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.
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.