The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Step into Victorian London and meet our heroine, Sugar – a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can – and the host of unforgettable characters that make up her world.
The Crimson Petal and the White has been called “the first great 19th century novel of the 21st century.” If you haven’t read it already, then it’s probably recently come to your attention via the BBC television adaptation featuring Ramola Garai (‘I Capture the Castle’), and Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd). At 835 pages, it’s certainly not a short read, but I can assure you it is worth every second of the time it takes you to read it!
Any novel that has a Victorian London setting is ultimately going to be compared to Charles Dickens, and Faber does capture those same bleak, haunting, and filthy scenes of Londonthat Dickens is renowned for. But The Crimson Petal and the White delves deeper into places that Dickens and the like would never have dared to go before. It is ultimately about sex – about the utter contrast between innocence and virginity, with being forced into a life of prostitution and sleeping with anyone for a few coins.
The main thread of the story follows Sugar, who has been forced into prostitution by her own mother. Only, Sugar isn’t like other prostitutes – she is very literate, she can read and write, and is very intelligent. She is determined to use these skills to carve a better life for herself. Then in walks Mr William Rackham – a struggling writer, who is married to a mad woman, has a daughter he never sees, and very little source of income. Whilst Williams seeks comfort in Sugar’s naked arms, Sugar is scheming to turn his life around – to give him the confidence to take on his father’s business and become a wealthy man, and in doing so, she becomes more a part of his life than he ever dreamed she would.
What I love most about this novel is Faber’s own voice throughout. He talks directly to the reader, seducing you into this world he has created, tempting you to read on, and ultimately keeping you hooked until the very last page. It’s Faber’s writing alone that makes this novel such a success. It’s not very often I find a 800+ page book so ‘unputdownable’. The opening scene alone is enough to pull you in;
“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.”
The other great thing about this book is undoubtedly its characters. William’s wife, Agnes, becomes a very prominent character in the second half of the book. She is very prone to fits of rage and distress, and utter madness that mean she is often shut away in her bedroom, and very rarely left alone. Agnes has led a very sheltered, sad life that affects her in ways you wouldn’t believe. In some ways I think the title of this book very much refers to the contrast between Sugar and Agnes – two women that on the surface appear very different, but on the inside are much like kindred spirits. Agnes is child-like and innocent, bordering on virginal. She has no idea what it means that part of being a woman is having a period every month, she believes it is a disease from the devil that must be cured. The first time she had sex with William, she couldn’t stand the pain of it all, and when they created a child she simply couldn’t understand what was happening – it was the devil coming out of her, she thought. She is left with an utter hatred for William and his lack of success that has made her miserable.
Whereas, Sugar is a prostitute – she has had sex with men more times than she can count, all so as she can make enough money to live on and look after her mother. All the rage that has been locked away inside herself after these experiences, she pours into a novel she is writing – a novel about a prostitute who murders every man she has sex with. Agnes and Sugar have one thing in common – this hatred of men. Neither one wants to depend on men for their own success and happiness. They want a life of their own, that they control. But in VictorianLondon…Can this ever be possible?
You might be fooled into thinking that The Crimson Petal and the White is a love story, but I assure you it is not. There is very little love in this story. It is very much a novel about being selfish, of putting yourself before others, of making it to the top at whatever cost.
This really is a superb novel. Faber has created a Victorian story infused with a very modern voice that guides you along on the journey of these characters. For anyone who has watched the BBC adaptation, I urge you to read the book, for it is ten times better. Although it was very artfully done, it lacked that voice – the voice that I can’t quite get out of my mind whenever I think of this story. Never before have I been so sad to say goodbye to so many fictional characters.
Michel Faber continues Sugar’s story and the other characters featured in The Crimson Petal and the White with a collection of short stories titled The Apple, which is available purchase now.
- The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber (via Vulpes Libris) (calculable.org)
- Crimson petal and the white (andthedreamofhorses.wordpress.com)
- The Crimson Petal and the White, BBC Two, preview (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Crimson Petal and the White: a Victorian horror story too big for the small screen, review (telegraph.co.uk)