The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White is currently being serialised by the BBC, and a great adaptation it is too. But if you don't read the book, you'll be seriously missing out.

It's a hefty commitment at well over 800 pages, but apart from the sheer weight of it straining my wrists, it couldn't have been less of a chore to read. From the opening pages, in which a sly, conspiratorial narrator invites the reader to spy, voyeur-like, on the characters, to the ambiguous, startling conclusion, I was gripped by this dark Victorian tale.

The apparently cold-hearted prostitute Sugar, largely unloved, frequently unlovely and often unlovable, is a dream of a character. She is complicated, ambiguous and contradictory, and yet I found it impossible not to cheer her on even at the height of her scheming. William Rackham, the weak-willed perfume manufacturer who 'buys' her from her increasingly terrifying mother and madam, Mrs Castaway, is absurd and dangerous by turns. In fact, William is a living embodiment of the saying 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. His position as a wealthy man in a 19th century patriarchy - a position he only reaches in the first place with Sugar as both his motivation and unofficial assistant - means that his snap decisions and capricious whims can have a horrifying effect, sometimes unwitting and sometimes deliberate, on the women around him. Casually neglecting his disappointingly female offspring and simultaneously idolising and despising his disturbed young wife Agnes, he often professes to be in love with Sugar - but will he tire of her one day and put her to one side, just as he shuts away his inconvenient wife and child?

Written in the style of a Victorian novel and exploring a number of Victorian themes and structural devices, The Crimson Petal and The White has numerous subplots, among them the touching but tragic story of William's pious, sexually-frustrated brother Henry and his unrequited love for charity worker Mrs Fox, whose sturdy pragmatism and refusal to be beaten something as trifling as tuberculosis makes her the antithesis of the naive, fragile Agnes Rackham and her obsession with 'the Season'. There is also Agnes' slowly-revealed back-story, through which we learn that her genteel, pampered upbringing has in its own peculiar way been just as harmful as Sugar's miserable early years with her abusive mother.

Throughout the book, women's choices are restricted and their fates dictated, even when it comes to what to do with their own bodies. Sugar was forced into prostitution by her mother when she was still a child and her life depends on submitting to William's sexual demands. Agnes' finishing-school education has left her so lacking in knowledge about her own body that she believes her periods to be a demonic disease and was so traumatised by giving birth in complete ignorance that she cannot acknowledge the presence of her own daughter; moreover, her enforced conversion to Anglicanism by her stepfather has left her racked with religious guilt. Dosed with laudanum and submitted to humiliating medical examinations, it's possible that she has even less freedom than Sugar. In the meantime, Sugar attempts to educate Sophie, who longs to be an explorer, about geography, literature and science, only to be told that music and French would be more appropriate to prepare her for courting. Mrs Fox, desperately in love with Henry Rackham and longing to marry him and take him to bed, is powerless to take control of the relationship because of her gender.

Despite being crammed with details, some of them uncomfortably grubby and visceral, some of them comic and some of them quietly domestic, The Crimson Petal and the White is never boring and never once feels over-written. Perhaps this is because every one of those details, no matter small, is significant and revealing. There isn't a line in the novel from which we don't learn something important and not a line that didn't draw me in just that little bit further. By the end, I cared desperately about Sugar, despite her ambiguity, despite her dubious choices, despite that little streak of nastiness that still sometimes surfaced in her. A brilliant must-read, not just for the engrossing story and the three-dimensional characters, but for its fascinating exploration of Victorian life and society.

Comments

  1. Ooooh, interesting. I've wanted to read this for a while but it's a pretty intimidating size. Plus it's just so heavy! I don't know what paper stock they use for it, but it's definitely something weighty.

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  2. Yes, the current edition is printed on posh paper and weighs as much as a small child. Presumably that's how they justify charging a tenner for it, but I nearly gave myself curvature of the spine lugging it to work on the tram in my handbag. Older editions are more likely to be printed on ordinary paperback book type stock, so might be worth looking for a second-hand copy. It's well worth reading and it just doesn't feel so long once you're engrossed in it.

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