Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Michel Faber, Publisher, Setting

‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber


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.

13 thoughts on “‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber”

  1. Literary Minded & Jess, it is, indeed, a great book. So much so I’ve now gone and bought the ‘sequel’ — ‘The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories’ which was released in 2006.


  2. I loved this too! It took me forever to read since my daughter was a newborn but it was so satisfying. I would really like to get my hands on a copy of The Apple but it’s not published here in the US.


  3. Wait, wait – there’s a sequel? I did NOT know that. I read this one a few years ago and for the most part I liked it, although the second half seemed to drag. There was something about the tone of the novel that I felt Faber didn’t carry throughout the novel. Perhaps it was some of that tongue-in-cheek playfulness which opens the novel but seems lacking in the last half of the book. Still, it was pretty good. Good enough for me to look up that sequel I had no idea about. 🙂


  4. Happy to see you admired this book as much as I did. After reading “The Crimson Petal and the White”, I’ve gone back and read all of Michel Faber’s novels and stories. To me, he is simply the best young writer out there. Not sure if he is eligible for the Booker or not, but this novel should have gotten one.


  5. Tara, it’s listed on so you should be able to get it on that side of the pond:

    JS Peyton, well, it’s not a real ‘sequel’. I believe it’s a short story collection featuring characters from ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. And I do know what you mean about the latter half of the book not being quite as good as the first. It’s not as though it runs out of steam, it’s just that the ‘raunchiness’ and the playfulness of the first half dissipates. But I didn’t think that took away from the novel as a whole, which is wonderful and unlike any other historical fiction that I’ve read written by a modern writer.


  6. Tony, interesting to hear that his other fiction is just as good. I must investigate some of his earlier novels. Interesting question about his eligibility for the Booker. According to the rules the book has to be written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe. Faber was born in Holland, grew up in Australia but now lives in Scotland… so goodness knows what his nationality is.


  7. Just back from my hols and am catching up on your reviews. So glad that you enjoyed this one – it’s been one of my favourite books since I read it a few years ago. I have also read the ‘sequel’ and didn’t enjoy it so much. I must go and investigate some of his other books too.


  8. Louise, go anywhere nice? I ended up getting a cheap copy of the sequel on Amazon marketplace — I kind of suspected it wouldn’t be good as the first one, but I was intrigued by the concept of writing a series of short stories about characters from the original book.


  9. Went to Brittany – it was very nice. In between keeping two kids occupied I managed to read Margaret Forster ‘Private Papers’ and Meg Wolitzer ‘The 10 Year Nap’


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