Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a novel worthy of the term “Dickensian,” but without Dickens’s moral strait-jacket or his stifling sentimentality. The main character is Sugar, a steely 19-year-old prostitute who has become so renowned for her graceful compliance with any requested perversion that she is featured in a “gentleman’s guide” to London bordellos. Sugar has been the star attraction in the house of the morally hideous Mrs. Castaway since she was sold to her first “nice gentleman” at the age of 13.
The only way Sugar can vent the rage that boils behind her expensive acts of submission is by writing a novel about a prostitute practicing inventive tortures upon her erstwhile customers. It’s a book that will rival the shocking works of the Marquis de Sade — if she ever finishes it.
Sugar becomes the sexual obsession of William Rackham, a supremely selfish plutocrat who can’t imagine that he is being manipulated by a a mere woman. He thinks that Sugar anticipates his every need and is always willing to do anything he wants because she loves him with the perfect and sacrificial love his culture has taught him to expect from “truly feminine” women.
Sugar and Rackham are surrounded by a familiar cavalcade of Victorian characters that are nevertheless anything but “stock”: Rackham’s mad wife Agnes, a delicate, convent-raised dreamer whose romantic ignorance was shattered on her wedding night; a pious but somewhat sensible widow who attempts to “rescue” London’s prostitutes by placing them into nightmarish physical drudgery as scullery maids or factory workers; a tormented cleric who is horrified by his own unstoppable sexual fantasies — especially those which feature the woman he genuinely loves; venal servants, conniving socialites, cynical dilettantes, drunken slumlords…the whole breathing world of the 1870s — but portrayed with a depth of feeling and emotional realism Dickens and Trollope could never dare.
Victorians didn’t want to hear the truth that Faber so robustly reveals: that their own attitudes toward women and sex warped the human beings of their day, male and female, into even more grotesque shapes than they ordinarily take. But there is no preaching here, only an exquisite, heartbreaking sympathy, even for the confused and monstrous character of William Rackham.
If small bubbles of human hope and love rise only sluggishly to the dark surface of this novel, eventually there is some desperate — if perhaps misguided — heroism, a rocky sort of justice, and, in the end, even a glimmer of the half-forgotten glory of Eros.