Spoiler alert: It would be impossible to share my thoughts on Faber’s novel without spoiling certain aspects of the plot. While I’ve tried to avoid mentioning a few significant events, I do give away quite a lot. So, if you have plans to read The Crimson Petal and the White then you might want to give this post a miss, unless you’re one of this strange people (like myself) who aren’t actually too fussed about spoilers.
Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White tells the story of a young prostitute named Sugar, who uses her feminine charms and unusual intelligence (a quality deprecated in women by contemporary medical tracts) to become the mistress of the aspiring, though largely incompetent, businessman William Rackham. Following Sugar’s story allows the narrator to branch out and lash onto several other interconnected characters, creating a dense and immersive panorama of 1870’s London. Along the 830+ page journey, we are introduced to, among other fascinating creations, the brothel-owner Mrs Castaway, who appears completely devoid of humanity, to the Rackham family’s obstinate servants, to a daughter whose existence is not acknowledged by her own mother, and to a would-be pastor troubled by his earthly lusts.
A novel of this length depends upon such rich characterisation to hold the reader’s attention, and The Crimson Petal and the White is one of the few larger novels I’ve read which haven’t either sagged a little in the middle or dragged towards the end. I’d happily read another chapter, or, to be honest, even another 800 pages, if Faber ever decided to continue the story. My desire for further pages is only partly driven by my affection for the characters, as Faber challenges not only traditional ideas of appropriate literary subjects (as the central character is a prostitute, the novel is sexually frank from the outset) but also traditional ideas of narrative closure. This isn’t a conventionally structured Victorian novel with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. It does have a structure, of course, and its characters progress along with the plot, but overall the novel conveys the sensation that the reader has been dipped into the real lives of the people depicted within the pages, and suggests that these people had lives before we met them, and will continue to live once we turn the last page.
The Crimson Petal and the White draws upon the London of Dickens’ sprawling novels, but unlike its Victorian ancestors, it subverts ideas of both narrative closure and moral order. The novel ends with the escape of Sugar and Sophie Rackham, but the story doesn’t: Faber chose not to confirm or dash the reader’s hopes that Sugar’s transformation into a warm-hearted woman would continue, and that she would succeed in providing a happy home for the young girl. Instead, the narrator draws the curtains on the story, and leaves us to form our own interpretations of the characters’ fates. The narrative technique itself represents a significant shift away from the Victorian model, as it is distinctly post-modern. The narrator guides us through the novel and derides our status as an alien onlooker. The novel is also populated by characters who attempt, with varying degrees of success, to write their own books. Agnes devours secret tomes on the subject of spiritualism and records her own transcendental journey, while Sugar writes a semi-autobiographical novel in which she brutally murders her clients. Sugar believes it to be inevitable that the heroine of her story will die in the end; she can’t fathom there being an alternative path for her story to take. During her escape with Sophie, however, she loses her manuscript and suddenly finds that the rage-fuelled work of so many years means nothing to her now. Sugar defies her own expectations and creates a new ending for herself.
In a more conventional Victorian novel, the sexually corrupted Sugar would surely be punished, as she herself predicts, by dying at the novel’s close. Placing Sugar at the heart of the novel therefore sets Faber’s story apart from the Victorian classics. William’s innocent young wife Agnes is more likely candidate for a traditional Victorian heroine; in a more conventional story, the reader would champion her quiet resilience as she forgives the debaucheries of her husband. Agnes’ childlike demeanour, however, is not the result of innate innocence but instead the consequence of a poor education (even after childbirth she remains ignorant of menstruation) and an increasingly deluded mental state. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Agnes is awarded no happy ending, and it is with the seemingly devious Sugar that the reader’s true loyalties lie. Towards the end of the novel, when Sugar gives up on her dark fantasies and tries to change her reality instead, it is easy to sympathise and support her position. Overall, however, the novel lacks a clear moral centre, and challenges the very notion that any such moral absolutes are possible. While reading the novel, I tried to guess what the ending would bring, and I’d occasionally find myself rooting for a marriage between William and Sugar. I’d then quickly realise that William is no Rochester; he is not the long-suffering husband of a madwoman, but rather a self-centred and shallow man, unworthy of Sugar’s love. Sugar brings a sense of moral clarity to this otherwise unremittingly dark tale; she, alone among the novel’s large cast of characters, takes great steps to rewrite her fate.