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.
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.
on 19 September 2002
Michel Faber's loose, baggy monster of a book captures the great narrative drive of classic Victorian storytellers, and wears its influences fairly openly. Sugar, the heroine, has an instinct for self-preservation as intuitive as Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp. The densely researched details of perfume manufacturing recall George Eliot's quarrying for "Middlemarch". And the frank sexual content will probably have Andrew Davies rubbing his hands with glee if he gets the chance to adapt it for the screen, as he's done with Sarah Waters' "Tipping the Velvet".
Michel Faber gives us a Victorian Christmas with all the trimmings, nights in whorehouses and opera houses, and some truly disgusting sounding Victorian meals... which seem worse, oddly enough, than the contraceptive routines he details the women in the book putting themselves through. He also writes wonderfully about being a six year old in 1875.
This took twenty years to write and research ; I hope a sequel won't take so long to complete!
Set in Victorian London, peopled by prositutes, madams, street sellers, batchelors, widows, Perfume manufacturers, hysterics and governnesses, "The Crimson Petal and the White" is everything it promises to be on the first page - an eye-opening journey and a dirty, jolting, wholly satisfying ride at that.
Its very difficult to express the novel's quality and density. Undoubtedly it is Faber's "magnum opus" to date, a startling 800+ page tome rather than his usual slick, moderate volumes. Furthermore, not a single page is superfluous - it surrenders to compelling detail and atmosphere, while still conveying a developing sense of character and an adequate pace of plot - the marriage of which is rarely accomplished with the good grace that "Crimson Petal" displays.
The story is at once convuluted, in that it follows a number of sensational and shocking individuals over one year of their lives, and incredibly simple, in that nothing resembling a contrived plotline is evident. The principals under examination are without exception well rounded protagonists - centred around William Rackham, the up-and-coming heir of a booming perfume manufacturer, they include his disturbed wife Agnes; the enigmatic Sugar, a prostitute who becomes his mistress and his ascetic, pious brother Henry. All of them undergo the painful, and wonderful, events demanded by the movement of time, and the changes of the Victorian social environment.
The Victorian era is deliciously invoked by Faber, who appears to have conducted exhaustive research both into the social and economic realities of the period. Equally, the experiences of his characters are realistically approached and at no time does the novel require a leap of imaginative faith. Meanwhile their complexifying relationships with one another provide good amounts of dramatic and personal tensions.
Some have found "Crimson Petal"'s content distasteful, even disturbing, and yes, it is a novel in which sex, violence and abuse feature prominently, but I would argue that this is no more than is properly required. At no point is Faber gratuitous or pornographic - harsh and disconcerting some scenes may be, they are hardly unrealistic or unwarrented.
Overall, a glorious triumph in the name of period fiction writing and a tour de force of style and character formulation well deserving of five stars and its international acclaim.
on 18 January 2012
This is a great read, but you'll need plenty of stamina for the 800 pages, and pace does bleed off somewhat in the middle.
The story is impeccably researched, set in the squalid london of dickens, plus the leafy suburbs of mid 19th century Notting Hill (very clever of the author). It is extremely well written in a literary style, but the language can be blue with lots of use of the C word and the sex scenes are pretty graphic with explicit mention of unmentionable acts.
The story is about a clever and ambitious prostiture, Sugar, who is taken as a mistress by the heir to a perfume empire. She becomes governess to his children, and you can see where the story is going to end up - except it doesn't ! In fact the least satisfying thing about the whole book is the ending. There's several sub-plots and characters out of 19th century literary romance like a batty wife, to give some variety and to sustain the story for its huge length.
If you've seen the adaptation on BBC then you've got a good sense of what to expect (except notch the sex up 200%), but the BBC series, good as it was, doesn't come close to doing the book justice. If you can read the book before you watch the series.
When the Siren Calls - Prequel
A long, leisurely-paced book written in the expansive style of the Victorian novel. The title, drawn from Tennyson, contrasts the shrewd, manipulative Sugar, a knowing 19 year-old prostitute, with the confused innocence of Agnes, mentally-ill wife of her lover, William Rackham. In her new role as a 'kept woman', Sugar moves from a Silver Street brothel run by her mother Mrs Castaway to the gentility of the suburbs. In this more privileged environment Sugar shed most of her hatreds as she develops into a sensitive and compassionate woman. The very ambiguous ending of the novel at least expresses her empathy with Agnes and William's daughter, Sophie, both of whom, like Sugar herself ultimately, have suffered at Rackham's hands.
Faber's novel conjures up the world of mid-Victorian London, its dirt and squalor and the flower-girls, street urchins and prostitutes that frequented its streets. This is contrasted with the bourgeois world of William, an aspiring man of business: it is hinted throughout the book that he is not the ideal employer. Then there is the ascetic elder brother Henry and his disciple Emmeline, zealous searchers for virtue, and the raffish men about town who prey on the fallen women Emmeline is trying to rescue. Faber's historical research seems faultless: Sugar would indeed have heard the premiere of the Verdi Requiem, conducted by the composer in the spring of 1875 as part of his European tour.
A major feature of the novel, emphasising the contrast between glamour and squalor in the narrative, is the way it evokes the various smells of Victorian London, from the ordure of its streets, to the variagated perfumes of Rackham's soaps and lotions, and the natural fragrance of his lavender fields. Cutting through this are the smells of burning - the fire that destroys Henry's house, Agnes's diaries and the five year old plants that no longer produce flowers of a sufficient commercial quality. These odours, together with others more unmentionable, are worked skilfully into the texture of the novel to augment the visual and aural descriptions of a vanished world.
The main plot unfolds with very few false notes - would Sugar really risk exposure by becoming Sophie's governess? But some of the subsidiary plots work less well, especially the events described at the end of Chapter 20 and the rather abrupt change afterwards, which I am avoiding spelling out here as they are a potential spoiler.
Nevertheless, a good, satisfying long read, a warts-and-all tale of life in mid-Victorian London at the height of Britain's power. Faber has taken a plot with familiar literary resonances (a 'mad' wife stuck away in her room - reference to 'Jane Eyre' acknowledged; a woman 'on the make'; and the aspiring man of business) and fabricated an entertaining and insightful story.
on 10 November 2003
I finished this novel this morning. I feel bereft without it. I cannot stop thinking about the fates of my heroines, and I feel as if I am living in a parallel reality. The signs of a great novel!
The story took my breath away - the twists and developments were very real, the way life surprises one constantly with what it can offer/enforce. The 1870s were alive, smelly, polarised, physical, and the characters recognisable, unpredictable, beautifully drawn and fascinating. I can't wait to read it again.
on 5 April 2003
I thought this was a very good book which didn't quite reach its promise. It's chunky but reads easily so the 800 pages don't feel too long. It has sympathetic and credible characters. The 19th-c. setting (mid-70s) is well done but it doesn't take over or become distancing (I have to add that at times it is actually a bit of a camouflage and the underlying psychology is contemporary). The story line is modified Jane Eyre with added blood and semen (a lot of the latter!) Faber has a wry sense of humour which helps.
My reservation is that once Sugar settles in at the Rackham house as governess the books loses some of its momentum and even the operatic ending doesn't engage the attention again fully. I don't know if the lack of closure means a sequel is planned, or if it was post-modern authorial shrugging. But it worked for me: it was pleasingly cyclical and the point was made that compartmentalising your life in this way drives all your women away. That was convincing from all points of view. It was also convincing that for all her street wisdom and painfully-acquired control over her life, Sugar just didn't realise that never in a month of Sundays would a man of Rackham's background legitimise her position in his household.
I like Faber's style: there is authorial intervention but it is not manipulative, rather it's gentle and ironic. I much preferred his approach to Sarah Waters's in Fingersmith, where there is a cataclysmic shift in perspective which altogether changes things half way through. But that reflects on me, not them. I'd read another book by Faber -- he's got depth and he delivers.
on 14 September 2004
I was thoroughly absorbed in this book until about two thirds into it, loved the painstaking attention to detail , the setting, the characters, all of it gripping, emotive, excellent. However the self indulgent writing style began to get on my nerves once it became clear that the plot and characters were not going to develop as interestingly as I'd hoped and the end left far too many loose ends for me. I felt that the writer, having set up a potentially excellent story, made poor choices for the outcome of many of his most intriguing characters. I would have recommended this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction half way through, but having finished it I felt as though I'd wasted some of my time.
on 21 June 2004
As soon as you start reading this huge book, you are immediately drawn into the story and picturing the scenes and characters vividly due to Faber's excellent use of narrative skill. The narrative actually talks directly at you for the first quarter of the book which I found amusing and a fabulous witty device for drawing the reader into the Victorian world. The chracterisation is extensive and you can really imagine what the characters are like.
However, I was appalled by the ending...the last page. What is the point of creating a huge story only for it to end with as much oomph as a wet towel? There is no ending. One minute the story is drawing to a fast climax, the next minute, the story stops completely abruptly with absolutely no conclusion. Considering the extent of time I spent reading this book, I felt cheated by such an ending. I understand that some stories need an open ending should they feel that the reader should draw their own conclusions, but the ending for this particular book is uncalled for. Having spent my entire time being sucked into the characters' rise and falls for an extremely lengthy period, I did expect a much neater conclusion than this. The demise of Agnes was also an anti-climax. Although I have given this book 4 stars, it was purely for the enjoyment that I received reading everything but the last page - which was a sore disappointment (in case I haven't said that already)!
on 17 June 2008
The title, as all good Victoriana-o-philes will know, comes from a poem by Tennyson called 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' ("Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white"), a poem about love and longing, and to be frank, a little bit of lusting too. How apt this is for this wonderful, wonderful, all-consuming book.
"Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether."
So opens this novel set in the dark, dirty streets of Victorian London. The story follows a headstrong young man-hating prostitute called Sugar as she progresses through the rigid social structure of the times thanks to a liaison with William Rackham, gentleman and newly crowned head of Rackham Perfumeries. At home he has a daughter and a wife - his wife is confined to her bed, hysterical in the way that only Victorian women could be. She is, perhaps, his madwoman in the attic.
This is a chunky book - my paperback edition weighs in at 835 (very good quality) pages - but my word I zipped through it. The beauty of it is that Faber is a genius at character. Every single person, no matter how inconsequential, pops out of the page a fully formed human being, elliciting sympathy or derision or hatred as appropriate. And London herself becomes as much as character as any person in the book - the city is perfectly etched with no details left out. No dim corner is too dirty or deprived for our eyes, and this means that the social inequality of the Victorian class system is laid bare for all to see. We watch Sugar as she drags herself from 'The Streets' to 'The World at Large', but then what happens to her?
The ending of the book caused some controversy with readers when the book was published in 2000 because it... no, I can't tell you. All I shall say is that Michel Faber had enough letters (both pleading and admonishing) to write a follow up book of short stories called The Apple in 2006. I can tell you that when I closed The Crimson Petal and the White, I was bereft, and it remains one of the best books I have ever read. It, like the London, and like the characters it is populated by, is "vast and intricate", and leaves quite the indelible print on the memory.
I read that there is to be a film adaptation. I could see it working as a film, but I'm not sure I would want to see the film itself. I think I'm too attached to the book to be able to let go of the mental picture I have of the characters. *Sigh*. Wonderful book. Wonderful, wonderful book.