Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book Review - The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (Canongate 2002)

This is a Victorian novel, both in subject and in scope - though emphatically not in content. It tells the stories of Victorian Perfume manufacturer Henry Rackham, his wife Agnes and his mistress Sugar, a prostitute whom Henry removes from her brothel and installs her own house in Marylebone, not far from his own house in Notting Hill.

Henry has been brought to his wits' end by Agnes, whose behaviour is becoming progressively more eccentric - indeed, the menacing Doctor Curlew recommends that she is sent away to a asylum. Henry is also concerned about his brother William, a repressed religious obsessive who with his ladyfriend Mrs Fox is attempting to rescue fallen women. Meanwhile, he is becoming more and more reliant on the insight and business advice of Sugar, who despite her trade is both intelligent and well-educated.

This is a book of themes and contrasts, of the gulf between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated, the principled and the hypocritcal and the rigidity of the class system. However its principle theme is the exploitation of women both on the streets and in the brothel, but also in the bosom of the Victorian family. Agnes was raised to be proficient in social accompishments, but her education did not stretch as far as to explain the monthly demonic affliction which caused her insides to discharge blood. Eventually her behaviour is such that she becomes that Victorian cliche, the Madwoman in the Attic, restrained at the whim of her husband and her doctor.

Sugar, meanwhile, fares better than her fellows on the street - partly as a result of her accomplishments, but mainly as she will do "anything, anything" that is asked of her. Henry Rackham installs her as his mistress, and she seems to develop a genuine tenderness for him - but she is always aware that she is there at his whim and could just as quickly find herself back on the streets. It is therefore yet another unequal relationship being played out, and Sugar must work on attempting somehow to restore the balance.

In fact the only equal relationship in the book is that of William Rackham and Mrs Fox of the Rescue Society. Mrs Fox is a widow, which gives her a certain advantage, and William strives to remain celibate - but sex, or the absense of it - is always lurking in the background.

This book has recently been televised, and I have read it in readiness for watching the series. If the book is anything to go by, it should be highly entertaining, attentive to the detail of Victorian society, sexually very explicit, but also a deep and nuanced examination of the fissures and hypocracies of Victorian England.

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