The Sarah Waters Effect: Sex Over Substance?

18th Sep 2013

tipping the velvet
Now that we've finally stopped breathing into a paper bag over the news that Sarah Waters has a new book deal - we figured now is the time to take a look at the Waters effect; are we swarming all over the sex and missing the substance?


With all four of her previous novels either adapted for the screen, or have been optioned to appear in the future we’re clearly not the only Waters fangirls.

Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch all courted controversy when they aired on British television channels and her latest, The Little Stranger, is likely to stir up a similar ammount of fuss and fawning.

Not only has Waters seen her books gobbled up by the viewing public but she has also bagged many literary nominations over her career, including the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker, which could, in part, explain the rush to find another medium for her stories.

But is there another reason, a more headline-grabbing explanation, for why Sarah Waters has exploded onto our screens?

This was described in one particular Daily Mail article as one of the “crude sex toys” featured in the drama; reason enough to tune in for most UK viewers.Tipping the Velvet, Waters first novel, was broadcast in 2002; barely a decade ago, storylines about women’s sexuality were rarer and more hyped.

The press got riled up about them (think even further back to 1994, which showed the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British TV), and it was that ever-monetised “watercooler moment.”

And why not? Tipping the Velvet is perhaps best known for its frank address of sexual practices between lesbians, most notably in the scene where protagonist Nan and her ‘captor’ Diana enjoy the pleasures of a strap-on dildo.

This was described in one particular Daily Mail article as one of the “crude sex toys” featured in the drama; reason enough to tune in for most UK viewers.

Despite the adaptation portraying much more than lesbian sex (politics and the rise of Socialism, broken hearts, coming of age in a strict Victorian England, to name a few), it seems that this one scene remains at the forefront of the public’s consciousness.

It often appears on countdowns of TV’s hottest shows, and “achieved one of the highest ratings for a drama on BBC TWO in recent years.” This is not a coincidence.

TV fetishises this particular sex scene, which is ultimately an exertion of power by Diana over a vulnerable Nan, leading to a rather twisted romance.

Focusing on one scene of a three-hour production in order to summarise the entire story without any kind of context undid much good ground gained by the adaptation, in terms of its representation of lesbian sexuality.

Waters’ other adapted works, all in some part addressing lesbian themes, have proved less provocative to the press and public, evident in the decrease in complaints and press coverage.

Fingersmith has its share of erotic sex scenes, and both Affinity and The Night Watch contain full-frontal nudity.

So what is it about Tipping the Velvet in particular that whipped people into a frenzy? It may be the overtly sexual content, but perhaps it is the inclusion of a sex toy, still seen as taboo and part of a fetish lifestyle.

Often made a joke of in film (Not Another Teen Movie springs to mind) and TV (the embarrassing birthday/engagement present given in comedies such as The Office and How I Met Your Mother), we are told not to take them seriously, and they become disassociated with sex and passion. To see two sexual partners actually enjoying themselves, and each other, through use of a sex toy is pretty rare.

The work of Sarah Waters cannot be disassociated from sex, not even by highly celebrated screenwriter Andrew Davies (the scriptwriter for both Tipping the Velvet and Affinity), who famously described Tipping the Velvet as “Pride and Prejudice with naughty bits.”

It’s quite difficult to take this comparison seriously, given that Lizzie Bennet is towards the end in her journey of self-discovery, whereas Nan is at sea (quite literally) from the off.

Throw in the differences in time period and tone, then all we are left with in terms of parallels is that both can be lumped together under the umbrella term ‘corset drama’, completely stripping both of any identity or unique voice.

It’s truly unfortunate that so much focus is put on sex scenes. Though important for character development and an honest and unapologetic portrayal of lesbian, gay and human relationships, the attention given to these Sapphic Victorian ‘romps’ does not do justice to the richness of Sarah Waters’ stories.


  • Ayana says:

    Ooh, I’ll be interested to see the Little Stranger adaptation, since they won’t be able to rely on titillation to entice people to watch… I agree the focus on the sex scenes doesn’t do Waters justice, wonder if that’s why she wrote her last novel full of repression and no love scenes

    • Aimee says:

      I wonder if TLS will be treated as poorly as The Night Watch was by the schedulers – it was pushed back for months and consequently I’m not sure it drew the attention it deserved.
      TLS sees a definite shift from Waters away from sex, and I really enjoyed the change in focus to the psychological thriller – a successful move, IMO. One of her key strengths, I think, is her ability to incorporate plot twists into her writing that audiences can’t easily spot, which, I would have thought, would draw the audiences in. But perhaps we are all still obsessed with boobs and bums!