Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: This book languished on my “to be read” shelf for many months. I had heard good reports of it but was put off by its enormous size: 830 pages of small print! However I so enjoyed the first episode of The Crimson Petal and the White on TV that I decided to make a start…..

What a brilliant book! Right from the start we are swept up into the Victorian London world of Sugar as she makes her way through life. She works as a prostitute but is bright, articulate and quick to take advantage of anything (or anyone) that comes her way. But at the same time she remains a mystery. Is she the tart with the heart of gold or the whore with her eye on the main chance. One of her customers, William Rackham, becomes enamoured with her and she seizes on the chance to escape from her depraved surroundings. But again we are never sure whether she feels any real affection for William.

There are some wonderful larger-than-life characters. Mrs Castaway is the abusive brothel keeper who is mother to Sugar. William’s brother Henry has rejected the family perfume business and is hoping to become a minister of the church and rescue lost souls. He loves the widowed Mrs Fox but is incapable of being open with his feelings for her. She in turn is portrayed as a somewhat comical creature at the beginning of the book as she attempts to convince young prostitutes to give up their life of sin and turn to Christ and honest work. But as story progresses she becomes a rather fine human being who is motivated to do good works. And then there is Agnes, William’s wife – naïve, abused, depressed, addicted and anorexic. Poor thing, what fate awaits her?

The whole is a wonderful mix of class and sexual politics. It has been compared to Dickens – this is how Dickens may have written if he was not constrained by Victorian censorship. There are echoes of Our Mutual Friend, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair and Middlemarch.

Some people will be disappointed by the ambivalent ending. I loved it – it is very much within the spirit of the book. Michel Faber takes us by the hand and leads us into this world. But he doesn’t tell us everything – some things are best left to our own imaginations.


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