Michel Faber’s epic novel The Crimson Petal and the White takes on the Victorian novel at its own game, telling the story of Sugar, a teenage prostitute with a biting intellect and the married industrialist who buys her out of her mother’s brothel to be his exclusive mistress. As befits a Victorian novel, it is set on the streets of London and is a massive 835 pages long, exploring society from the upper to lower classes in a pungent prose that sweeps the reader along in its vivid, intense glory.
Despite its length, The Crimson Petal and the White does not sprawl. It is easy to think of it as Dickensian, and while Faber certainly nods in that direction; his novel is a more compressed examination of Victorian London life, given that it focuses mainly on a handful of characters whose lives are entwined.
At the heart of the novel is Sugar, a self-educated precocious prostitute who has been put to work out by her own mother since the age of 13. Famous for doing things no other prostitute will do, and for doing them with a smile, Sugar saves her anger for the pages of the novel she is writing in which all her clients meet grisly ends. One of those clients – reluctant and aimless heir to a perfume factory William Rackham, falls for Sugar to such an extent that he is galvanised into making a success of his father’s business, so that he can buy Sugar for himself and set her up in a brothel for one.
William’s wife Agnes is oblivious to all this, in fact, Agnes is oblivious to quite a lot, as her grasp on reality has been slipping since the birth of a daughter Sophie, who she never acknowledges. Add to this William’s religious brother Henry, a spiritual and pious man who is being undone by his love for his widowed friend Mrs. Fox, a respected member of the Rescue Society, determined to save women just like Sugar.
There are a few sub-plots and minor characters such as William’s rakish friends Bodley and Ashwell but Faber keeps his narrative as tight as his prose is sprawling. From the domestic realm of drawing rooms and bedrooms, Faber explores the changing world of time, exploring issues of capitalism, health care, charity, the hold of religion and changing attitudes – mainly though the voices of his female characters.
His women are insightful, clear-eyed and hopeful that their position in society will change. Mrs. Fox in particular is a modern voice cutting through the historical detail,
The way our sex is demeaned and made trivial in newspapers, in novels, even on the labels of the tiniest items of household produce, that is law. And, most of all, poverty is law. If a man falls on hard times, a five-pound note and a new suit of clothes can restore him to respectability, but if a woman falls…
Even Agnes, at the height of her maladies, has an awareness that she is being manipulated by her husband and her doctor for their own ends.
The depiction of London at this time is wonderfully done, from the planning of a wardrobe for the upcoming season, to the workings of Rackham Perfumes, Faber’s wealth of detail and stunning prose bring these Victorian streets alive. The seedy details are also there, from the smell of bedpans to the concoction the prostitutes use to douse themselves after sex, the relations between man and woman, prostitute and client are laid bare. Even Agnes is not immune from the prodding fingers of her doctor in his attempts to cure her feminine ailment. Sex too is portrayed with unflinching candor, in a manner in which Dickens would or could have ever dreamed of writing.
Yet, Faber has managed to write a Victorian novel that is not really Victorian at all, thanks to his device of a second-person narrative voice. Leading the reader tantaslisingly through these streets, our narrator suggests that there are many other stories we could be reading about rather than this one, other avenues to walk down.
Who to follow now? Janey, I suggest. Mr Bodley and Mr Ashwell are about to leave anyway, and William Rackham will then immediately resume his study of the Rackham papers. He’ll barely move for hours, so unless you are madly curious about the cost of unwoven Dundee jute as a cheap substitute for cotton wool, or the secrets of making pot pourri-scented migraine sachets, you are likely to have a more interesting time with Janey and Sophie as they sit in the nursery, waiting for Beatrice to return.
It brings a delicious sense of collusion between reader and author, the idea that we are peeping in at these lives in an almost unsavoury, random way, wanting to hear the seedy details of Sugar and William’s relationship.
Let’s not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you’re too shy to name, or at least show you a good time. Now you hesitate, still holding on to me but tempted to let me go. When you first picked me up, you didn’t fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect I would grip you so tightly, so fast…But you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray, and it’s too late to turn back now.
It’s a bravura voice, but used sparingly throughout the book, giving an almost cinematic vibe, with that arch, knowing voice popping up a one point to note that
If you are beyond endurance, I can offer only my promise that there will be fucking in the very near future, not to mention madness, abduction, and violent death
In fact, The Crimson Petal and the White is a very ‘literary’ book. It doffs its cap to Dickens obviously but also to John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and all the main characters are chroniclers of their lives. Sugar pours her resentment into her novel, while Agnes pours hers into her diaries. William has dabbled in literature and even Bodley and Ashwell are getting by writing pamphlets about London life.
However, in some respects, Faber ignores the rules of literature, particularly in the narrative arc of his novel. In an attempt to bring Sugar closer to him, William makes her his daughter’s nanny – the irony being that the closer she is physically, the less chance he actually has of being with her. Bringing her into his home creates a real sense of drama. Will they be found out? Will Sugar, and for that matter William, be recognised for what they are? Faber promises on the madness, abduction and violent death, but he doesn’t give answers and some readers may, after 830 odd pages, feel cheated by the ending.
It’s unexpected, but that should be what we as readers have come to expect. As our narrator says,
You imagine you can make it last forever, then suddenly it’s over. I’m glad you chose me, even so; I hope I satisfied all you desires, or at least showed you a good time.
Moreover, that’s what The Crimson Petal and the White does. It shows the reader a good time and is all about the journey rather than the destination.
Teeming with wit, detail, delicious scandal and enjoyable characters, this is a gleeful romp of a book, big, brash and completely unapologetic.
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