Michel Faber: The Crimson Petal And The White

Michel Faber: The Crimson Petal And The White

In The Crimson Petal And The White, Michel Faber's sprawling novel of Victorian London's low life and high society, the fame of a prostitute called Sugar precedes her. The cad-about-town guide More Sprees In London refers to her in glowing terms, and even her ostensible competitors know they can send her any clients whose needs they can't (or don't wish to) meet. Guided to her vocation at 13 by a profit-minded mother, Sugar has abilities that reach beyond the carnal. Gifted with empathy and a restless intellect, she can intelligently discuss the events of the day or the relative merits of Shakespeare's tragedies. And, when her clients leave or pass out in exhaustion, she can work on a novel about a prostitute named Sugar who dispatches men in the bloodiest ways imaginable. With meticulous attention to period detail, Crimson follows Sugar's ascent from an out-of-the-way bordello to something like respectability, thanks to the attentions of William Rackham, the failed-bohemian heir to a second-tier cosmetics company. At first a distraction from Rackham's mentally ill wife, Sugar becomes a valuable business consultant and a source of carefully worded affirmations, a fantasy figure too good to be real. She is real, however, and their relationship remains a business arrangement. Therein lies the rub: Whatever freedom Sugar achieves depends on Rackham's continued patronage, though her situation isn't too far removed from that of the more respectable women of her day. If Sugar is the title's crimson petal, then the other half of the equation is Rackham's wife Agnes, a Victorian ideal of a wife gone terribly wrong. Though in some respects she's a classic madwoman in the attic, Faber gets at the source of her madness, revealing a character so swaddled in propriety that the workings of her own body are a mystery, her child is an unacknowledged stranger, and her insanity is a product of girlish supernatural fantasies and the laudanum administered to keep the delusions at bay. Over 800 pages, Faber follows the changing fortunes of these and other richly realized characters, employing a style that's knowingly distant from the time it portrays, but also fully involved in the characters' desires. Some 20 years in the writing, Crimson is a bravura piece of immersive period fiction filled with memorable bits of Victorian oddness—some amusing, such as a performance by a musical flatulist, and some horrifying, such as Sugar's home-brewed method of birth control. It's also a ripping good yarn that balances its characters against a chasm that threatens to consume them for the tiniest misstep. Beneath the mores of the age, Faber finds that both eminent Victorians and their less-privileged contemporaries share a capacity for cruelty.

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