The Crimson Petal and the White
Canongate Books Ltd; 2002
(and recently adapted by the BBC)
At 800 plus pages, and with my increasingly picky post-English degree brain mainly edging towards short stories (still traumatised from the horrors of trying to plough through six novels a week, obviously), I wasn’t certain that I’d make it to the end of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, but I did, and I absolutely loved it. It's quickly leap-frogged its way into my "favourite -books- of- all- time- list", and while I could rave about it for hours, I'll try and stay succinct.
The big slab of a book is perhaps unsurprisingly set in the Victorian period, and is suitably Dickensian with its evocative descriptions of London- its prostitutes, orphans and slums; its philanthropists and criminals; its aesthetes and decadents and its lunatics- but its post-modern/post-feminist knowingness gives the entire novel a voyeuristic edge; a sly wink through the keyhole that subverts the traditions that it continues. Critics are quick to note that this is “the novel Dickens would have wrote had he been allowed to speak freely” (Katherine Hughes, The Guardian) and while I do feel that a great deal of my enjoyment did come from my familiarity with Victorian novels (after studying both the Victorian period and the Fin de Siècle as an undergraduate), and recognising the stock characters/tropes -and observing Faber’s take on them- The Crimson Petal is so well-written and the characters are so perfectly constructed that aside from all of that, it’s still a fantastic read. (Even if you aren’t, like me, still a bit of a goth who gets unduly excited about foggy, cobbled streets and corsets and feels all light-headed at a Bill the Butcher type moustache and a top hat).
The novel follows Sugar, a “surprisingly” erudite and resourceful teenage prostitute, who dreams of writing a penny-dreadful tale that charts her adventures/misfortunes, and which sees her/ her heroine taking all kinds of bloody revenge on her clients. After a fortuitous meeting with William Rackham, a privileged idler; a dandyish figure masquerading as an “author”, but who is nevertheless the heir to a perfume company, Sugar becomes the object of his infatuation, and her attempts to fashion a new life for herself, “to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can”, then begin. This relationship runs central to the story, but there are subplots aplenty, from William’s brother Henry’s tormented relationship with Mrs Emmeline Fox, where his lust for her and his religious leanings are at odds; to William’s cossetted wife Agnes’ increasingly mental instability and her attempts to regain some emotional equilibrium; to Sugar’s relationship with William’s daughter, Sophie.
The novel, as expected from a neo-Victorian tale, is of course open to all sorts of interpretation and literary criticism, but I tried to keep those student tendencies under control (the ones that annoying note all the possible psychoanalytical/ Marxist/ structuralist etc readings in every single utterance), and focus on the style instead, which is simply wonderful. I was a fan of Faber’s anyway after reading his short story collections The Fahrenheit Twins and Some Rain Must Fall and other Stories, (all suitably other-worldly and unsettling and gothic) and his writing here is so accomplished, and his prose so sensuous, playful and inventive (and darkly humorous), that 800 plus pages just wasn’t enough. This review probably hasn’t done the book justice (as I’m aware that I should really be finishing a story, and I’m not the best journalistic writer, so I’ve linked another review at the bottom for anybody interested) so, in short: I recommend it.