Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White is a novel filled with many colorful characters living in Victorian England. However, Faber's novel does not employ the traditional Victorian conventions; instead, he utilizes graphic details that breathe life into his plethora of characters from among all rungs on the social ladder.

Although this is a tale about many, many characters, the majority of the book is dedicated to the lives of Miss Sugar, a prostitute, and Mr. William Rackham, a perfumer. Readers witness the horrid conditions endured by the lowly prostitutes as well as the stiff traditions of the upper-class Londoners as they participate in the Season's events.


At first readers may celebrate when William buys Miss Sugar for himself; at least, she does not have to perform for any number of men every night. But as the novel progresses and compassion for Sugar increases,  one realizes that this is not a fairy tale after all. Sugar is visited less and less often although her fondness for William has grown. Her change in conditions also leads to her losing interest in the novel she so diligently worked on when she first met William. 

There are numerous other troubles in paradise. Despite his accumulation of power and riches from his perfume business, William's family life is far from improving. His wife, Agnes, is locked in her room taken for a madwoman - much like the wife of Rochester in Jane Eyre. Perhaps the most traumatic event is that Sugar, now Sophie's (William and Agnes' daughter) governess, becomes pregnant with William's child - quite possibly the male heir he so desires. However, William terminates Sugar's employment upon receiving this news. Still mourning the death (suicide?) of his wife, William is not to be further disgraced. William transforms from an aspiring artist hoping to one day become a successful writer to a greedy businessman who loses all those closest to him. 

Faber's novel has an open-ending; it closes with the "escape" of Sugar and Sophie. Readers never know where they are going or if they even make it there. Given Sugar's character, I think many readers will infer that they will be okay, but we will never know. 

Faber also shows that despite the strict rules of society, tragedy cares not for one's social status. Contrary to what William's profession may suggest, one cannot make his/her life devoid of the stench of society and fate. 

I tried to read this novel several years ago, but I ended up not finishing it. I am really glad I gave this novel a second chance. I rate it a 4/5. 


  1. Like you, I tried to read this one once before and didn't finish it. I just couldn't get into it plus I think the length of it intimidated me. I should give it another chance-- thanks for the push!

  2. yes, definitely give it another chance - especially if you have a vacation or break soon. I really had to devote a lot of time to it. . .I read for 20 hours yesterday; I just had to finish it!

  3. I've had my hand on this book at the library/used book store so many times I should just buy it already! Your review makes it sound like I will probably like it after all. I think the thing that bothers me is that it is written by a male author about a female protagonist -a silly peeve of mine, I know- But then I read and loved Frankenstein, a female author and a male protagonist. So, yeah, I should really give Crimson Petal and The White a try once and for all ;)

  4. Trish, I totally understand your pet peeve. However, I do think Faber is successful with Sugar. Now, there are other female characters, Agnes for example, that may get under your skin, but I also wonder if those characters are representative of the times. . .I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!