This essay outlines how Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998) illuminates the challenges involved in doing queer history. Waters’ lesbian historical novel queries the ‘official’ historical record and reflects on a fundamental tension in queer historical research; the distinction drawn between social constructedness and essentialism, alterity and continuity. Through playful re-enactment of the work of the academic researcher, the novel protests against being read as an authentic depiction of Victorian lesbian sexuality. Instead, it offers a postmodern metafictional response to the field of queer history, which broadens the questions we ask of the discipline. By enacting the process of historical study in this Neo-Victorian novel, Waters explores the complexities of reading for queerness in the past. I argue that Waters’ engagement with embodied reality represents an innovative intervention in queer historiography. The erotic is mobilised in this novel to collapse the distinction between alterity and continuity, admitting the affective dimensions of queer research. Tipping the Velvet addresses the tensions between some forms of lesbian feminist theory and queer theory, demonstrating the inextricability of queerly gendered subjectivities and lesbian erotics. In this engagement with erotic reading practices, Waters explores the inadequacies of linguistic and textual representation. This essay concludes that cultural productions such as the queer historical novel reach towards a queerer historiography, enabling “touches across time” (Dinshaw, 1999) that have a crucial role to play in contemporary theorising of gender and sexuality and community-formation for queer people in the present.

Author Biography

Naoise Murphy is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies. Her research interests are in twentieth-century literature, queer theory and history, and Irish writing.