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!

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18 thoughts on “The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

  1. heavenali says:

    I loved Crimson Petal and the White too, I don’t think I was disappointed with the ending it’s been ages since I read it so not sure if I’m remembering it right. Unfortunately I haven’t read The Apple so can’t help you there.

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    I’m pleased you enjoyed this. A couple of years ago I watched the BBC’s adaptation of it which was really good. I haven’t read the book but I would like to.

    p.s. I also watched the film adaptation of The Book Thief this week, it was great 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t watch the BBC adaptation but now I’d be interested to see how it compares to the book. I’m glad you enjoyed the film version of The Book Thief!

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure it would be a great book to re-read. I know there must be a lot of things I missed the first time – it’s such a long, detailed novel!

  3. Karen K. says:

    I read this a couple of months ago and absolutely loved it — parts of it were difficult to read, but I thought it really immersed the reader in the setting of Victorian London. I thought the characters were really well developed. I did find the ending a little unresolved, however. I haven’t watched the miniseries but hope to get to it eventually.

    • Helen says:

      The setting was wonderful – there was a real sense of time and place. I agree that it was difficult to read at times, but I did love it. I must get round to watching the miniseries too.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it when you get round to it. I’d had a copy on my shelf for years too, but it never felt like the right time to read it…until now!

  4. Alex says:

    I’ve seen the TV series and really enjoyed them. I don’t think they gave as much prominence to Agnes as the book. I remember adding this to my wish-list a few years ago when everyone and their dog was reading it, but because of mixed reviews taking it out again.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t see the TV series but I would like to watch it now that I’ve read the book, so I could compare the two. In the book, Agnes is given almost as much attention as Sugar.

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