should be. Is it right to be critical of that naivety, to think she should be more jaded? I prefer to be critical of a society that required her to be more jaded in order to be realistic. The reader can feel nothing but sympathy for Nan as she has to face the fact that her sister Alice loves her more for who she wants her to be than for the person Nan is.
There are themes which resonate whichever time and place you live in. The sense that change and novelty in your life often distances you from the important people in your past. This is epitomised by the painful description of Nan’s visit home from London. Nan’s real love for Kitty and the abandonment and betrayal she experiences when Kitty makes a choice that doesn’t include her leave her so broken that she eschews any real affection she is offered by those around her. It’s painfully ironic that, destroyed and bitter as she is, she finds no sympathy for her male patrons who use her services as a renter. Her entry into the profession, born of the hatred raised in her by Walter, left her with no empathy for the men forced into the hidden underworld of London, much as she had been. In the end, she commits herself to a loveless arrangement with an older woman, based on pure hedonism and ultimate self-objectification.
Throughout this novel, Nan is ‘owned’ in some way – by Kitty (emotionally), by Diana (physically), by her own anger and hatred – and as I read, I found I was itching for her to find her own path and free herself from the physical and emotional bondage imposed on her. It is as if she is a work-in-progress and experiences a lifetime’s education in a few short years. I was struck by the sense of homecoming there was when Nan found the society of the women in “The Boy in the Boat”. I was rooting for her to win this time! The Boy is a direct contrast to the Felicity Place society. Nan has passed full circle to come home. She began as a naive girl and passed through the opposite extreme of debauched hedonism to finally find a home among people who are warm, realistic and good, not unlike her family in Whitstable. In the final pages, when all of the elements of Nan’s past come together at the political rally, we see the culmination of that experience in the new Nan – comfortable with herself, confident enough to truly love again. I found myself wanting to cheer out loud for Nan and Flo and hoped that the time had come for them to be happy.
A great book for the long winter evenings. Close the door, take the phone off the hook and settle down in your favourite chair – you’ll find it impossible to put down and you’ll have to drag yourself back from the dingy streets of Victorian England.