Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White was such an enjoyable book; it’s about 900 pages long, but it felt much shorter. The pages flew by. The excitement and speed doesn’t come from an incredibly complex plot; rather, it comes from the fun of being caught up in a vividly-realized world so very different from our own.
The book is set in London in 1875, and the author takes special delight in describing all that was horrid about the place — the filth, the smells, the poverty, the inequality, the prostitutes, the thieves, the beggars and pickpockets. Maybe there’s something a little wrong about enjoying these things in one’s reading, but still, it is delightful to read about a time not so far back in history that makes a person glad she’s alive today and not then. It makes one think, though — maybe people will one day read historical fiction about our time and wonder how we ever managed to survive when things were obviously so very terrible.
The story revolves around three main characters, William Rackham, head of a perfume industry; Agnes Rackham, his wife; and Sugar, the prostitute William falls in love with. Each character is vividly portrayed. Sugar is very smart and knows how to manipulate weak men such as William; she uses William’s infatuation with her to the fullest extent possible. She’s writing a novel describing her fantasies of revenge against all the men who have abused her in her life. William is insecure and foolish; he wanted a literary life but gave that dream up so he could make money, but he never quite trusts himself or his decisions. He wants to have the perfect home with wife and child and luxury and refinement, but he also wants Sugar for the pleasure and flattery she brings. He wants it all, and he lives in a society that gives him no reason to think he can’t have it.
Agnes, the wife, is one of the most fascinating characters; she’s startlingly ignorant about sex and reproduction, ashamed of her body, and unwilling to acknowledge that she’s given birth to a daughter. She’s the perfect Victorian woman — proper, modest, polite, and ignorant. But she’s also teetering on the brink of insanity. The point is obvious — conventional Victorian womanhood drives women mad — but it’s still a pleasure to see how Faber makes it all work out. Agnes and Sugar fall into the virgin/whore dichotomy, but these roles slip and slide and undermine each other and by the end, both women refuse to be what William — and society — want them to be.
Faber takes pleasure in spelling out just how restrictive the rules of proper society were; I knew something about what it meant to be a high-class Victorian woman, but I was still shocked at the many, many rules. It wasn’t proper for a woman to laugh with her mouth open. She couldn’t acknowledge any bodily function whatsoever. She was supposed to walk in such a way as to deny she has legs; she’s supposed to glide across the floor as though she is an angel. She couldn’t do any physical labor whatsoever, not so much as closing the curtains or putting a log on the fire. She couldn’t acknowledge there was such a thing as prostitution. It’s all this detail that makes historical fiction so much fun, isn’t it?