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Victorian Underworld

Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White

In 2002, Michel Faber published Under the Skin, a sweet little book about aliens living incognito in the Scottish Highlands, where they kidnap alpha-male hitchhikers, castrate them, fatten them up, slaughter them and export them to their home world.

As a delightful follow-up to this treatise on hypocrisy and vegetarianism, Faber's newest work, The Crimson Petal and the White (now available in paperback), explores the Victorian society of literature made popular by Dickens.

Billed as "the first great 19th-century novel of the 21st century," Michel Faber's second novel surpasses Boz's picaresque portraits of orphans and madwomen and delves into the gritty reality found beneath the frilly propriety of the Victorian myth.

Narrated by an invisible tour guide who cautions readers to watch their step and keep their wits about them during their visit to Faber's London underworld, The Crimson Petal and the White is the story of Sugar, a whore famous for performing any sexual act desired, whose foremost concern is acquiring enough financial security so that she can publish her novel. Enter William Rackham, the ne'er-do-well son of a wealthy perfume manufacturer.

Transfixed by Sugar's abilities and longing to possess her solely for his own sexual purposes, William, a self-professed (yet unpublished) novelist, is motivated to become the scion for whom his father always longed. William takes over the family perfume empire and sets up Sugar in a pied-a-terre close to his mansion in Notting Hill, enlisting her help not only in relieving his lust, but also in running his business, writing his product copy and managing his household, albeit from afar.

Meanwhile, we meet Henry Rackham, William's older brother, a deeply religious man who considers himself too impious to achieve his life's dream of becoming a parson. Enraptured by Emmeline Fox, a pragmatic member of the Women's Rescue Society, a charity that reforms prostitutes, Henry spends his days in ecumenical thought, longing for salvation.

Faber's society also includes William's wife, Agnes, the daughter of the respected and destitute Lord Unwin. A longtime suffer of "hysteria," Agnes keeps to her bed, where she is tended by her bitter maid, Clara, and the misogynistic Doctor Curlew, who attempts to cure Agnes by stimulating her genitals with various devices. Furthermore, as she was never taught the biology of her own body and thinks her monthly courses are demons causing her to bleed from her female parts, she cannot accept that she has given birth to a child, Sophie, who is locked away in a gloomy attic nursery.

More than just the definitive Victorian archetype of the Mad Wife, Agnes is also a fully developed, multidimensional character, the "white" petal of Faber's title. Her waking world a nightmare of suffocating social restraint and unwanted wifely duties, Agnes spends her life wandering through a recurring dream in which she is taken to the mythical Convent of Health and tended by nuns, her obligations to Victorian society ended. After repeated episodes of gibbering, fainting and shouting obscenities at her hostesses throughout "The Season," Agnes finally achieves her dream, albeit not in a manner the reader might expect.

Agnes is not the only archetype Faber explores in The Crimson Petal and the White. William Rackham, once the Prancing Dandy, evolves into the Respectable Businessman, whose churchgoing, duty-bound exterior belies his cravings for vice. Like Agnes, William's character is far from one-dimensional. In the year's events recorded in Faber's novel, William grows from an addle-brained fop into a hardworking businessman who believes deeply in the lessons his society has taught him. Although he keeps Sugar, the Crimson Petal, as his mistress, eventually taking her into his home to serve as governess to his daughter, Sophie, William genuinely loves his wife and falls deeply into despair as her madness grows.

As ancillary characters, Henry and the Widow Fox serve as models of Victorian missionary workers: the Lustful Clergyman and the Educated Woman. Although Henry isn't quite a member of the clergy, he is as devout as if he had taken vows. Castrated by his beliefs, he cannot reconcile himself to his earthly love for Emmeline Fox; instead of pursuing marriage with the Widow Fox, he becomes consumed by guilt. Mrs. Fox, on the other hand, as exasperated by the restraints of 1870s society, transcends the role of the Meddling Missionary Matron and uses her education, her outspokenness and her pragmatic view of Biblical to achieve real change in her world.

Even Faber's minor characters, though too small in stature to necessitate real development, adhere to Victorian archetypal standards. The arrogant Dr. Curlew cares nothing for the welfare of his patients, only the most effective way of treating them, embodying those physicians of the Victorian era who viewed a woman's inability to have an orgasm as a disease to be cured. Christopher, a young servant at Mrs. Castaway's whorehouse, where Sugar lives before William emancipates her, is Dickens's Orphan Lad, forever a pauper, eternally cast off. Mrs. Castaway herself is reminiscent of another Dickens character, Madame Dufarge of A Tale of Two Cities, although instead of knitting revolutionary intel into her red scarf, Mrs. Castaway wears red from head to toe and spends her days pasting pictures of martyred saints into a scrapbook, admitting clients into her brothel and negotiating the best deals for her daughter, Sugar.

And what of Sugar? Far from the Hooker With a Heart of Gold, which is, after all, an American archetype, Sugar has never had the time, money or inclination to examine her life; her struggle to climb ever upward within the society of street whores, brothel workers and kept women she inhabits leaves little time for self-reflection -- which is probably for the best. Her mother, a retired whore herself, has taught Sugar to view men as nothing more than paychecks, herself as little other than a wage earner, hardly even a human being. Sugar channels her hatred for men into her novel, a thinly veiled memoir of the varying clients she's had since her mother pimped her out at the age of thirteen. Although Sugar's intent for her novel is to expose the true life of a working whore, the book's heroine, however, does far more than satisfy the carnal desires of her clients; instead, she viciously murders them.

Perhaps Faber's most intricately drawn character, Sugar defies archetypal casting. Throughout the year in which The Crimson Petal and the White takes place, Sugar grows from a common -- albeit educated -- prostitute into first a governess, and then a full-fledged member of society. Her means are unconventional, and many of her actions atrocious, but as she is a victim of her own life, a wide-eyed, nineteen-year-old woman with the wisdom of an octogenarian and the emotional maturity of a four-year-old, we forgive her. Ultimately, her love for Sophie, Henry and Agnes's daughter, is her downfall -- or is Sophie Sugar's entry into society? Readers will have to decide for themselves.

In The Crimson Petal and the White, Faber does not just create archetypes; he explores them, pushing each to his or her fictional limits and beyond, enabling each character to transcend his or her allotted role in life and literature, pushing past conventional stereotyping and neatly avoiding cliché. In doing so, Faber creates characters that are not merely shadows of their Victorian progenitors, but fleshed-out people that walk, talk and go to the bathroom. The reader comes to care deeply about each desperately flawed, often unlikable character, watching in transfixed horror as each becomes the unwitting instrument of his or her own ambiguous destiny.

The Crimson Petal and the White
by Michel Faber
Harvest Books; ISBN: 0156028778
Paperback: 944 pages (September 2003)