The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber

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Spoliers ahead

Michel Faber’s neo-Victorian novel The Crimson Petal and the White vies with many of its nineteenth-century literary progenitors in terms of length, but it is shot through with a modern sensibility that acts as a distancing effect.  This is not pastiche, aping the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel, because it is too knowing.  The result is a story that is immersed in the mid-1870s while allowing an unblinking gaze at its setting’s underside which novelists at the time were unable to provide.  The explicit behaviour and language definitely set it apart from its Victorian forebears, so it is amusing to think of the book as a reading club favourite.  The uneuphemistic richness of the language paints a picture of London that over the 800+ pages allows the reader to absorb the period detail.

The main characters are Sugar, a nineteen-year old prostitute who never declines a request, and William Rackham, the younger son of a prosperous perfumer.  They, along with William’s beautiful but increasingly unstable wife Agnes (embarrassing not least because of her fervent Catholicism) and their neglected, and emotionally stunted, six-year old daughter Sophie, make up the main cast, with a huge number of supporting characters.  Agnes is infuriatingly neurotic, but her neuroticism is not generated by social constraints and ignorance of sex (believing periods to be demonic bloodletting) so much as by an organic cause, a brain tumour that produces her increasingly erratic behaviour.

When William meets Sugar he is overcome with desire for her, to pursue which he transforms himself from pretentious self-absorbed dilettantish litterateur, scraping by on an inadequate allowance from his father, into the dynamic head of the family firm (his elder brother Henry having forsaken thoughts of commerce to devote himself to the study of religion and to contemplating his own unworthiness for the practicalities of ministry).

William’s fortunes are immeasurably improved once at the helm of Rackham Perfumeries, and with his new-found affluence he can afford to keep Sugar as his mistress.  Sugar is an unusual heroine in that her beauty is flawed by an unsightly skin condition, but she more than makes up for any physical deficiencies in other ways, not least her intelligence.   She seems wise beyond her years, but then she had to make an early start in growing up (she was inducted into her profession at the age of 13 by her mother, who bears the brilliantly Dickensian name of ‘Mrs Castaway’; the predilection for underage girls is a theme of the book).

Having survived on her wits for so long, Sugar is shrewd, knowing how to take advantage of a situation, and she duly takes advantage of William’s obsession with her.  But as the story develops the dynamics of their relationship change, and Sugar sees a way to be closer to William by moving into his house as governess to Sophie when a vacancy becomes available.  Her conversion from an independently-minded woman determined to make her own way in a world in which the cards are stacked against her to someone willing to be a governess in order to be near William is not a convincing one, but as motivating factor she seeks the security of a comfortable family life that the pseudo-family of her mother’s brothel was never able to provide.

Sugar has a skewed understanding of male psychology from her extensive but narrow range of experiences.  Close proximity to William shows her that men are more complex than she had assumed, and the thoughts of physical revenge against them she had harboured fades so that she sees it as a childish and impotent compensation for the indignities heaped on her and other women.  Meanwhile, William is initially captivated by Sugar’s sexual promise and her fine mind – she is well read and converses intelligently.  Later he finds that he has a good head for comerce, but as their relationship matures, he finds that his inability to read her is uncomfortable.  Once she is installed in his house and transitions from mistress to governess, his ardour starts to cool.

Faber moves between different milieux to create a rich portrait.  Unsurprisingly there is a huge gulf between the richest and poorest, luxury at one end and degrading poverty at the other.  Relations among the upper strata are formal, polite and generally decorous, yet sexual exploitation of the less-well off flourishes.    One thing that seems to be missing in this world is any hint of sexually transmitted disease, a surprising omission as it would have given Faber the chance to exercise his descriptive powers.

He gives us a laissez-faire society without a safety net and human rights legislation, and the reader is not spared from exposure to the full squalor of London’s streets, where ill-health and casual death often feel very close.   One particularly horrid section has Sophie look out of the family carriage on her first big outing and catch the eye of a street child with a bucket, who throws something that hits Sophie in the face.  It turns out to be a dog turd, which Sophie then squashes on her father’s shoe with her gloved hand.  The reader is treated to the seamy underside of Victorian living that the Victorian novelists themselves were obliged to omit, from intimate details of feminine hygiene to just how dirty and smelly streets were.

In a world of moral ambiguity William is not a bad man, but is of his class and time, with a misogynistic sense of entitlement, lack of awareness of the feelings of others, and unreflecting double standards.  Despite his many flaws we feel sympathy as he undergoes a variety of misfortunes and becomes more reflective.  Sugar too develops in seeking to put her past behind her for a better life.  Among the squalor there are moments that are touching: Sugar’s prostitute friend Caroline, with whom the story begins and ends, is a rarity in the book, really having a heart of gold; the undeclared love between Henry and the widowed Emmeline Fox, full of repressed desire, and later the picture of Mrs Fox wearing Henry’s old shirt, are moving episodes.

A theme is the lack of communication between characters for whom convention is the key to respectability and social acceptance.  Ironically there is a lot of writing done by the characters.  Sugar writes a revenge fantasy novel in which she tortures and murders men; William is an unsuccessful essayist; Agnes compulsively keeps a series of diaries which she eventually buries, and from which Sugar secretly reads lengthy extracts; Bodley and Ashwell, William’s annoying men-about-town friends, write scandalous books (at a loss) in an infantile wish to provoke; there is a great deal of letter writing of various kinds.  None of the writing amounts to anything though, and as William finds when he pens an intemperate business letter, it can even be counter-productive.

Being the paid mistress of a wealthy man was not generally something that came with job security, and it is probable that a liaison like Sugar’s with William would come to an end sooner or later.  Men, to paraphrase Jane Eyre, are not in the habit of marrying their ex-prostitute mistresses.  Yet Sugar’s final act is extreme, partly motivated by her loss of William’s favour, partly by the maternal feelings that Sophie has evoked.  We accept it even though she is an abductor taking Sophie from the comfort and security of home into an uncertain future.  While dressed up as being for the child’s benefit, it is still an act of revenge against William for her dismissal.

The ending defies the expectation that after such a heavy investment in time the reader will be rewarded with a neat resolution.  It doesn’t happen, but that is not a weakness, and it does leave the way open for a sequel; indeed, it is such a rich universe that Faber has followed it up with a volume of short stories featuring some of its characters, The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories, but at less than a quarter of the length of the original.  The Crimson Petal and the White is well worth the effort expended because, by the end, one feels one knows the 1870s rather better than before.


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