Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber

Crimson Petal and White

There’s a lot of sex in The Crimson Petal and the White, but while most of it is extremely graphic and some of it is frankly nauseating, none of it comes anywhere close to being either erotic or pornographic – and that’s exactly as it should be, because the central character in Michel Faber’s magisterial, beautifully-written novel is a nineteen year old prostitute in Victorian London, to whom sex is just a business – one she’s very good at.

Sugar, who is never dignified with a surname, isn’t exactly your standard issue ‘prostitute-in-literature’ however.  She’s neither the Tart-with-a-Heart nor the tragic Soiled Dove.  She’s smart, well-read and articulate;  a streetwise operator who has so successfully carved out her own specialist niche in the squalid back-streets that the ‘gentlemen’ of London Town go out of their way to seek her services, as recommended by “More Sprees in London” – a guidebook for those  who like to think of themselves as worldly men about town, savouring the best that the city’s fleshpots can offer.

Her brain isn’t the only thing that makes Sugar stand out from the crowd however, because Faber cannily makes her stick thin, flat-chested and red-haired and THEN, most intriguingly of all, afflicts her with icthyosis, a genetic disorder causing dry, flaking and cracking skin.

In her spare time, she’s writing a Gothic revenge novel into which she pours her corrosive hatred of the human race in general and men in particular;  a novel which will, she is convinced, expose once and for all the double standards which allow men to seek out and use prostitutes without risking damage to their reputations but at the same time decree that the women are beyond the pale of civilized society forever.

Into her life – guided by ‘More Sprees’ – comes our second protagonist William Rackham, the feckless and not too entirely bright  heir to a moderately successful perfumery business.  Writer and poet manqué, he aspires to a lifestyle befitting his status without actually doing anything in the way of work to justify it.  His father, not unreasonably, isn’t prepared to fund his aspirations and when we meet William he and his mentally frail wife Agnes are living a life of genteel penury, their allowance from William’s father having been cut back to subsistence level to try and force him into doing something constructive for a change.

Sugar, however,  succeeds spectacularly where Rackham Senior failed.  William is so completely smitten with her that he can’t bear the thought of sharing her with anyone else.  The only way to ensure sole access is to set her up in a premises away from the stews of Soho,  but to do that requires money and to acquire money, he has to work.

And thus is William Rackham, successful industrialist, born.

The novel tracks Sugar’s progress from  Soho via the rooms in Marylebone where William installs her to – finally – the Rackham’s family home in leafy Notting Hill.  At each stage of her journey, we not only witness the subtle mental changes she is undergoing but also understand the reasons for them, because we are privy to her thoughts throughout the book;  hers, and everyone else’s in the narrative – from the light fingered lady’s maid Clara through William’s neglected daughter Sophie to the splendidly dotty  social reformer Emmeline Fox.  It’s a masterstroke which, in the hands of a lesser talent than Faber’s could have been unwieldy and thoroughly tiresome but has instead the effect of dragging you almost bodily into the very heart of the story and its cast of vivid characters.

And it’s quite a cast:

William Rackham – dull, unimaginative and self-centred but with enough basic decency to keep him just this side of unsympathetic.

Henry, his brother – much brighter and more humane, but interested only in religious texts, good works and the hapless pursuit of  …

Emmeline Fox – the eccentric and feisty  rescuer of Fallen Women and ruthless debunker of pious claptrap.

Agnes – William’s beautiful but terribly damaged and medically-abused wife who lurches between radiant society hostess and mad-as-a-box-of-frogs in the blink of an eye.

William’s college friends Bodley and Ashwell –  severe cases of arrested development with more than a splash of Withnail and I, only a lot less likeable.

Mrs Castaway – the brothel-keeper and  Sugar’s chilling mother, who introduced her own daughter to prostitution at the age of 13 and now spends her life obsessively surrounding herself with  images of the Virgin Mary.

And then there’s Sugar herself, who stands head and shoulders above them all:  victim, survivor, whore and guardian angel, she’s probably one of the most vivid literary creations of the last 50 years.

The Victorian London through which Faber’s dramatis personae move – where girls would rather risk violence and disease as prostitutes than work gruelling hours in ‘respectable’ factories for a pittance – bears as much resemblance to the city made famous by Charles Dickens and a million sentimentalized Christmas cards as – well – the present-day Capital does to the glossy images peddled by the English Tourist Board.

I first read The Crimson Petal and the White about eight years ago, shortly after it was published, and if I hadn’t been forewarned about the graphic descriptions – not only of sex but also of the lethally toxic brew of chemicals prostitutes used as prophylactics, the brutal poverty, the squalor and the death of hopeless abandoned children on uncaring streets – I might not have got past the first chapter, which is pretty heavy going.  BUT, Faber’s narrative skills are such that you’re drawn into the story almost against your will and by the time I’d returned with Sugar to Mrs Castaway’s house on Silver Street, I was helplessly hooked.  The nine hundred closely-printed pages were consumed faster than those of many lighter, shorter novels and – driven on by an overwhelming need to find out what happened to Sugar – I galloped through it in a under a week, reading only in the evenings and during the occasional lunch hour.

If I was minded to nit-pick, I’d single out the lack of a truly sympathetic male character.  The closest is Henry Rackham Junior, but as you generally just want to slap him silly, he doesn’t really count.  The women are much more engaging –    even the most flawed leaps off the page as a real, believable and fully rounded person; but the men are a fairly dire bunch.  I know that Victorian society was heavily weighted in favour of men and that women – of whatever station in life – were very  much second- and third-class citizens, but that doesn’t mean that all men were necessarily control freaks/chinless wonders/lecherous morons/all of the foregoing.

That one cavill aside, The Crimson Petal and the White is one of the most extraordinary and vivid books I’ve ever read.  You’ll need a strong stomach in places, but I  guarantee you’ll never look at those cloyingly twee Victorian Christmas cards in the same way again.  And you’ll never forget Sugar.

Canongate.  2010,  ISBN: 978-1847678935.  984pp.

23 comments on “The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber

  1. Kirsty (not that one)
    April 8, 2011

    Wonderful post Moira, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, this has made me want to re-read it very soon. It’s probably my favourite contemporary novel.

  2. annebrooke
    April 8, 2011

    Fascinating review, Moira. I must admit that I’m probably one of the few people who didn’t really enjoy this book that much, though I do recognise it’s probably a work of genius. Took me ages to read, but I was pleased I finished it in the end – felt like a massive mountain climbed! It certainly had some great moments and I’m full of admiration, but I just didn’t love it and certainly don’t want to revisit it … Ah well!

    I think I’m ignoring the current TV adaptation for that reason. 🙂


  3. Moira
    April 8, 2011

    What we appear to have here is your actual “marmite book”. :0)

  4. sakura
    April 8, 2011

    I didn’t really enjoy the book much when I read it when it was first published, but I’m enjoying the TV adaptation. Actually makes me want to go back and re-read it! All I remember from the book was the squalor and ickiness of living in poverty in Victorian London which Faber describes exceedingly well.

  5. Essie Fox
    April 8, 2011

    I am also re reading the book at the moment – and was hardly able to put it down when I first read several years ago -but I’m having just the same reaction as then – absolute admiration for Faber’s brilliant writing, but a ‘nasty taste in my mouth’ which, I’m sure is entirely intended by the author – but it’s more than that – I feel manipulated. Perhaps again, that’s intentional, just as Sugar manipulates her world.

  6. Hilary
    April 8, 2011

    I’ve never tried to read this book because I don’t like it – I’m glad I’ve read this review, because it might make me give it a try – it certainly sounds like a considerable achievement. I have to say I was put off by the reports of squalor poverty and graphic nastiness, but such a well-written book is asking to be tried, at least.

  7. CuriousBookFan
    April 9, 2011

    Our reviewer highly recommends as well…

  8. Nikki
    April 9, 2011

    I wanted to read this as the TV adaptation caught my attention. It’s full of my favourite actors. (Haven’t watched it yet – oh the beauty of iPlayer!) But your review has made me want to dash out and buy it because if there’s one thing I love it’s big baggy books full to bursting with detail. I think I’ll be a bit squeamish about the graphic bits, but I still want to read it. Preferably this minute.

  9. Chris
    April 9, 2011

    This is one of the few books I started and never finished. I hated everything about it – the way it was written, the storyline, the characters, the graphic nastiness. However, Moira, your review has made me feel I should take another look.

  10. Jackie
    April 9, 2011

    I recall being so impressed by this book when I first read it some years ago, the writing was excellent, the characters extremely well drawn. But it does show the dark side of the period in a gritty & realistic way that most books don’t even aim at. Sarah Waters (“Fingersmith”) is the only other author who comes close.
    Some of the events are shocking & that ending is unforgettable. For all the unpleasantness & grim view of life, it’s a riveting story. This was an honest review, encapsulating it all very well.

  11. Jill Aurellia
    April 10, 2011

    Yes, the ending. WTH?

  12. Lisa
    April 11, 2011

    I thought this was a splendid review and the book sounds fascinating. To my shame, I’ve already been a-googling to get more of an idea of what actually happens (spoilers? Me?) and am still very keen to read it, even at 900 pages. I don’t really like neat endings which tie up all the loose ends, so that doesn’t put me off either.

  13. Moira
    April 12, 2011

    I liked the ending. Anything else would have been – wrong, somehow. Like you Lisa, I really don’t mind loose ends – not when they serve a purpose.

    It IS grim and graphic and very icky in places – you really do need quite a strong stomach for one or two of the passages, but PEOPLE! I’d like to point out that Jackie – our very own, gentle, tender-hearted Wussy-Fox read it, so it can’t be that bad.

    There have been complaints that Faber made it TOO grim – that London was never like that. Well – I beg to differ. I think he pretty much nailed it. Dickens has quite a lot to answer for.

  14. Jackie
    April 12, 2011

    LOL “Wussy Fox” Oh dear, that is so, so accurate. LOL

  15. Jill Aurellia
    April 12, 2011

    Loose ends drive me INSANE so I’m still PO’ed about that ending.

  16. Es
    April 14, 2011

    I’ve also had the TV version recommended and I liked the first episode. I did pick it up and leaf through it in the bookshop the other day, but I 1) got distracted by the 1,000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (which is ace) and 2) staggered under the weight of it as I picked it up and thought I’d keep hunting and see if I can find a lighter edition!

  17. Moira
    April 14, 2011

    If you find a lighter version Es, I’d be interested to hear about it. it IS an extraordinarily HEAVY book, physically. Not something you can nonchalantly pick up in one hand.

  18. Jamie Mollart
    April 14, 2011

    It’s been sat on my book shelf for a while, I keep meaning to read, but the size keeps scaring me!

  19. Es
    April 14, 2011

    I will report back if I have any success!

  20. Annette
    April 22, 2011

    The ultimate “lighter version” is the Kindle edition, which is currently on sale at for the princely sum of £1.47.

    When I first saw this book in the shops, the sheer length of it put me off. I don’t read much fiction these days, and certainly not long fiction. But your review, the wonderful TV adaptation and the ridiculously cheap Kindle edition prompted me to give it a try. Four chapters in and I’m hooked….

  21. Eve Harvey
    May 5, 2011

    I bought this for my mum after reading your review! And despite her being the best read person I have ever known, she is also one of the slowest. However, this brick of a book has been… DEVOURED!

    I did warn her it was filthy. Doesn’t seem to have put her off :p

    Thank you, from a very pleased mother!

  22. Moira
    May 5, 2011

    Excellent, Eve! It’s always nice to know that a review has resulted in a happy camper – especially as I’m always a bit nervous when someones says they’re reading the book BECAUSE of my review. I tend to think “Oh no. Really? Please – don’t take my word for ANYTHING.”

  23. Bekhruz Nurullayev
    May 1, 2020

    HI everybody my name is Bekhruz. And I need someone, who , really appreciate this novel and read it for just fun.
    You can connect me by @mail :
    Or via my Facebook account:
    Will wait for you )))

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