“Erotic and absorbing…Written with startling power.”—The New York Times Book Review
Nan King, an oyster girl, is captivated by the music hall phenomenon Kitty Butler, a male impersonator extraordinaire treading the boards in Canterbury. Through a friend at the box office, Nan manages to visit all her shows and finally meet her heroine. Soon after, she becomes Kitty's dresser and the two head for the bright lights of Leicester Square where they begin a glittering career as music-hall stars in an all-singing and dancing double act. At the same time, behind closed doors, they admit their attraction to each other and their affair begins.
With a title that's a euphemism for cunnilingus and a plot awash with graphic lesbian sex, this lush tale fearlessly and feverishly exposes the political, social and sexual subversions of Victorian-era gender-benders: sapphists, libertines and passing women. Set in 1890s London against a backdrop of music halls and socialist demonstrations, Waters's debut (published to acclaim in England) is an engrossing story of a "tommish" woman battered and buoyed by the mores of the times. At 18, Nancy Astley is a fishmonger in coastal Whitstable, working with her sister and parents in the family oyster parlour. Smitten by male impersonator Kitty Butler, Nancy attends every show at the Canterbury Palace until the star notices her. A stunned Nancy finds herself Kitty's companion and dresser, and sexual tension keeps the pages turning as she becomes first Kitty's sweetheart, then her partner ("two lovely girls in trousers, instead of one!") in a wildly successful stage act. Kitty's shame over her sexual preference sends her into marriage to their manager, Walter Bliss, propelling devastated Nancy into a series of erotic excursions and a struggle for survival, first passing as a young man and hustling, then as wealthy widow Diana Lethaby's kept "tart," finally as the housekeeper for union organizer Florence Banner. Waters is a masterful storyteller, tantalizing the reader as Nancy endures melancholy squalor, betrayals, the lustful motives of swindling gay-girls and imperious ladies. The circumstances by which Nancy finally finds true love are unpredictable and moving. Amid the gentlemen trolling Piccadilly Circus for trysts with "renter" boys and the wealthy female guests of the Cavendish Clubs "Sapphists Only" parties, Nancy's search for love and identity is a raucous, passionate adventure, and a rare, thrilling read.