Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 833 pages; 2003.
Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is, quite simply, an astounding literary accomplishment. Within its 800-plus pages unfolds a story that draws the reader into another time and place so expertly that you feel as if you, too, are treading the streets of Victorian-era London.
Critics have quite rightly compared Faber’s epic novel with that other great Victorian writer Charles Dickens, but as Kathryn Hughes pointed out in the Guardian this one is not tempered by the social mores that prevented Dickens from writing freely. Faber’s book, a 21st century novel set in the 19th century, is lewd and bawdy, gritty and real, and there’s no pretense at keeping things in check lest he offend a delicate reader.
Indeed, one could argue that delicate readers should probably steer clear of this epic tale about a prostitute’s rise and fall in Victorian England. His central character, 19-year-old Sugar, is infamous for turning the kinds of tricks other whores refuse to do. And while Faber may not go into great detail regarding those tricks, he certainly does not shy away from letting us into the sordid, carnal world of an 1870s streetwalker. The language can, at times, be very crude — and if you are offended by the “C-word” you’d be wise to stay away.
But despite the constant debauchery (for want of a better word) that fills the pages, The Crimson Petal and the White never feels pornographic, nor sensationalist.Instead, because Faber has such an eye for detail and is a stickler for historical accuracy, the novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope — or want — to visit.
The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air.
Cabs are trotting backwards and forwards, thickly bearded gentlemen in dark clothing dash across their path, sandwich-board men patrol the gutters and, over there, a trio of street-sweepers are standing over a drain, cramming the accumulated porridge of snow-slush, dirt and horse-dung down through the grille with jabs of their brooms. Even as they toil, an equipage bristling with provincial businessmen jingles by, leaving a steamy festoon of turd in its wake.
The story is set over the course of 1875. It begins with William Rackham, the reluctant heir to a perfumery business, hunting out the services of a notorious whore whose name he discovered in an annual brothel directory. When he eventually meets the alluring Sugar, he finds himself as equally attracted to her brain as to her body.
Sugar, as it turns out, is more than the sum of her parts. She’s a would-be writer working on a novel about a woman who carries out the most gruesome acts of revenge on the men who have paid to sleep with her. Sugar is also highly intelligent but has simply never been given the opportunity to rise above the mire to which she’s become accustomed.
Over the course of many rendezvous, Sugar and William establish an easy rapport, both in the bed and out of it, and before long William finds that the relationship has given him the impetus he needs to take control of the perfumery business he had so long despised. When he begins making his fortune, he “buys” Sugar and installs her in a secret pad, supplying her with a weekly wage and all the material possessions she could ever hope for.
But all is not well at home. His wife is going mad and his young daughter’s governess is planning on leaving the household. Likewise, Sugar is desperately lonely and begins to wonder if her sexual powers over William are beginning to wane…
She’s tired of waiting for William. Days go by without a visit; then, when he does call on her, he has a mind full of concerns from his secret life — secret from her, that is. All his friends and family know him better than she, and they haven’t any use for the knowledge; it’s so unfair!
To say much more would mean revealing crucial plot spoilers, which I am loathe to do, but essentially both characters hatch plots — with drastic and unpredictable consequences — to ensure that they can continue to stay together as a kind of surreptitious “husband and wife”.
Intertwined with this major narrative thread is a series of other minor storylines involving secondary characters which serve to make the book an especially rich, multi-layered read.
There’s William’s brother, Henry, a pious would-be preacher and his will-they-or-won’t-they friendship with an older woman, Emmaline Fox. Mrs Fox, a widow, works for the Rescue Society, an organisation that helps give former prostitutes proper jobs, and thereby knows Sugar and the circles she once operated in.
Mrs Fox’s father is also a minor character. He’s an arrogant and somewhat creepy doctor who tends to William’s wife and pushes for her to be taken into a sanatorium, because how else do you treat a woman who is clearly suffering from a yet-to-be-diagnosed case of post-natal depression?
William’s two bachelor friends, Bodley and Ashwell (or Bashley and Oddwell, as William is want to call them in moments of extreme drunkenness), serve as foils to his conscience, often encouraging him to do outrageous things, and together they add a dollop of devilish humour to the story.
But despite the completely absorbing tale that I found The Crimson Petal and the White to be, it’s not without its (tiny) faults. There’s a rather annoying omnipresent narrator who can sometimes grate, although the following sentence did make me laugh out loud:
So there you have it: the thoughts (somewhat pruned of repetition) of
William Rackham as he sits on his bench in St James’s Park. If you are bored 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.
The good thing is that this narrator does ease himself out of the story quite early on, and only makes his appearance known again at the very end, so it’s tolerable if you don’t really like that sort of thing. In any case, you shouldn’t let it put you off reading this wonderful, boisterous and hugely entertaining novel. It sounds ludicrous to say it, but at 833 pages it almost seemed too short and the near-perfect ending came almost too soon for my liking.