Born in Pembrokeshire in 1966, Sarah Waters has emerged as one of the UK's most promising contemporary authors, and has chosen to abandon the career as an English literature researcher which brought her the inspiration for her first three novels.

Waters' PhD, as her press profiles unerringly recall, centred around gay writing in the Victorian period, and consigned her to long afternoons in the British Library looking through Victorian pornography. Nice work if you can get it, I'm sure.

Such insalubrious study stood her in good stead when it came to writing her first novel Tipping the Velvet, published in 1999. TtV's heroine Nan Astley begins as an oyster girl in the Kent seaside resort of Whitstable (where Waters lived with her partner for six years), before falling for a male impersonator by the name of Kitty Butler who performs at the local music hall.

Having followed Kitty to London and become a double act, how shall we say, on and off stage, Nan inconveniently discovers her in bed with her male manager and ends up in the clutches of Diana Latheby, a dilettante with nothing better to do than peel girls off the street who have fallen on hard times and introduce them to her remarkable collection of sex toys. Waters was still teaching at The Open University while writing this, so if you ever had a particularly distracted Eng Lit tutor there in the late '90s who looked rather like a blonde Judi Dench, you now know why.

The next two novels, Affinity (2000) and Fingersmith (2002), managed the same cross between Wilkie Collins and Fanny Hill. Spiritualism and women's prisons are the stock-in-trade of Affinity, while Fingersmith trawls the pickpocket haunts of London's East End. (And if you have to ask what a fingersmith is, you're probably better off thinking pickpocket.)

All three give Waters the chance to show off her unparallelled ear for Victorian slang, and suggest that even though she can't get more than a third of the way through her books without lapsing into the sort of thing she must have picked up in the British Library, Waters is probably at her best when her novels and her heroines are both finding their feet. (Jeanette Winterson only with extra petticoats.)

Waters' breakthrough year was 2002: shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize (disarmingly, for Waters, renamed the Man Booker that year after a new sponsorship deal), she also saw Tipping the Velvet adapted for television by the doyen of UK period drama, Andrew Davies, best known for his Pride and Prejudice.

Starring Diana Rigg's daughter Rachael Stirling as Nan, and packed with suggestive shots of two women eating an oyster at the same time, the three-parter came as close to water cooler TV status as anything on BBC2 is likely to manage, thanks to Davies' throwing in a big leather dildo or such like whenever the going got tough.

Since Waters has announced her next novel will follow a lesbian couple in 1940s London, with nary a strap-on to be seen, readers looking for more of the same would be better advised to turn to The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber's Victorian prostitute saga. If the hanky panky starts to drag, it even has the advantage over Waters' three that it can always be pressed into service as a sturdy doorstop.

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