The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White “Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.”

With these words the unnamed narrator of The Crimson Petal and the White takes us by the hand and leads us on a journey into the depths of Victorian London where we meet a cast of fascinating, diverse characters from all levels of society. One of these is Sugar, a nineteen-year-old prostitute who is writing a novel in her spare time and is prepared to do whatever it takes to improve her situation in life. Another is William Rackham, heir to a perfumery business, who seeks out Sugar after seeing her name listed in More Sprees in London, a guide to the city’s pleasures. From their first meeting at Mrs Castaway’s brothel, a chain of events is set in motion that will change not only Sugar’s life but William’s too.

Sugar is a wonderful character and I came to love her over the course of the book. She’s intelligent, well-read and ambitious and although she sometimes makes mistakes and is not always very ‘nice’, it’s impossible not to sympathise with her and want to see her succeed. I should warn you that Sugar’s story is not a pleasant or comfortable one to read and her work as a prostitute is described in a lot of detail, often quite explicitly. However, I didn’t think it ever felt gratuitous and it all helped to build up a picture of what Sugar’s life was like and to look at the issue of prostitution in a way that 19th century authors didn’t have the freedom to do.

While Sugar is our heroine, there’s another woman who is given almost as much time in the novel – William’s beautiful wife, Agnes Rackham, who is suffering from an illness that is causing delusions, fits and irrational behaviour. We, the readers, know what is wrong with Agnes but as far as her husband is concerned, she is insane. As her story develops, Agnes becomes almost as complex and interesting a character as Sugar, though less sympathetic. Another subplot follows William’s brother, Henry, who has turned down a position in the family business to become a clergyman and has fallen in love with Emmeline Fox, a widow who works for the Rescue Society, an organisation which helps to reform prostitutes. Through the lives of all of these characters and others, Faber is able to explore many different aspects of Victorian society.

The novel is divided into five parts, with section headings ranging from The Streets to The World at Large, giving us some clues as to how Sugar’s story is going to progress. Her rise in the world is great to watch but exactly how she does it is something I’d prefer to leave future readers to discover for themselves – assuming that I’m not the last person to read this book, which is how it feels sometimes! Like The Book Thief which I finally read earlier this month, this is another book I’ve been meaning to read for years and I can’t really explain why it has taken me so long, especially as the Victorian period is one of my favourites.

I loved this book and thought it was beautifully written, but I did have one problem with it – the end. I’m sure I’m not the first person and won’t be the last to have been disappointed by the ending. After reading more than 800 pages, I was hoping for more resolution to the story. I know there’s a book of short stories, The Apple, which is a sort of sequel but I’ve seen mixed opinions of it. If you’ve read it, please let me know if you would recommend it!