The 835 pages of The Crimson Petal and the White may look daunting, but embark on the first few chapters and you’ll find a gallery of original characters with compelling prose depicting life in and above Victorian London’s underworld.
Faber’s protagonist is Sugar, a prostitute whose selling-point is her willingness to do anything that men will pay for, including debasing acts that the common whore shies away from. William Rackham, miserable in his marriage to the seraphic, mentally-disturbed Agnes, takes solace in Sugar’s dingy bordello.
The initial thrill of Sugar’s sexual repertoire is swiftly overtaken by the allure of her intelligence. She is self-educated, and soon fulfils his need for companionship as well as his libido. Rackham hires Sugar as his mistress, transferring her to a luxurious house, away from the clutches of other men.
Sugar fills the socially-prescribed gaps in his marriage. With her help, Rackham expands his perfumery business and her intelligence soon gives Rackham an excuse to employ her as governess to his daughter. Sugar fills the void in Sophie’s life, taking the role of mother and teacher. As circumstances take a turn for the worse, Sugar is forced to make a drastic decision.
Sugar is the symbolic crimson petal, the alluring physical woman. And who is the white? Agnes, who has been straitjacketed from birth by the restraints of a narrow-minded society. Ignorant of human reproduction, Agnes fears that menstruation bodes imminent death, and that the swelling of pregnancy was a serious illness.
Sugar is damaged by too much knowledge; Agnes is a victim of too little. Sugar has had no protection since birth (her mother runs the brothel). Rackham protects Agnes too much by keeping her daughter’s existence a secret. Of course, the cure for hypochondria would have been to tell Agnes the truth. Both women are in the hands of chauvinist men, who themselves are victims of quixotic ideals and ingrained prejudices. This proves excellent drama, but Faber’s overarching point is that the forced disparity between the sexes created a detrimental imbalance in Victorian marriages.
Occupying the symbolic middle ground between Sugar and Agnes is Mrs Fox, a widow and pioneer who daily oversteps the boundaries of propriety to drag prostitutes out of the mire. Mrs Fox is the only lead female character who insists on being herself, and her standing as the daughter of a doctor safeguards her respectability. Her Rescue Society trains fallen women to do sinless work and finds them jobs, and she has an extra-marital one-night-stand for love instead of money. With her strong-will, androgynous practical alterations to her dresses, and her discreet open-mindedness towards the fallen woman, she is the pink petal, if you like.
This novel is strong with the benefit of hindsight. If the author had lived in the 19th century it wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have been written. Faber portrays Victorian life in astounding detail, in an account that is less upstairs, downstairs than inside the family and out.
The book’s only downfall is its length. It needs to be longer. Writers are at pains to avoid the standard happy ending these days, but Faber’s denouement is so brief, I can’t help feeling cheated. Justified, perhaps, since this is how Rackham also feels by the end. VP