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Customer Review

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An evocation of Victorian London, 22 July 2009
This review is from: The Crimson Petal And The White (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 16 Sep 2009 21:16:56 BDT
Basilides says:
This is not the only review by this reviewer that has picked up a suspicious number of negative votes overnight from someone who has taken against several of the contributers to the 'Classical Forum' on Amazon.
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