The Crimson Petal and the White
by Michel Faber
Published by Harcourt
838 pages, 2002
Making Queen Victoria Blush
Reviewed by David Abrams
Imagine Charles Dickens writing pornography. Imagine Queen Victoria opening those pages, then fainting away in a dead heap.
If time and circumstances had only been a little different, "Boz" might very well have written something akin to The Crimson Petal and the White. Instead, we have Michel Faber to thank for delivering the kind of novel Dickens could only dream about penning. Faber packs the pages with sex, intrigue, repressed sex, intriguing repressed sex -- the sort of things which would have made Victoria shudder on the throne. Of course, 125 years later, Faber has the freedom to put some very graphic intercourse on his pages.
Put another way, if books were bosoms, this one would be heaving.
The story -- which resurrects the ghosts of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Zola and Thomas Hardy in plot as well as essence and style -- is clotted with seamy scenes of prostitution, madness, violence, poverty and religious agony and ecstasy. At 838 pages, it attempts much, and only rarely falls short.
The Crimson Petal and the White may come as a bit of a surprise to fans of Faber's earlier, well-received novel, Under the Skin -- a psycho-sexual science-fiction thriller which most reviewers agreed was the kind of book which defied description.
Faber's newest tale is easy enough to summarize; it's the breathtaking way he handles plot, character and language that might leave most readers speechless with admiration. The author says The Crimson Petal and the White was nearly 20 years in the making. The wait was worth it.
The multilayered story requires plenty of time and attention to properly absorb -- not an easy task in today's short-attention-span culture. Faber begins the book with an attention-arresting narrator who omnisciently guides the reader through the streets and bedrooms of 1874 London:
You blunder forward into the haze of your own spent breath, still following me. The cobblestones beneath your feet are wet and mucky, the air is frigid and smells of sour spirits and slowly dissolving dung.
It's an engaging and deftly written second-person point of view and one wonders if Faber has the strength to keep it up the entire book. He doesn't. Sadly, that leering tour guide dissolves like street excrement and only makes a surprise reappearance on the last page.
Gradually, we're introduced to Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute (forced into the business six years earlier by her mother) who immediately stands out from the rest of the streetwalkers with her intelligence and wit. She's self-educated and ambitious, able to carry on heated discussions of Swift and Shakespeare while pleasuring a man. Faber smartly earns our sympathy for Sugar by making her physically unattractive. She has large, mannish hands and a skin condition: Her flaky ichthyosis patterns radiate across the flesh of each buttock like scars from a thousand flagellations. However, she has a reputation for sensuality which exceeds any physical deformity. She can make a man's loins quiver with a single glance. They are naked eyes, fringed with soft hair, glistening like peeled fruits. They are eyes that promise everything.
Sugar desperately wants to rise out of the wet muck of poverty, all she lacks is the means. Enter William Rackham, an aimless and distracted man-about-town, who also happens to be the unwilling heir to Rackham's Perfumeries.
Faber patiently sets the stage and delays the inevitable first meeting between Sugar and William. When it comes, as expected, Sugar instantly sets William's loins aquiver.
And it's been years since he quivered. William's wife, Agnes, is frigid and tormented by fits of madness (echoes of Dickens' Miss Havisham and Bronte's Mrs. Rochester). She's been that way ever since the birth of their daughter, Sophie, six years earlier -- a girl Agnes has refused to ever lay eyes on. And so, the Rackham household is a cold, bizarre place: the wild-haired wife thrashing about on a bed upstairs, the pale silent daughter sequestered in her playroom, the husband roaming the streets in search of sexual gratification.
In an early encounter with prostitutes, William throws himself into the business at hand with a passion, a passion to exorcise his griefs and frustrations. There is an answer to be found, a solution to his suffering, if he can only break through the obstacles of the flesh. William will continue to do battle with flesh throughout the rest of the novel, as will his pious brother Henry, who wrestles with his sexual urges even at Royal Academy art exhibitions:
The way he stares at them, the other gallery visitors must take him for a connoisseur -- or perhaps they perceive perfectly well that he's ogling rose-nippled breasts and pearly thighs. And yet, what is he really staring at? A layer of pink paint! A layer of dried oil covered with varnish -- and he'll stand before it, for minutes at a time, willing a silvery wisp of drapery to slip from between a woman's legs, wishing he could grasp hold of it and tear it out of the way, revealing revealing what? A triangle of canvas? For a triangle of inanimate canvas he is willing to risk his immortal soul!
William, on the other hand, doesn't give sin a second thought and risks everything -- his marriage, his health, his business, his reputation -- to indulge in the pink pearly pleasures of Sugar in the afternoon. He cannot get enough of the girl and he soon takes her on as mistress, setting her up in a secret house he fills with luxuries Sugar could only dream about. The threadbare prostitute is soon moving in the highest circles of London society.
In return, Sugar assists Rackham with business decisions. When we first meet him, William, "a socialist by inclination," is confounded by the business of lavender and scent-bottling, literally tearing his hair out as he tries to make sense of his father's accounting and business practices. Then, as Sugar gradually integrates herself into his life, he begins to appreciate the amount of wealth and power which accompany success. Socialism be damned, greed and materialism soon cloud his every thought.
Unlike Dickens' novels, The Crimson Petal and the White doesn't have a huge cast of characters. Also unlike Dickens, Faber plays it straight -- there are no Micawbers, no Mrs. Gamps, no Captain Cuttles. It's a small, serious circle of characters embedded in a panorama of muck-filled streets, perfume factories, chilly dining rooms and rumpled-sheet bedrooms. There are no subplots to distract us from the business at hand -- everything is cobwebbed to the central triangle of Sugar, William and Agnes.
Where Faber does merge with Dickens is in theme and scope. The Crimson Petal and the White is theatrical and ambitious in a way I think the inimitable Boz would have approved. It's not hard to see Dickens rising to the surface in paragraphs like this:
Carnaby Street is littered with beggars, many of them children. Some of them clutch worthless posies or punnets of watercress; others make no pretences, extending grubby palms and naked forearms that are bruised and blood-scabbed. Sugar knows all the tricks: the putrid shank of meat hidden inside a raggedy shirt, seeping pitifully through; the fake sores created with oatmeal, vinegar and berry juice; the soot-shadows under the eyes. She also knows that human misery is only too real, and there are drunken parents waiting to beat a child who fetches too little money home.
Only in its final pages does The Crimson Petal and the White begin to falter as Faber introduces a few contrivances which strain credulity. Then, oddly, he brings the book to a sudden close, leaving plot strands untied. An abrupt parting, I know, the unnamed narrator pops back in to say, but that's the way it always is, isn't it? You imagine you can make it last for ever, then suddenly it's over. It's a testament to Faber's talent that, no, we did not want The Crimson Petal and the White to end. | September 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.