In spite of one irritation, the massive The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber turned out to be a good book to take with me on my travels this week. The rich setting and even richer characterization of the novel were so captivating that I was able to drown out the noise of planes, the other passengers, and my own discomfort at being stuffed into a flying bus with too small chairs. Instead of all that, I was treated to a sprawling Victorian novel that explored lust, madness, neglect, hypocrisy, selfishness, altruism, prostitution, and religion. Faber’s characters are set up in opposition to each other so that, while they interact with each other, you get a chance to ponder how social status and life can push people into divergent trajectories.
The Crimson Petal and the White sidles into being with a narrator who guides “You” into the world of mid-1870s St. Giles in London. “You” will follow a few characters until you meet William Rackham and Sugar, the main characters of the novel. (The second person thankfully fades away after a few chapters.) William is a dilettante who is avoiding taking over his father’s perfume and soap business while dealing with his wife’s increasing religious mania and mental instability. One night, William wanders through St. Giles seeking a prostitute who is known for her willingness to do anything: Sugar. He finds her and becomes obsessed with her after one night. He even sets her up in her own apartment as his mistress. Later, he will even follow her suggestion to hire her as governess for his neglected daughter. But this is just the first part of Sugar’s story. While we begin with William, the bulk of the novel will be about Sugar and her efforts rise up in the world.
In contrast to William and Sugar’s relationship (mostly lust), we also see the relationship between William’s brother and his friend. Henry Rackham and Emmeline Fox have a completely platonic relationship, though they are very much in love with each other. Their religious convictions—Henry is so self-loathing he can’t become the parson he wants to be and Emmeline is devoted to finding alternate employment for London’s prostitutes—prevent them from admitting their attraction and feeling for each other. As I read about Henry and Emmeline and Sugar and William, I was reminded of the paired relationships in Anna Karenina. In Anna Karenina, one couple is held up as the ideal—the married, loving couple—and one as a moral lesson—lovers who cast off society and are later ruined by it. But because The Crimson Petal and the White was not actually written in the nineteenth century, the morality and psychology of the story is much more complex.
The first half of The Crimson Petal and the White is very much about developing relationships between men and women. The latter half (especially the last third) explores relationships between parents and children and how those relationships can permanently damage the children’s psyches. When Sugar becomes governess to Sophie Rackham, she learns just how neglected the child is. Her mother, Agnes, is so adrift from the world that she doesn’t believe she has a child. William is so tied up in his business and his own worries that he ignores the child. Sugar is the first person to show Sophie any interest and affection. At the same time, Sugar has also gotten ahold of Agnes’s diaries and is learning how the poor woman became so lost. The diaries and working with Sophie also stir up Sugar’s partially repressed memories of how her mother pushed her into prostitution at the age of 13.
While the first half definitely had me hooked, I really loved how Gothic the novel got in its second half. Agnes is so troubled and so interesting that she could have starred in a novel of her own. I was also glad to see that we finally got to see more deeply into Sugar. When we first meet her, we only see her from William’s lust-crazed point of view. After she takes over, we learn that she was writing a novel based on her own life in which she got revenge on all the men who took advantage of her situation. Her psychological armor slowly chips away during her “rise” to respectability and we finally see her as more than the poor victim that Henry and Emmeline would classify her as and as more than a paid partner for William.
There is so much to unpack from this novel that I fear I’m rambling. (Not surprising, given that this novel is about 900 pages long.) The Crimson Petal and the White is a fascinating, meandering novel that uncovers so much about the less savory side of Victorian thought and life that I could spend three times as long remarking on the events and ideas that I’m still thinking about now that I’ve finished it. This is the kind of book I would push on my fellow readers just so that I have someone to talk to about it.