Updated on February 11, 2016
6. ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber
London in the 1850s. On one side of the coin, poverty-stricken prostitutes and brothel-owners attempt to scrape a living in the city’s filthy back streets. On the other, the rich float from grand house to noble soirée. Most of the time the two never meet, until the mindless drive of lust impels wealthy men to pursue pleasure in the darkened alleys in which the other half live. William Rackham is one such rich man; Sugar is one such prostitute. The Crimson Petal and the White tells the story of what happens when they meet.
I really loved the narrative style of this book. Immediately the narrator breaks the fourth wall, telling you to prepare yourself for what lies ahead. We meet the characters in order, from the lowest social ranking to the highest (after all, you can’t expect to get anywhere without an introduction, can you?). I loved that this strange, bodiless narrator knows about the world in which we, the readers, live – the voice knows about modern medicine and electric lights – yet asks you to forget about the comforts you know, and follow it into a story purely because you want to be there.
The heroine of this story is Sugar, a prostitute who is filled with rage and ambition when we first meet her. She is determined to drag herself out of the gutter, whatever it takes, but as the story progresses she becomes conflicted by her conscience. How far will she go to save herself? And will she lose her passion along the way? Michel Faber is wonderful at drawing thoroughly fleshed out and complex characters who are just amazingly real. Many times throughout the novel I predicted what Sugar would do, and I was usually wrong – at no point does she act like a plot device, she simply acts like a person.
This is something I heard several people say about this book before I even picked it up: that Sugar and William and Agnes all feel like real people, out there in the world, who we have been privileged to spy on for a while. The ending goes a long way towards reinforcing this idea. I won’t give away what happens, but suffice it to say that it is abrupt and open-ended. Many readers may find that disappointing, but I thought it fit perfectly with the tone of the book. We flitted in, riding on the wings of an invisible narrator, and it makes sense that eventually we will have to flit away again, without ever fully knowing the whole story.
The setting, Victorian London, is vividly drawn, from the physical spaces (including both filthy slums and wealthy homes) to the society at large. Female characters are at the heart of this story, and how they are treated is often shocking. It’s astonishing to see the expectations placed upon women at the time, and how easily they can be ‘ruined’. The character of Mrs Emmeline Fox sums it up beautifully:
“If a man falls on hard times, a five-pound note and a new suit of clothes can restore him to respectability, but if a woman falls…! A woman is expected to remain in the gutter.”
This condemning attitude makes you really sympathise with Sugar’s struggle and, even though she does terrible things to raise herself higher, you remain sympathetic because you can see the gaping maw waiting to swallow her if she slips. That’s not to say that you don’t also sympathise with the richer characters. Agnes Rackham is an unfortunate woman ultimately suffering from a lack of education and understanding. William Rackham is a philanderer and he is absolutely ghastly to his wife in many other ways, but he is also essentially a boy, thrust out of the frivolity of university into a sink-or-swim world. The way the reader feels about him mirrors Sugar’s feelings: we want him to prosper if only because so many other people rely on him not failing.
The Crimson Petal and the White didn’t absorb me as totally as Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things, but I did love it. It’s a very long novel and at no point did I feel like it dragged. Faber sustains a really fascinating story across hundreds of pages, so that by the end I felt like I knew the characters very intimately and, sort of, loved them.
“The mirror cannot lie, and yet it does, it does! It cannot reflect the flame-like destinies trapped inside the frustrated soul.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.