Swimming against an 1890s tide

Times Staff Writer

“Tipping the Velvet” follows the story of Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling), a 19th century working-class oyster girl, as she grows into womanhood -- and, at times, manhood.

Based on the novel by Sarah Waters and adapted by Andrew Davies (who also adapted “Middlemarch,” “Moll Flanders” and “Daniel Deronda”), “Tipping the Velvet” tells a tale of lesbian life in London in the 1890s. It airs over three consecutive nights beginning tonight at 7 on BBC America. As the story begins, 18-year-old Nan is confused about why her boyfriend leaves her cold. Developing a crush on cross-dressing female music hall entertainer Kitty (Keeley Hawes), Nan slowly realizes that she is attracted to women. Nan leaves her small town for London and embarks on love affairs that bring her to the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair. In London, she first finds freedom, and later a kind of enslavement, in dressing like a man.

Nan’s adventures are a kind of lesbian version of Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders,” as they explore the struggles of a single woman in Victorian England. Unlike mercenary Moll, however, Nan is also on a quest for true love and a meaningful life, making “Tipping the Velvet” less a lesbian tale than a human story.


Nan experiences heartbreak, betrayal, disappointment, poverty and all the other thousand natural shocks that flesh, gay or straight, is heir to.

Like “Masterpiece Theatre’s” 1996 production of “Moll Flanders,” “Tipping the Velvet” contains a lot of sex scenes, but they are tastefully done. The film is full of dramatic twists and turns like a soap opera, without sinking to that genre’s banal level. The acting is wonderful, the sets and costumes are sumptuous and the lighting is particularly lovely. Davies provides a script full of intelligence, wit, sly humor and pathos.

In the end, the choices Nan makes have less to do with trousers or skirts and more to do with what will allow her to live with integrity, dignity and joy.