Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White was such an enjoyable book; it’s about 900 pages long, but it felt much shorter. The pages flew by. The excitement and speed doesn’t come from an incredibly complex plot; rather, it comes from the fun of being caught up in a vividly-realized world so very different from our own.
The book is set in London in 1875, and the author takes special delight in describing all that was horrid about the place — the filth, the smells, the poverty, the inequality, the prostitutes, the thieves, the beggars and pickpockets. Maybe there’s something a little wrong about enjoying these things in one’s reading, but still, it is delightful to read about a time not so far back in history that makes a person glad she’s alive today and not then. It makes one think, though — maybe people will one day read historical fiction about our time and wonder how we ever managed to survive when things were obviously so very terrible.
The story revolves around three main characters, William Rackham, head of a perfume industry; Agnes Rackham, his wife; and Sugar, the prostitute William falls in love with. Each character is vividly portrayed. Sugar is very smart and knows how to manipulate weak men such as William; she uses William’s infatuation with her to the fullest extent possible. She’s writing a novel describing her fantasies of revenge against all the men who have abused her in her life. William is insecure and foolish; he wanted a literary life but gave that dream up so he could make money, but he never quite trusts himself or his decisions. He wants to have the perfect home with wife and child and luxury and refinement, but he also wants Sugar for the pleasure and flattery she brings. He wants it all, and he lives in a society that gives him no reason to think he can’t have it.
Agnes, the wife, is one of the most fascinating characters; she’s startlingly ignorant about sex and reproduction, ashamed of her body, and unwilling to acknowledge that she’s given birth to a daughter. She’s the perfect Victorian woman — proper, modest, polite, and ignorant. But she’s also teetering on the brink of insanity. The point is obvious — conventional Victorian womanhood drives women mad — but it’s still a pleasure to see how Faber makes it all work out. Agnes and Sugar fall into the virgin/whore dichotomy, but these roles slip and slide and undermine each other and by the end, both women refuse to be what William — and society — want them to be.
Faber takes pleasure in spelling out just how restrictive the rules of proper society were; I knew something about what it meant to be a high-class Victorian woman, but I was still shocked at the many, many rules. It wasn’t proper for a woman to laugh with her mouth open. She couldn’t acknowledge any bodily function whatsoever. She was supposed to walk in such a way as to deny she has legs; she’s supposed to glide across the floor as though she is an angel. She couldn’t do any physical labor whatsoever, not so much as closing the curtains or putting a log on the fire. She couldn’t acknowledge there was such a thing as prostitution. It’s all this detail that makes historical fiction so much fun, isn’t it?
14 responses to “The Crimson Petal and the White”
Completely unrelated to your post, so you’ll have to excuse me. I had no idea you had a blog, otherwise I would have linked it up earlier. Sorry about that. Hope the neck/back is feeling better and sorry for interrupting your conversation when I came over to say hi. Hope you can be back on the bike somewhat soon (you certainly have had enough bad things happen to last a long time). Catch ya soon. JJ
I love historical fiction. This one sounds great. Wonder how it compares to The French Lieutenant’s Woman?
I read a collection of Faber’s short stories some year’s back and found it impressive. An astute mind and avid imagination. This BIG novel looks like a winner and I shall add it to my wishlist. 900 pages…cripes, I’d better start doing some arm curls in preparation.
“maybe people will one day read historical fiction about our time and wonder how we ever managed to survive when things were obviously so very terrible.” — I agree. Things like AC and microwave ovens and plasma screens will someday seem like crude and feeble attempts to mitigate out pitiful lives
I’ve heard a lot about this book and your wonderful review makes it sound like so much fun. But I still flinch a bit at the thought of 900 pages! Maybe one day I’ll read it…
Isn’t it wonderful? The way Sugar draws you in on that first page and asks you to follow her, and then the ambiguous ending. I must re-read it sometime – I remember it being so sumptuous and satisfying.
I read this book when it first came out, and I still have very vivid memories of it and so much of its imagery. Those opening pages are brutal in their description of London and the lives of the prostitutes, aren’t they? And I was fascinating by the Agnes character. One of the things I love about historical fiction, as you say, is getting those details you don’t find in the fiction that was written at the time, because, of course, authors assumed anyone reading the book didn’t need any explanation of commonly-known facts.
Wonderful review – I loved this book which I read shortly after its release. Thanks for bringing me back to it.
You make the book sound much better and far more interesting than my husband did after he read it. All he did was shrug his shoulders and say that it was “Okay.” Sheesh! It’s hard to imagine 900 pages flying by, but you did read it very fast so either you are a secret speed reader or the pages really did fly.
I can see this book sitting (toppling) on my shelves at this very moment and you’re really tempting me…
You describe this book so wonderfully! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. This is exactly why I like good historical fiction–the whole immersion into another place that seems so foreign. I sometimes think how did we get from there to here? And if we crisscrossed–we’d have nothing to say to one another (or we’d be so stunned by the other). I think I am going to have to reread this one, too!
What a great review of this book. Ever since it came out I’ve had on my radar as I love historical fiction but just haven’t gotten to it. I wonder it’s the 900 pages that’s keeping me from jumping in!
There is a sequel, in short story form I think, called The Apple, but so far I haven’t found it here – it’s available in the UK though. I read the Crimson Petal a while ago, and it really was fascinating and swift reading.
Thanks for stopping by Josh! 🙂
Julie — interesting question; I’ve read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but unfortunately I don’t remember it well enough to compare — but surely if you like historical fiction you’ll like Faber.
Cliff — that’s good to know about his stories; perhaps I’ll have to hunt them down.
Greg — doesn’t it make you long to know how things will change? I want to know what people in the future will think!
Litlove — don’t let the 900 pages scare you! They truly do fly by. I’m a very, very slow reader, but this book felt like a quick read.
Victoria — now I hadn’t really thought that it was Sugar doing the talking at the beginning; I read it simply as the narrator. But I can see how your reading works.
Emily — yes, brutal is the right word! Funny that those details are both horrifying and fascinating.
Thank you Tara! I can see that this book is worth a re-reading.
Stefanie — I am so not a speed-reader, trust me! The pages really did fly. I wonder why your husband was so non-enthusiastic about it.
Diana — I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Danielle — I do sometimes think about what it would be like if people from the 19C could see our world today. How would they react? It’s fun to imagine.
Iliana — you know, Don Quixote is just a bit longer than Faber’s novel, and yet DQ took me SO much longer to read; the 900-page figure is deceptive, I think.
Catherine — ah, thank you for the name; I’ll have to look out for it.