Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! The Crimson Petal and The White by Michael Faber.

Today is my first Throwback Thursday post where I tell you about a book that’s already in my collection. It can’t always be about brand new books. Especially at a time when people are struggling financially. All of my Thursday books should be available in your local library or might be found in a second hand book or charity shop. Hope you discover something new, but old at the same time 😊😊

Publisher: Canongate Books, 2014 – Paperback Edition

ISBN: 978-1782114413

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.

This is a new feature for 2021 where I look back at a book that I’ve already read, possibly years ago, and bring it to reader’s attention. I was more than a little daunted by this brick of a novel by Michael Faber, but such is his incredible characterisation and ability to wrong foot you at every turn, that you’re left wishing you could stay in his world a little longer. This incredible work is the novel Dickens could gave written had not been constrained by the conventions and sensibilities of his age. In fact, this novel portrays a Victorian London slightly after Dickens time, where omnibuses take middle-class ladies to shop for fripperies, such as the soaps our hero William Rackham makes in the family factory. However, despite the period, it is not Rackham who occupies us or draws our attention. It’s the women in this novel who really hold the power. From poor Agnes, the long suffering wife of Rackham diagnosed with hysteria and confined to bed, to the alluring Sugar, a prostitute with a strange skin condition. I think it is Sugar who draws us into this tale, in much the same way she draws a man, the narrator beguilingly addresses us directly – perhaps in a parody of Jane Eyre’s ‘Reader I married him’. She makes it very clear that we may think we know London, we’ve read about it from other authors after all, but what she’s showing us is a London that was always there, but hidden from our eyes.

Sugar is just 19 years old, put on the game at a tender age, she is pale, and not even a beauty really. However, she has a reputation of mythic proportions, praised highly in More Sprees – the catalogue of London whores for those who are keen customers of brothels. Whilst the oft quoted estimate of a police magistrate was 50,000 prostitutes working in London in 1791, it’s likely this figure included unmarried women living with a partner, which was quite common in the working class communities. The British Library suggests a more accurate figure of 20,000, so for Sugar to be one of the best and even well-known is quite an achievement. Her entry in the book suggests that are acts she will perform that others don’t. William Rackham searches her out along with two friends who have the guide, although William seems more interested in drinking. Disillusioned with his job and married life, William has always wanted to be a writer, scribbling away at his desk in the big house, but has never finished anything publishable so his father drafts him in to to run the family business Rackham’s Soaps. His wife, Agnes, is rapidly turning into an invalid – spending much of her time in bed and only visited by the family doctor, convinced that the rest cure and his ‘treatments’ to correct potential hysteria will help. She doesn’t even remember she has a child.

When William does find Sugar, he is enamoured of her paleness, her compliance, and her keen brain. She is like no woman he’s ever met. He can talk about his business and she understands; perhaps the only woman who has truly understood him. However, there is one fly in the ointment. Agnes is still largely in bed, often distressed and resistant to the doctor’s visits, and unaware she is a mother. Their daughter needs to be kept quiet so that she doesn’t disturb her mother or William when he is working. As time goes on and keeping Sugar starts to become expensive, he has an idea. What if he were to move Sugar into the house as his daughter’s governess? There would be an answer to the problems posed by his child, and there would be no barrier to he and Sugar being together – even if he only has a short amount of time to spare. Anyone can see this is a disastrous idea, but ideas have never been William’s strong point. What will happen when every aspect of his life is under one roof?

These characters are so well drawn and our setting so painstakingly rendered with incredible detail, every time you pick up the novel it feels like you are there – with every smell and ribald comment of Sugar’s world. The lynch pin of the novel are the two women; Sugar and Agnes. With the two under one roof, William has the ideal situation for a man with a Madonna/Whore complex – one class of women for marrying and another for sex. Sugar has every sympathy for Agnes and soon has a shrewd idea of what is going on in this outwardly respectable home. Agnes is entirely an innocent, so much so she believes that demons ‘bleed’ her monthly. When she is subjected to sexual assault in the guise of examination by the doctor, Agnes is simply dosed with laudanum to keep her quiet. Every so often, even William visits his wife bed, taking what he can even when his wife is so drugged she can’t possibly consent or participate. For a young woman like Sugar who is used to women of bawdy conversation, who douche with vinegar next to each other and understand the mechanics of sex, Agnes is a complete innocent. In fact when she does see Sugar she thinks she is her Guardian Angel, something that Sugar is happy to cultivate. As William’s interest in Sugar wanes, she becomes furious and plots how she can help Agnes and Sophie. I also love that although William considers himself the literary figure, both women are writing daily. Sugar writes an erotic and bloody revenge novel on the men who have used and abused her. Meanwhile, Agnes keeps a daily diary, explaining what is happening to her and descending further into her ideas of angels and demons. Both women have a strength that William can only dream of.

I won’t ruin the end, because I recommend that you read it, especially those of you who love historical fiction. It’s really a race to find out whether our women will come out on top and how. If you’re used to historical fiction, you might expect things to be tied up neatly with a bow, but since this is a postmodern novel you won’t get that. In fact we !leave these people as abruptly as we came in with our all seeing narrator:

An abrupt parting I know but that’s the way it always is isn’t it?’

BBC Series The Crimson Petal and The White

The BBC series The Crimson Petal and the White was just as intriguing as the book and with an excellent cast. Romola Garai played Sugar, Gillian Anderson played her brothel madam and mother, and Chris O’Dowd took on his first drama role as William Rackham. The settings were authentic,the language of Sugar’s world and the lack of modesty in it’s women incredibly authentic. The series stayed very true to the book, was beautiful in terms of costume and sets, and even brought interest to lesser characters in the novel. Aside from the excellent main characters, Shirley Henderson memorably portrayed the religious reformer of prostitutes, Emmeline Fox. I always remember her tiny, hoarse voice and difficulties breathing which were a huge contrast to the conviction and fire within her. This was an excellent series, well worth searching out on DVD.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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