I received this vast (834pp) novel as a gift some years ago, but have only just read it: the sheer size put me off, not because I dislike long novels but for practical reasons to do with carrying a large book around with me. Simply put, the desire to read a novel set in Victorian times had not coincided with the opportunity to stay at home over a rainy Bank Holiday weekend.
The Crimson Petal and the White is an immensely readable novel, with fascinating characters and their various dilemmas. It's primarily a novel about women, although there are two men (William Rackham, and to a lesser extent his brother Henry) at the heart of the novel. Everybody in the novel is linked, somehow, to everyone else: and each life is changed, irrevocably, by the protagonist, a nineteen-year-old prostitute named Sugar whose selling-point is that she'll do absolutely anything.
Most of the novel concerns Sugar's relationship with William Rackham, who she transforms from an effete, aspiring writer to a hard-nosed industrialist: with William, and eventually with his wife, and his daughter, and (at one remove) his brother. Sugar, at the beginning of The Crimson Petal and the White, is penning a novel, a barbarous tale of revenge upon the whole male gender: long after she has stopped writing it, that novel plays a key role in events.
Sugar is a compelling character, torn between her essential good nature and the mental and emotional cruelty of her mother, who started her in her career: at times, indeed, Sugar fears that she has inherited her 'bad blood'. Faber paints a sympathetic (though not sentimental) portrait of Sugar's life, sparing no details: contraceptive douches, vile customers, the perils of life on the streets. Sugar is very much a victim of circumstance, climbing out of the Pit by any means necessary. Later in the novel, when she begins to act for herself, to make a deliberate difference to the lives of those around her, it's difficult to blame her -- though easy to see just how culpable she is, by society's standards.
There are some wonderfully evocative passages in this book, and some starkly realistic scenes: a great deal of time on basic bodily functions (urination and menstruation, rather than fornication or perversion), and a gentle, seldom forced emphasis on the role of ignorance and repression in the lives of the women who orbit William Rackham -- wife, mistress, daughter.
This can be read as a story about motherhood, in several dysfunctional guises: Sugar and Mrs Castaway, Agnes and Sophie, Sugar and her charge. Or a novel about commerce: prostitution, obviously, but the less-concrete transactions that make up the lives of the characters, from Sugar's deal with the coachman to Rackham's anger at his suppliers.
It's an occasionally self-conscious novel, addressing the reader directly from time to time -- most notably at the end of the novel, which is abrupt and leaves several tales untold. And it's self-conscious, too, in the way it treats its subjects: this is not a Victorian novel, but a modern novel looking back to another time, and contrasting it, if only by implication, with our own.
I'd recommend this very highly to anyone who'd like to fall, for the space of an afternoon or a weekend or a week, into late Victorian London: anyone who likes good writing, or good characterisation: anyone who is comfortable with some of the less pleasant realities of the era: and anyone with a sense of humour, for -- though it's probably not apparent from my sober analysis! -- this is often a very entertaining and witty read.
"Doctor Curlew will come today, as always."
"Very well, sir. But you are a spineless fool and that's the only thing making your wife sick." Well, no, actually Clara doesn't say that last sentence. Not aloud.