The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Shocking, upsetting, fascinating, enjoyable, gross, wonderful… I could go on and on. The Crimson Petal and the White is an intense book, it made me want to stop reading at certain parts but I just wasn’t able to put it down.

It’s the story of a young prostitute named Sugar, in 19th century London, and how her meeting with William a young heir of a perfume business changes her life forever. Sugar is not immediately likeable. Like you’d expect from a girl who was forced to become a prostitute at 13, she is cold and cunning and of course harbors a secret hatred for all males. But she spends her days not only doing anything, anything, men ask her to but she also pretends to enjoy it too. Add to that a skin condition she has called icthyosis* that causes slight stripes on her skin and you basically can’t help but warm to her.

William on the other hand, was indifferent to me in the beginning. Just a regular self-centered Victorian man, reluctant to abandon his imagined talent in the arts and take over his father’s business. His meeting with Sugar is the spark for dramatic changes in his life and his character. William is not a devoted husband, he is not a loving father, he is not even a caring lover. I ended up severely disliking him and to me he seemed very weak and selfish, not able to take responsibility for anything.

William’s wife, Agnes, is the typical child-bride turned hysteric wife of that era. Completely clueless about basic things, after all a lady’s education included things like dancing and being able to create the illusion that you are floating when walking, she had an arranged marriage with William. She only had a faint idea of what marriage would actually involve which naturally was a shock for her childlike mind. She spends her days lying in bed, imagining demons trying to attack her body and dreading the doctor’s visits.

I don’t want to reveal anything about the plot because the book manages to shock the reader in a couple of places with unbelievable revelations and I don’t want to spoil that.

Very well written, The Crimson Petal and the White hosts an intriguing plot and very special characters that stayed with me after I finished it. Most strikingly though, it has an incredible amount of detail of everyday life in late 19th century London. Whether it’s in the rich mansions of Notting Hill or the houses of ill repute in St Giles, the author makes everything come to life. You can almost smell the dark alleys (you are thankful you actually can’t). I was amazed at how many little tidbits he collected about the time, from servant life to prostitute’s personal hygiene (I use the term loosely). It helps that the book is written in present tense, as if everything is happening now, around you.

Sadly reading this book has sort of killed my fascination with Victorian times. I guess I was romanticizing the era. Obviously, life for the poor wasn’t easy, but even for the very well off, things weren’t peachy. Religion and Society repressed almost all the natural, human instincts and named them immoral or inappropriate. So even people who didn’t have to struggle to survive were constantly fighting with themselves, feeling guilty and punishing themselves, always trying to act in the way the Church or Society deemed right. William’s brother, Henry and his friend Mrs Fox are two examples. Surprisingly Agnes was the one who shocked me the most. Her ignorance about most things, especially her own body’s functions is just mind boggling. It is mentioned somewhere in the book the Agnes has only looked at the lower parts of her body about 20 times in her life, always with shame. I think I ‘ll skip any era when even a person’s body is proclaimed to be evil and stay in the 21 century.

A few passages I liked:

“It’s just that the shopkeepers of Greek Street care nothing about the shadowy creatures who actually manufacture the goods they sell. The world has outgrown its quaint rural intimacies, and now it’s the modern age: an order is put in for fifty cakes of Coal Tap Soap, and a few days later, a cart arrives and the order is delivered. How that soap came to exist in no question for a modern man.”

“Why can’t it be the factories that are smashed to the ground, the sweater’s dens that are consumed in flames, rather than the opera houses and the fine homes? Why should the people living on a higher plane be dragged down to a lower rather than those on a lower rising to a higher?”

“From novels, she supposes- but aren’t novels truth dressed up in fancy clothes?”

“Now at last Sugar understands: this muddle-headed, minuetting adolescent is a lady, as fully adult as she’ll ever be. Yes, and all the ladies Sugar has ever seen, all those patrician damsels dismounting imperiously from their carriages, or promenading under parasols in Hyde Park, or parading to the opera: they are children.”

“But no; her will is lacking; she’s so weary of stealth; there is nothing more she wants to discover; she wishes only to be a member of the family, absolved of suspicion cosily welcome, forever.”

*Do not google this. In some severe and very rare cases this can be horribly deforming and the pictures will haunt you.

EDIT: I’m counting this as part of the Victorian Literature Challenge, since it’s set in late 19th century London. So it’s a total of 2 books so far and I’m not sure what the next one will be. Any suggestions?

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