Sunday 23 August 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber (2002)

‘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 never been here before.’

So begins Michel Faber’s epic story about a prostitute called Sugar who rises through the ranks of society in Victorian London.

The narrator is right. While the city may be familiar to us from countless nineteenth-century novels, Faber shows us a side of Victorian life we have not seen before – sexually explicit and awash with all manner of bodily fluids, as well as filth.

Perfumer William Rackham spends his first night in Sugar’s bed marinating in his own urine, while passed out in a drunken stupor; his young daughter still wets the bed every night; his wife is so ignorant about the workings of her own body that she believes she is set upon by demons and dying each time she menstruates.

Romola Garai as Sugar in the 2011 miniseries of The Crimson Petal and the White
This is a world where servants must collect chamber pots of their superiors’ diarrhoea, where women douche with harsh chemicals as a contraceptive measure, and abortion is a dangerous and solitary endeavour, still slightly less risky than the trials of childbirth itself.

It is these details that Faber repeatedly draws our attention to over some 900 pages, but our intimacy with his characters extends beyond this insight into their most private physical moments. Hopping from head to head – without ever letting us doubt that this is Sugar’s story – Faber crafts fascinating and complex characters. Particularly notable are pious Henry Rackham, William’s brother, and Emmeline Fox, the woman he loves – an advocate for the Rescue Society, whose liberal views on prostitution see her ostracised by wider society. Religion is a theme second only to sexuality in this novel, where the two are frequently thrown into fierce opposition.

Michel Faber (1960-)
There is also a cast of lesser players – Dickensian in their vivid characterisation. There’s Bodley and Ashwell – a pair of permanent and debauched bachelors -, a scheming lady’s maid (a character type with a fine Victorian heritage), and an old man in a wheelchair who mans the entrance to one of London’s filthiest brothels, prophesying woe to all who will listen to him.

Yet, while lovers of Victorian literature will love the personalities they meet along the way in the novel, they may face disappointment if they expect to find a clever and tight plot. There’s little scheming or intrigue here - the main character doesn’t even think to change her name to something more suitable when making the transition from whore to governess. Several major characters die or disappear with no resolution to their storylines and you can feel deprived of a sense of closure in the novel’s closing pages.

This is a mood piece – a creative exploration of the darker side of Victorian London – with a fiercely feminist sub-text. Times are a-changing, the narrator reminds us. Men like William Rackham will see their industries depleted, their wives emancipated and their servants disappear over the next half-century.

Sugar, an inexplicably educated and enlightened girl raised up from the gutter, doesn’t need to be believable. Agnes, Rackham’s wife, in her madness, thinks her husband’s mistress is actually her own spiritual guardian – and the thing is, she’s not wrong. Sugar is an avenging angel who combines the sexual potency, intellectual power, and brave compassion that can undo the Victorian patriarchy. In the story, she abandons her novel, but its opening paragraphs make a neat counterpart to Faber’s own:

All men are the same. If there is one thing I have learned in my time on Earth, it is this. All men are the same.

‘How can I assert this with such conviction? Surely I have not known all the men there are to know? On the contrary, dear reader, perhaps I have!

‘How smug you are, Reader, if you are a member of the sex that boasts a scrag of gristle in your trousers! You fancy that this book will amuse you, thrill you, rescue you from the horror of boredom (the profoundest horror that your privileged sex must endure) and that, having consumed it like sweetmeat, you will be left at liberty to carry on exactly as before! Exactly as you have done since Eve was first betrayed in the Garden! But this book is different, dear Reader. This book is a KNIFE. Keep your wits about you; you will need them!

Which novel should be next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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