I've never been into melodramas. Particularly in book form. The over the top emotions, preposterous coincidence-ridden plotting and ludicrously intense, hyperbolic prose never interested me. But I started reading Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet because, well, lesbians in the Victorian era. What's not to like? Besides, before I started reading it, I didn't realise that it was a melodrama. I thought it was a picaresque.
This is because the book tricked me. It's opening passages are about the preparation of oysters in an oyster-based restaurant. Not exactly the most melodramatic of beginnings. Even when the plot starts moving, when Nancy meets and falls in love with Kitty Butler, the pacing of the book is so slow and deliberate that it still doesn't seem melodramatic. This section of the book, before the first sex scene, is such a well crafted slow burn that you begin to feel the torture of Nancy's unrequited sexual desires. Then, when they finally become requitted, the reader's relief is almost as overwhelming as Nancy's. I was trying to think of a way of writing that previous sentence without it sounding like a masturbation joke, but alas, it is not possible. I'm talking about Nancy's emotional relief, not her, you know, sexual relief.
Even after the dissolution of this relationship, I still wasn't thinking of the book as a melodrama. I mean, sure, there was the often overly dramatic prose. The fact that basically every chapter ended with a line like, "if only I knew the terrible tragedies that awaited me!" The coincidence heavy way the relationship broke up. But these I just dismissed as the flaws of a first time novelist, attempting to engage the reader. "These minor problems will go away once Waters gains confidence in her prose," I thought to myself.
But the opposite happened. As the book went on, as Waters gained confidence in her prose, the coincidences became more overt and improbable, the prose became more overly dramatic. This culminated in one of the most ludicrous finales I have ever read in a book.
And yet, Jesus Christ. The ending, which was so preposterous it actually seems improbable that someone had the (figurative) balls to write it, had me in tears. I finished the book while on a bus, and I was about ten pages before the end when the bus reached my stop. "Fuck it," I thought, "I am physically incapable of stopping reading this book. I'll just get off at the next stop." By the time I got to the end of the book, I was about a half hour walk from my bus stop. But I didn't care - I was so ludicrously elated by the preposterous gibberish I had just read that I felt giddy.
And so now I understand the power of melodrama. Yes, it can be stupid, and preposterous, and annoying to any sense of realism. But it can leave you as a blubbering, giddy mess. It can make it so that you are physically incapable of doing anything else but reading the book. I've never really had that experience before - at least nowhere near as intensely as I did here. Thank you, Sarah Waters. Thank you for this experience.
Oh, and one more thing, just as a little addendum: What the fuck was going on in that bit where Nancy was dressing up in men's clothes and acting as a male prostitute? And, seriously, how the fuck did the Duchess Diana a.) realise that Nancy was, in fact, a woman, when the men she was jerking off didn't, and b.) deduce from all this that Nancy was a lesbian? Is this something that lesbians commonly did during the Victorian era - jerked off men for money? I don't understand the thought process that went through Diana's mind - "this woman gets paid to touch penises. That means that she wouldn't touch penises for free. That means that she must be a lesbian!" I just don't get it.