"Tipping the velvet" was Victorian-era slang for cunnilingus, and once you know that, you understand the basic theme of the book.
Published in 1998 by Virago Publishing in the UK and in 1999 by Riverhead Publishing in the US, Tipping the Velvet was Sarah Waters’s debut novel. She described it herself as a lesbo-Victorian romp, and it would go on to become a favourite of modern lesbian fiction.
Waters was working on her PhD thesis on historical lesbian fiction when her annoyance piqued at the failure of authours to exploit the genre's potential. She began to write her own historical lesbian novel, using the research she had done on her thesis, including spending hours reading up on 19th century pornography and Victorian slang and vulgarities.
Eighteen months after beginning Tipping the Velvet, she was finished. Waters began to seek out a publisher for her debut novel. Eight months (and ten rejection letters) later, she succeeded.
Tipping the Velvet is a plot-driven lesbian coming-of-age story with graphic sexual content (described in one of the reviews of the novel as "the yummy bits"), including the infamous strap-on leather dildo. While the protagonist is thrown from one situation and lifestyle to the next, there is little time for introspection.
The novel is about an eighteen-year-old girl named Nancy (Nan), who lives with her family in Whitsable in the 1880s. (spoilers follow) She falls in love with a girl, Kitty, she sees performing as a male impersonator. Nan comes back to see every show, and is invited backstage. She becomes Kitty’s dresser, and they grow close (unfortunately for Nan, "like sisters") as both head to London to try to make it big. Soon Kitty, who grows jealous of a young man hitting on Nan, realizes her feelings towards Nan and they begin a relationship. On Kitty’s insistence (she doesn’t want to be thought of as a "tom"), they keep it a secret.
Soon Nan joins the performance as a sidekick, but when she discovers Kitty cheating on her with their manager, she leaves and becomes a "rentboy", while dressed as a man, to survive. She gets taken in by a wealthy Sapphist as a plaything, but is kicked out when caught with the maid. Eventually, she ends up living with a woman named Florence and Florence's brother, earning her stay by housekeeping. It is revealed that Florence previously secretly fell in love with a woman who died in childbirth, and is raising her dead love's infant. A year later, Florence takes Nan to a lesbian bar, in which Nan's former identity as a male impersonator is revealed. Florence and Nan begin a hesitant relationship.
The plot comes to head when Nan meets Kitty again, who has meanwhile gotten married to the manager. Kitty asks Nan to come back to her and have a secret relationship, hidden from her husband. Nan turns to Florence, instead. (spoilers end here)
Tipping the Velvet has been translated into 24 different languages, and won the Betty Trask Award as well as the New York Times Notable Book of the Year Award. It’s also been made into a successful, 3-episode BBC serial. For a time there were rumours of Eva Longoria and Beyoncé starring in a movie based on the novel, but both celebrities were surprised and disgusted by the allegation.
Sarah Waters has since written other successful novels, but many readers still rank her sexy, unapologetic first novel as their favourite of the bunch.