The Crimson Petal and the White
By Michel Faber
Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds.
(Note: There is graphic language in this post.)
I had no idea what The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber was about before I started reading. I’d heard about it in various contexts over many years. I’d walked past it several times on the public library’s shelf. It had a nice look to it – big and fat, something to really get in to.
So let’s get into the first thing people seem to comment on in reviews of this book – the sex. I’ve seen some reviews on Goodreads that call it pornography. Couldn’t help myself; I looked up pornography in the dictionary because in my gut I didn’t get that impression from TCPATW. The definition is “the depiction of erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement”. I will grant that TCPATW has a lot of sexual content but it certainly didn’t cause me any sexual excitement and I’m really not sure it was meant to. Any story about a prostitute will contain scenes with sex but I’ve read much more graphic and titillating text than this.
Characters talk about sex (as in, men who discuss the merits of various prostitutes, women who want to avoid sex and prostitutes who have to deal with the mess of it) more than actually engage in it. I’m not saying there aren’t any graphic scenes – I thinking of the men getting blow jobs from some prostitutes in an alley (strange to me as a guys’ night out activity) – but, to me, the scenes about sex were often about something else.
Discussing the primary characters will help. Sugar is a prostitute lauded in a book that makes the round of Victorian London to help men find the right prostitute for them. William Rackham has a copy of this book courtesy of Bodley and Ashwell, two friends from university, and decides to visit Sugar. He meets her in a pub and discusses literature before going to her room and promptly falling asleep. Sugar lets him sleep, working on her novel about a prostitute gaining violent revenge on men, calmly gives him a blow job when he awakens and sends him on his way. The handful of paragraphs about that act seem slightly clinical and detached, much like I expect Sugar is in that moment.
William Rackham is so enamored with this young woman who spoke to him so intelligently and pleasured him so well that he wants to continue to see her. He wants her so much that he eventually has her installed in a townhome where she waits for his visits. In order to do so, William must accept the mantle of taking over the family business of soaps, lotions and other bathing accouterments. The choice of Faber to make William’s business venture one of soaps, hence cleanliness, is extremely purposeful. The irony of a man whose ability to maintain a prostitute for himself based on money from a company that makes soaps is extremely high.
And that’s the point. No one in this book is above having two sides to them, one dirty, one clean.
William wants his prostitute. He also wants to be accepted into society at a higher level and his significantly increasing wealth allows this.
William’s wife Agnes is cloistered in ignorance, fearing her period without knowing what it is, not acknowledging her young daughter because the pregnancy was some strange illness she had. She disappears to a place in her mind, a Convent, where nuns take care of her and shield her from distressful things like sex with her husband.
William’s brother Henry, the elder brother so true heir to the company, elected to not go into the family business so he could pursue more lofty goals. He dreams of being a parson but feels held back by his general interest in women and his specific lust for Mrs. Emmeline Fox.
Emmeline Fox wants to help prostitutes leave that tragic and unhealthy life behind and move into service or industry-based jobs. She also lusts for Henry Rackham.
Sugar desperately wants to move up in the world but must debase herself to do so. Allowing William to take care of her moves her from her mother’s brothel into a beautiful home that is hers, but it also isn’t really hers. It is William’s to give to her. She feels she must constantly find ways to keep his interest, going so far as to learn about his business to discuss concerns with him and give him advice.
(The only characters whose coins consistently land on one side (the dirty side) are Bodley and Ashwell who print books to stir controversy and pursue pleasure wherever it can be found without any concern for consequences.)
Faber appropriately set this story in late nineteenth century London which was in many ways a repressed and delineated society. Your lot in life influenced everything from what you believed to how you spoke to how you acted. There was little to no upward mobility between classes, although someone could unfortunately move down. William has always lived in comfort, which only increases when he takes the reigns of the family company. Henry has the choice to decline too much comfort for his soul and can decide to take a small stipend from his family as part of his religious devotion. However, the women Mrs. Fox tries to save have no hope of moving upward. The so-called progress of industry and the betterment to their lives for working in a factory doesn’t seem much better to them than being a whore. A whore makes her own hours and makes more money than a servant or worker in a factory.
Sugar’s hope to ascend is blasphemous. She is able to, one tricky ladder rung at a time, eventually moving into William’s house as his daughter’s governess. But even that isn’t as lovely as it had seemed in concept. She moves from a townhome of her own with unlimited funds from William to a small, single room in William’s house with barely any privacy or time with William.
TCPATW works in this setting because the modern world doesn’t have the same rigid mores as the nineteenth century. Not to say that there aren’t expectations thrust on people based on birth, geography, economics, etc. But look at any fashion magazine or television show and sex is everywhere. Some may proclaim the inappropriateness of how pervasive sex is in our culture but it’s there, for better or worse. Victorian London had sex in the culture but no one wanted to be the one to acknowledge it, at least not in ‘polite society’.
There is also an interesting style choice made by Faber. He begins the book in a second person point of view with an omniscient narrator speaking directly to the reader and guiding the reader along to meet the appropriate characters. The narrator’s voice goes away for long swaths of pages but reemerges from time to time to point the reader in a new direction or add a bit of information that the reader would never know because the character doesn’t even know it. I have rarely seen this done well. I enjoyed the jocular, mildly inappropriate narrator introducing me to the underside of London and then following William along to see his misery that propels him toward Sugar.
Whether or not you enjoy reading about sex, Faber presents some big questions to ask about what we are comfortable with and what we can’t accept. The questions are hidden within a thick tome about a seemingly simple premise – a prostitute who wants a better life. Discovering whom you root for and how you react to various choices are the best ways that books teach us about ourselves.