On How Books Change Over Time

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - theatre play programmeA few weeks ago, I went to see a play called The Night Watch with a friend of mine at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It’s based on a book of the same name by Sarah Waters which, to be honest, I hadn’t liked very much. I don’t think I even got past the first few chapters before giving up and moving on to something else.

I agreed to go on the basis that I’d liked Sarah Waters’ previous books, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, and a trip to theatre is a trip to the theatre, after all. Even if a play turns out to be awful, it’s still an experience.

In the end, it absolutely blew me away. It was implemented perfectly, with wonderful actors, and was infinitely better than I remember the book being. After a few days weeks of being unable to get it out of my head, I decided I’d go back to her previous books in order to get some closure from the amazing play.

I knew I owned Tipping the Velvet, I absolutely knew it. But I’ll be damned if I could find it on my shelf. I consulted my LibraryThing catalogue and it wasn’t even bloody listed and I’ve kept that updated since 2006, people. I knew I’d read it a long time ago, but I hadn’t realised it was at least ten years previously.

(Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that I’ve been meticulously cataloguing my reading for ten years!? I feel like I deserve an award to celebrate my anniversary of anal retentiveness). 

The more I thought about it, however, that started to make a little bit of sense. I developed a vague recollection of borrowing it from Shipley library when I was first starting to delve into the Adult section (in retrospect, Victorian lesbians possibly not the best book with which to start), and I must never have gotten around to buying a copy. You know, in ten years.

So I bought a copy (for a whole £2.96) and settled down with Tipping the Velvet, ready to revisit the book I remember quite enjoying as (apparently) a teenager.

That brings me to my point. The book ending up being so different to how I remembered, in pretty much every way imaginable. How can that be? It’s not like the words in the book have changed, after all, so presumably I must have, but I’m still me, after all. It’s odd and I feel a distinct need to discuss it.

The Plot that I Apparently Completely Invented

Firstly, starting with the simplest, the plot just isn’t how I remembered it. I’m going to write a proper review later (haha, I’m way past that point), but for now it will suffice to say that the book is divided into three parts, each one dealing with a different stage of Nancy Astley’s life. I have zero recollection of the second or third stages; I was under the impression that the entire book regarded Nancy’s music hall career. Apparently not. That could be because this part is by far the most interesting and the other two fall a little flat – I mean, of course I was going to remember the interesting parts better.

Book cover of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah WatersBut then, doesn’t that mean that my memories grew fonder with distance? Because, I assure you, that is not usually the case. I can look at books now that I quite liked a year ago that I wouldn’t dream of picking up now because their shine wore off, or there’s one character who continued to grate on me even from the distance of several months. I clear out my shelves every few months for just that reason.

Then, continuing with my memory problems, I apparently invented quite a pivotal scene. There were only two scenes I definitely remembered from Tipping the Velvet – one was Nancy and Kitty dancing on stage in a music hall and receiving some sort of heckling, and the other was where they met later in life around a piano in somebody’s parlour.

I can still picture that last scene so vividly – whenever I’d thought of the book in the previous ten years, I’d thought of that scene. And it simple didn’t exist. I kept expecting it to pop up and I was starting to get confused towards the end, when the plot was running out of opportunities for it to happen. Some time, somehow, I’d just invented the whole damn thing. But why!? Why would my brain just make up a scene from a book instead of remembering what actually happened?

My emotions

I can’t be completely clear on this as I wasn’t making notes on my reading at the time, but I think I remember really resenting Kitty. I mean, that’s fine, you’re meant to; she screws Nancy over and is really only out for herself. At 16 years old, with no experience of relationships, I felt exactly how I was probably meant to feel. Betrayed, slighted and angry. Everything is so clear cut when you’re that age – all your knowledge of how things ‘should’ be comes from movies or books, so you know that when somebody gets hurt, it means the other person must be Bad.

Now though, having been through some troublesome relationship issues of my own, Kitty seems more nuanced. I’ve learned in the intervening decade that nothing in affairs of the heart is ever black and white, and there are two sides to every tale. Sometimes people hurt you without meaning to. Sometimes they don’t want to hurt you, but they’re putting themselves first and you can’t really blame them for it.

I just feel sorry for Kitty now. She was clearly conflicted and whilst what she ended up doing wasn’t ideal, she did what she thought was best. She simply wasn’t able to provide what Nancy wanted and part of adulthood is realising that you can’t judge everybody else by your own standards  (I’ll try and remember that when I’m complaining at 11:28am that somebody is late for our 11:30am meeting… ). I accept that Kitty genuinely tried her hardest to make it work and I blame Nancy at least somewhat for being naive and overly dramatic. In other words, get a grip Nance.

Clearly your own experiences influence how you perceive a certain situation and the characters therein. I’d be interested to reread this in another ten years to see where I stand on Kitty, Nancy and the decline of their relationship.


In the intervening approximate-ten years since my first reading of Tipping the Velvet, assuming I’ve read an average of 100 books a year, I’ve finished about a 1,000 books. A thousand books. Obviously these will have been of varying quality, but I’ve definitely read more classics and more literary fiction than I had in 2006. I suppose I now have a different frame of reference for what makes a ‘good’ book, aside from just having more books under under my belt with which to compare it to.

I still really enjoyed reading this book. But I now notice inconsistencies, character flaws and shoddy dialogue much more than previously… or at least I assume I didn’t notice, considering I remember being pretty impressed by it. I like it regardless, but I now have a more accurate (or at least more cynical) idea of where it belongs on the scale.

I just felt that I had to talk about this because it shocked me how much I’d changed over ten years. The ages of sixteeen and twentysix are so far apart in terms of experience, maturity and knowledge that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but I didn’t expect it to affect my reading so much.
I’m looking forward to reading this again in ten years time, when I’m 36, and seeing how I feel about it then. After another ten years of experience, maybe I’ll have a completely different perspective again!
I’d love to know your take on this. Have your reading opinions ever changed with time? Why do you think that is?      


  1. Ellie says:

    I really liked Tipping the Velvet, but I wouldn't read it again. I got so immersed in the world and the characters and the sex and this completely unfamiliar underground world of queer men and women in Victorian England, and I fancied the knickerbockers off Nan – but looking back now there's a vaguely unsettling icky feeling there, and I know I won't reread it. I'm not a historical fiction fan most of the time, so that might be a factor – I've loved other historical novels even more, but have never reread a single one as far as I can remember.

    This is what makes me so leery about going back to favourite books years later though. I don't mind there being a shift in how I view the book, that's to be expected – maybe sympathising with someone more or less, noticing new details, losing some of the momentum because I know the story already – but I always hope there'll be a love behind it and a feeling of warm familiarity. Thus far I've been okay, the books I've risked returning to have been genuinely worth rereading, but eventually I'll be disappointed by something and I hate that. 🙁

    1. Ellie says:

      P.S. I KNOW the comment above mine is spam, but it's so hilarious I read it all. Twice. While choking on coffee a little bit. I need to work GREAT AND HEAVENLY SHOWING into my next comment. On your next hooded. HA okay I'm going.

  2. A delightful articulation of affection is to need the best for somebody whether it incorporates you or not. It is hard to live in the present, however crazy to live later on, and difficult to live previously. This online journals is so dynamite for me. Much thanks to you such a great amount for sharing us. Motorcycle Leather Jackets

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *