The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michael Faber

by Robert A. Parker

This 2002 work is a rich and brazen recreation of a novel of the 19th century. It begins beautifully, with the author addressing the reader and guiding him through the introduction of the main characters. Unfortunately, they are not sympathetic characters, and as the work progresses one becomes less interested in their individual fates, and more in the details of the world the author has created and the adventures his characters have. The focus is on the Rackham family, especially, but also their friends and servants, and other members of society. In sum, the reader explores a distant world that offers rich and poor both permissions and limitations.

The main characters are Sugar, an unattractively thin but smart prostitute; William Rackham, the dissolute son of a wealthy manufacturer, who is fascinated by her; Agnes, William’s sickly wife; Sophie, William’s young and innocent child; and Henry Rackham, William’s brother, a dedicated but unworldly parson. The problem for me is that the two main characters, Sugar and William, are both selfish, using each other for their own pleasure, and intent on advancing their status in society. As a result, it was impossible for me to identify with them, even though I was caught up by their efforts to take advantage of personal, business, and social relationships.

The author sustains our interest in this long novel by creating provocative adventures that explore the complexity of Victorian society. He also understands the literary value of a character reversal, and the interest it creates. In Sugar’s case, she gradually loses a hatred of men that has been fostered by her service as a prostitute. Instead, she absorbs an awareness of love, first through her relationship with William, but even more through serving as governess and teacher of his daughter Sophie. Indeed, at the end she seems dedicated more to the life of Sophie than to her own life.

Further richness is added when this intelligent woman abandons a cruel novel about prostitution, and becomes enthralled by a diary and journal that Agnes has been keeping. Sugar devours it to learn about both the Agnes of whom she is jealous and the details of Agnes’ relationship with her husband.

As a sidelight, one of the primary characteristics of Agnes is that she was raised a Catholic and wishes to return to that faith. Her efforts are presented sympathetically, but one speculates that her religion is introduced primarily to express her long repression of herself as a sexual being.

William’s reversal, on the other hand, represents a change from an undisciplined, pleasure-seeking dandy to being the effective manager of his father’s perfume business—albeit that he also relies at times on the sage advice of Sugar. Indeed, he seems to be putty in her hands—until nature intervenes, and another reversal occurs.

The story itself can be briefly told. Sugar begins as a successful prostitute with higher ambitions. She is drafting a novel in which she gets revenge on her clients by killing them; meanwhile, she suffers from a skin disease that seems to symbolize the corruption within her. William, on the other hand, endures life with half-mad Agnes, a child wife who understands neither her own body nor the functioning of sex; and so he seeks release with Sugar, but also, unexpectedly, finds companionship with her. He first puts her up in a private hide-away, and then brings her into his home as a governess for daughter Sophie. Whereupon, their relationship fluctuates back and forth on a physical, psychological, and emotional pendulum. But nothing significant happens until Sugar discovers herself to be pregnant.

Meanwhile, peripheral characters, such as brother Henry and his girl friend Emmeline Fox, who works to help prostitutes, move in and out of their lives, as do William’s servants and his dissolute friends Bodley and Ashwell.

And yet, despite all the intriguing adventures and literary craftsmanship, after taking us through 900 pages of a family saga that resembles a 19th century soap opera, the author fails to bring his novel to a conclusive ending. This is perhaps a very 21st century approach (as is the often graphic references to Victorian sex), but it is far from the 19th century literature he is recreating. In other words, Faber has decided, in the modern spirit, that it is unnecessary to convey the fate of his major characters. This covers Sugar, Sophie, Agnes, William, and Henry. And so, despite the richness of the telling, along with my inability to identify with these characters, I sense a hollowness at the core of this novel.

Charles Taylor has an interesting take in Salon on the reason for this hollowness. He writes that Faber’s opening pages, which we both admire, and his later addressing of the reader, keep those readers at a distance from his characters, keep them at arm’s length as observers, and prevent them from getting inside the skin of his characters. And, thus, by his own intrusions, Faber reminds us that he is controlling the actions of these characters rather than it being they who are making their own decisions.

Taylor sums up his review by saying Faber’s novel is “damnably irritating” but “never less than compelling.” That it has “divided my sympathies,” engaging him on a narrative level even as “the story does not conclude but simply stops.” He calls the novel “a compelling perversity: a long, detailed Victorian novel from someone who doesn’t appear to like Victorian novels.”

Like Taylor, I, too, was caught up by the characters’ adventures, impressed by the Victorian detail, felt myself involved in its world, and yet was frustrated by the distancing. Faber seems, in retrospect, to be an author who is too ambitious, too risk-taking for his own good. And yet that may well be why he is held in such high regard by many critics. All in all, I am in favor of risk-taking, but more when it expands the reader’s vision, and less when, as here, it limits the reader’s vision. Or when, as here, the author’s objective overrides the story’s objective. (July, 2017)

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