The Crimson Petal and the White
Here’s a tale of a true city. London, 1874. Whores, high society, smut-soaked streets, the polished ceilings of Royal Albert Hall. The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber’s bulging, bawdy Victorian epic, is a gloves-off kind of novel, one not to be passed along lightly to your grandmother. Cocky and brilliant, amused and angry, the author is rightfully earning comparisons to observer extraordinaire Charles Dickens.
”Let’s not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you’re too shy to name, or at least show you a good time.” Faber, that sly dog, makes you, the reader, an intimate part of the novel’s pomp and squalor. He can be a bit of a tease. One minute he strokes you (”You have come this far, why not just go a little farther?”), and the next he’s taken you by the scruff of your neck and thrown you into streets that Jack the Ripper won’t haunt for another 14 years. It’s hopeless to resist. The story is too rich, the subject too scintillating. And it doesn’t take long for Sugar to sweeten the plot.
Sugar is 19, and she’s been pulling up her petticoats for six years. ”What makes Sugar a rarity is she’ll do anything the most desperate alley-slut will do, but do it with a smile of childlike innocence,” writes Faber. But this is no damsel-in-distress type of tale. Sugar has a fierce mind, and she can take care of herself just fine. Who may be in trouble, though, is the Lord above (”God damn God and all His horrible filthy creation,” she curses) and the men who leave behind shillings and their stench. They all get their due in Sugar’s novel, which she scribbles while waiting for drunken sods to come up for a visit.
Suffering and fury fuel her story of revenge. But William Rackham, ”a man with greying sideboards and an incipient triple chin,” mucks everything up by making Sugar comfortable. Seduced by her reputation, desperate to debase another, William seeks relief from the demands of his father’s perfume business and his squirrelly wife. In Sugar, he finds the perfect lover and the ideal confidante. He sequesters her away from the mean streets and her mother’s brothel (yes, her mother’s) into her very own den of sin.
William is no prince, so, readers, don’t expect a fairy-tale ending. In fact, Faber loves sending up the roman à clef and all the silly expectations it can arouse in readers. Sugar fears a woman sent to an asylum will be left ”wailing piteously in a dungeon lined with straw — sheer fantasy, from cheap novels!” The idea that a child’s governess should be warm and rosy-cheeked: ”another romantic preconception it seems, got from reading too many novels, doomed to wither in the face of harsh reality.” William’s childlike wife loves her little books, ”for they bring a steady supply of noble and attractive human beings into her life.” These folks are in short supply here. But the good ones — young Sophie, William’s ignored child; his sweet brother Henry — soften the seamier edges.
Faber knows his way around the boudoir, but his true skill lies in painting the community that rages on outside the bedroom window. Has a pickpocket ever been described with such sinister grace? ”She observes the poise with which he hovers behind each person, the almost lascivious pleasure with which he sidles close to them and then withdraws, like a pollinating insect or the world’s gentlest rapist.” Or a scullery maid with such raw sympathy: ”She has legs as dense and varicose as rolled pork, and any opportunity to rest them is bliss. Her hands are lobster-red, in vivid contrast to white china as she inserts her finger into the handle of her mistress’s cup.”
For all his gorgeous descriptions and adroit social commentary, Faber is really a scamp at heart. He played around with contemporary psychological drama in earlier novels like ”Under the Skin,” and indulged his weird, wild side in the story collection ”Some Rain Must Fall.” But the 19th century brings out the devil in him. His irreverence, his sheer delight in hooking a reader, is perfectly embodied by an early scene when William goes out on the town looking for a piece of action. Three prostitutes sidle up to him in a pub, extolling their virtues. ”’I know a thing or two about lidderature,”’ boasts one. ”’I’ve ‘ad all the great names. I’ve ‘ad Charles Dickens.”’
The Crimson Petal and the White