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Waters, Sarah (b. 1966)  

Sarah Waters is the author of three lesbian novels, Tipping the Velvet (1998), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 2000; Affinity (1999), which was a (London) Sunday Times fiction award winner; and Fingersmith (2002), a Dickensian suspense novel that won the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Waters was born in Wales in 1966 and comes from an academic background. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has been an associate lecturer with the Open University. She has published articles on lesbian and gay literature. Living in London, she now divides her time between teaching and fiction writing.

Waters's first novel is a picaresque set in Victorian England; Tipping the Velvet recounts the sexual vicissitudes of Nan King, an oyster-seller's daughter who, after falling in love with cross-dressing "masher" Kitty, finds success in London music halls. After that affair ends because of Kitty's fears of being branded a "Tom," Nan takes to the streets, where she continues her gender-crossing as a male prostitute. There she is taken in by a wealthy widow, who introduces her to both the pleasures of strap-on sex and the aesthetically stylized world of patrician , before summarily casting her out when she rebels against her "boy toy" status.

In an ending reminiscent of another historical lesbian novel, Elana Dykewomon's Beyond the Pale, Nan ultimately discovers happiness (as well as the meaning of the novel's title phrase) with socialist social worker Florence, for whom gender and sexual politics are intertwined with class struggle.

Tipping the Velvet proves a rollicking reading adventure, not simply because of its Victorian (though not vanilla) flavoring, but also because it offers a fictional rendering of such late twentieth-century lesbian issues as the sex wars, outing, gender performance, and grassroots coalition organizing.

Like her first, Waters's second novel also takes place in Victorian England and interweaves themes familiar to both Victorian and lesbian literature. Indeed, Affinity recalls not only Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, and even Wilkie Collins's sensationalist novel The Woman in White, but also Terry Castle's 1993 study of lesbian representation, The Apparitional Lesbian.

Castle's book argues that realism figures lesbians as spectral presences whose desire is always under erasure. Such is the case of Affinity's heroine, Margaret Prior, a reclusive bluestocking whose charitable visits to women prisoners serve to foreground her own entrapment within upper-class conventions of female propriety. Margaret may be able to read lesbian stories into the heterosexual plots of Victorian literature, but her attempts to extend these stories into her own experience and to validate her own desires prove unsuccessful.

So, for example, although she interprets her growing intimacy with one of the prisoners, the spiritualist Selina Dawes, as a lesbian revision of Aurora Leigh's relationship with Marian Erle, Margaret does not realize that her own participation in an interclass romance plot might remain phantasmic; even lesbian plots can efface (or ghost) lesbian characters.

Ultimately, Margaret proves to be less like Aurora than like Lucy Snowe, the strained heroine of Villette. As does Lucy, Margaret finds herself whited out by the very plot she would inhabit.

Somewhat lighter and more melodramatic than Waters' first two novels, Fingersmith explores the Victorian underworld through the story of a young woman, Sue Trinder, the fingersmith of the title, which is slang for a specialized kind of thief. Superbly and intricately plotted, the novel is filled with all the emotion and melodramatic plot devices of Dickens, but also imbued with a postmodern recognition of the inseparability of corruption and innocence, criminality and respectability.

Margaret Soenser Breen


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Sarah Waters at the Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago, Illinois in 2006.
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Castle, Terry. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Mars-Jones, Adam. "Inner Steel." The Observer (London) (January 27, 2002):17.


    Citation Information
    Author: Breen, Margaret Soenser  
    Entry Title: Waters, Sarah  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 17, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  


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