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  • Historical Fiction and the Revaluing of Historical Continuity in Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet
  • Mandy Koolen (bio)

The tendency of queer historians to celebrate studies of differences between past and present sexualities over studies of historical continuities has recently been called into question by queer theorists such as Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon, who argue: "we need to question the premise of a historicism that privileges difference over similarity, recognizing that it is the peculiarity of our current historical moment that such a privileging takes place at all" (1609).1 Sarah Waters's novel Tipping the Velvet, which is set in Victorian England, shows that queer historical fiction may not only aid theoretical revaluings of studies of historical continuities but also destabilize the idea that studies of differences and similarities across time must exist in tension and opposition to each other. While incorporating factual historical detail in order to convey the specificity of life in Victorian England, Waters's fictionalized history also encourages readers to recognize similarities between past "breeches performances" and drag-king [End Page 371] performances today.2 By exploring the power dynamics that exist in audience-performer relationships, Tipping the Velvet troubles the potentially dangerous myth that queer communities necessarily provide safe spaces for the expression of cross-gender identification. This novel thus demonstrates that historical fiction may use the past to comment on issues of contemporary concern and, by establishing temporal distance between readers and characters, make difficult social critiques more likely to be heard and taken seriously.

Contemporary privilegings of studies of historical differences can be traced back to the 1990s, when central queer historians, such as David Halperin and Jeffrey Weeks, began to argue in favor of studies that focused on differences between the past and present and, in turn, distanced themselves from earlier gay and lesbian-feminist historians whose studies emphasized similarities across time and thus were charged with promoting essentialist, trans(a)historical understandings of sexuality and gender.3 In their 1995 introduction to a special queer issue of [End Page 372] Radical History Review, Jeffrey Escoffier, Regina Kunzel, and Molly McGarry assert: "Historians have . . . moved from a search for lesbian and gay ancestors, a project that characterized the first stage of lesbian and gay history, to more nuanced analyses of the culturally and historically specific meanings attached to samesex erotic and sexual ties" (2). Such articulations of a productive shift in lesbian and gay historical studies—from an essentialist search for similitude in the past to a "more nuanced" social-constructionist focus on differences between past and present same-sex desires—suggest that queer historians may distance themselves from their forerunners in order to appear more intellectually rigorous and objective. While the emphasis placed on the newness of analyses of historical alterity may be read as an understandable attempt to legitimize sexuality studies within the broader discipline of history, focusing only on historical differences inhibits understandings of how present sexualities and genders grow out of and exist in response to the past.

The value of closely attending to both historical continuities and discontinuities can be seen in the rich and alluring portrayals of the past provided in many queer historical novels. Norman Jones argues that historical fictions "tend to emphasize points of connection alongside differences: similarities enough to make the past readable (literally and figuratively), and differences enough to keep it interesting" (2). By coupling historical research with fictional characters and events, authors like Sarah Waters bring the past to life and provide readers who feel alienated by fact-based, "objective," and/or heterosexist histories with a way of engaging with the past. Although historical fiction has been charged with being a historical and critiqued for fostering identifications across time—a move that queer historians such as Halperin argue results in "gay chauvinism, a homosexual essentialism" (How to Do the History 16)—queer historical novels do the important work of filling in gaps in the historical record by speculating about past experiences of same-sex desire that have been erased or neglected in many historical studies. These [End Page 373] novels may thereby provide a sense of historical belonging to contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirited (LGBTQ2...


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pp. 371-397
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