"The Crimson Petal and the White" by Michel Faber

Praised by critics as an erotic Victorian page-turner, this literary hit is addictive, it's true -- but its attitude toward sex is disturbing.

By Charles Taylor

Published October 21, 2002 5:13PM (EDT)

We kid ourselves that at a certain point we're mature enough to stop judging books by their covers; but when it comes to Victorian novels, there's no denying we judge them by their thickness. What readers crave above all from Victorian novels (and I define them as both novels written in 19th-century Britain and novels that simply take place in that era) is a long, luxuriant reading experience that allows us to sink into the atmosphere, to lose ourselves in a wealth of character and incident.

Above all, we want to relish the past we're reading about as if we were savoring a travelogue. No matter how critical a Victorian novel may be of the society or the mores of the time, such novels play openly on our desire to wallow in both the opulence and poverty of the Victorians' world -- all from the cushy remove of our armchairs. And so many novelists often wind up fetishizing the period they have set out to criticize, using words as plush as the production values in a costume movie.

At 848 pages, Michel Faber's bestselling, critically acclaimed "The Crimson Petal and the White" certainly satisfies our longing to heft a doorstop into our lap when we pick up a Victorian novel. Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, called it a "big, sexy, bravura novel" that "has unpretentiously revived the spirit of the era's broad, socially conscious narrative tableaus," and Entertainment Weekly compared its author to Dickens. The novel has generally been received as old-fashioned 19th-century storytelling combined with 21st-century erotic frankness.

Faber, however, is not out to indulge our fantasies, and from the beginning he puts us on alert that he is not using Victorian England to charm us. In the first paragraph, the unnamed narrator states flatly, "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 another place altogether."

It's a very sly opening, one that means to lure us in by shutting us out. Faber works like a sinister figure who appears in the London fog and beckons to us while standing behind a "No Trespassing" sign. From the start, he castigates the very fetishization that other novelists have catered to. "Let's not be coy," says the narrator. "You were hoping I'd satisfy all the desires you're too shy to name, or at least show you a good time." If any flattering is being done here, it's Faber flattering himself. "When you first picked me up, you didn't fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect that I would grip you so tightly, so fast." As a novelist's expression of faith in his ability to snare us, that sentence is breathtaking in its arrogance. Faber has the audacity to include it before he's even begun his story.

But it isn't boasting if you do what you claim to do, and there's no pretending that Faber doesn't grip us. From the start "The Crimson Petal and the White" draws us in, at every opportunity rubbing our nose in the misery of the poor, the arrogance of the rich, the sexual repression of the time and the self-loathing of both the men who gave in to their repressed desires and the women who made a trade out of servicing them. It keeps that hold on us for all its length. If the cardinal sin of writing is being boring, then Faber must be judged to have a spotless soul.

And yet how he keeps that hold on us is, I confess, a mystery to me. There is nothing epic about "The Crimson Petal and the White" except its size. Wealth of character? Forget it. There are exactly four main characters, and two substantive supporting characters. The rest -- prostitutes, servants, bon vivants -- enter the action only when they're needed, and then as little more than spear carriers who've graduated to two- or three-line speaking parts. As for the story, it's nothing that couldn't be reasonably reduced to 200 or 300 pages.

Maybe this is part of Faber's point, a comment on how characters can get swallowed up in the panoramic style of novel writing. If that were the case, then Faber would need to show them more compassion. He would need to put us inside their skins, and he has already warned us not to expect this; in the scheme of his novel we are aliens.

At times "The Crimson Petal and the White" reads like an alien abduction in reverse. It is us, the aliens, who are whisked into the world of the specimens we are studying and made to remain quietly at the edges of the story observing. It is as if Faber has placed the whole of Victorian London under an enormous bell jar. The characters in this novel are not controlled by the interaction of fate and personality that precipitates the tragedies of, say, Thomas Hardy's novels. They are controlled by their creator's whims, his determination to show us that nothing good can be expected from anyone who lived in such a time.

This, I realize, is a hell of a way to write about a novel you admire. I can't deny that I was fascinated by "The Crimson Petal and the White" and -- one very serious flaw notwithstanding -- the book succeeds as a read. But I don't know when I have read a novel that so consciously sets out to chastise the reader for desiring the very things that led him or her to pick it up in the first place.

The book's main figure is Sugar, a prostitute who has risen above the squalor of the streets, whose appearance in a gentleman's guidebook to bordellos guarantees her a more moneyed class of client. That's exactly what she finds in Sir William Rackham, the heir to a perfume fortune who, obsessed with the desire to keep Sugar all to himself, agrees to join the family business he has previously shunned. Guided by Sugar's sharp business sense, Rackham embraces the role of capitalist wholeheartedly, earning enough to live with a retinue of servants and to keep Sugar in her very own cozy London hideaway.

But when Sugar feels too distant from William, and decides she wants to live with him, she agrees to give up her hideaway and become a member of the Rackham household as governess to William's child, Sophie. That move brings her in contact with Agnes, William's wife, who in best Victorian madwoman fashion is living the life of invalid recluse, shunning her own daughter and indulging delusions fed by the spiritualist tracts she devours on the sly.

And as far as the plot goes, that's largely it. There is a subplot involving William's pious brother Henry and his inability to declare his love for his closest friend, the widow Mrs. Emmeline Fox, who has scandalized the other women of her class by working at a society to aid prostitutes, journeying into the streets and even to the bordellos to talk to these women.

On both levels, the scheme of the book is pretty plain and consistent; it's about the conflict between the propriety of Victorian England and the desires that go against that propriety. But the larger context here exists almost by accident, deriving from what we know of the times rather than from what Faber has put on the page. He stays so insistently inside the residence of William Rackham, or the various places Sugar calls home, or the cluttered and increasingly squalid middle-class residence of Emmeline Fox, that the outside world barely exists. The churches, taverns, brothels and music halls the characters occasionally visit feel like distant satellites instead of places belonging to the same world as the main action.

Faber is not really interested in the workings of William's business (which is all right; as Orwell pointed out, Dickens wasn't interested in the particulars of business either), but there is also no reference to the politics or the military adventures of the time, and only the barest nod to the social institutions. By making the two major female characters writers (Agnes is a diarist given to recording both domestic minutiae and ramblings in which she envisions herself as a spiritual martyr; Sugar works on an epic pulp guignol about a prostitute who exacts grisly revenge on all the men who used her) Faber may intend to indicate that these characters are not given to looking outside themselves. But they are not the ones writing the book.

Faber's relentlessly inward vision may explain the book's disgusted preoccupation with sex. Clearly part of what he wants to avoid here is using Sugar's profession to titillate his readers in the manner of high-end "erotica" and period-piece porn. He is grimly determined not to fall into the fantasy of the prostitute who enjoys her work.

That determination was present in another recent period novel, Emma Donoghue's "Slammerkin," the story of a teenage prostitute in the 1760s. The voice Donoghue found in that novel sounded like one of Sandy Denny's ancient English ballads that had been invaded by the rage of the riot grrls. It was a voice entirely in keeping with the experience of her heroine. Certainly, disgust with sex has a place in the story Faber tells. The fictional deaths Sugar metes out in her novel are the products of her own rage at being used, and you'd expect self-loathing from William for giving in to his physical desires (though with a half-mad wife, you can scarcely blame him).

But Faber lays the disgust on so thickly that it breaks the bounds of both his story and the characters. He is preoccupied with describing sperm: It appears as "warm gruel" squirting down a prostitute's throat; mixed with urine as "the germs of another man's offspring" pouring into a chamber pot; crusted on skin and genitals and bedsheets. The blunt language Faber uses in his sex scenes, language that in the 19th century could only have been used in pornography, is another of Faber's alienation devices, meant to break the decorum we associate with Victorian novels and convey the book's animalistic view of sex as nothing more than probing and grunting and spurting.

Fair enough, though Faber doesn't leave it at that. He feels compelled almost always to add a flourish, like describing the stink of a used chamber pot under Sugar's bed. The first time William stays with Sugar he wets the bed. The crowning touch in Faber's encompassing vision of the corruption of the flesh is that Sugar suffers from psoriasis (of course Faber describes the patches of red, flaky skin ready to come off). It's an almost biblical affliction: not the word made flesh but the sin made flesh -- painful, itching flesh. And it's echoed in Sugar's recurring refrain, "God damn God and all his Creation."

But the totality of this element of the book begins to feel less like a reflection of the character's consciousness than like Faber's own preoccupation. How are we to react when Sugar, bathing little Sophie, compares the child's freshly powdered pudenda to the white of a whore's made-up face? Compare any of the sex scenes in "The Crimson Petal and the White" to the scene in John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman" where the hero makes a disastrous visit to a young prostitute. Fowles doesn't stint on the misery of the girl's life, and the sexual excitement his hero feels vies constantly with his repulsion throughout the scene. But it's a scene that Fowles contains within the scheme and narrative of his novel.

In fact that book is perhaps the most fitting comparison to "The Crimson Petal and the White." Fowles' novel is as much a pastiche as Faber's. And his techniques for alienating readers from their preconceptions about the era go far beyond anything Faber attempts; in one scene Fowles himself appears as a character in a railway car contemplating his hero. Yet the world Fowles creates is a bigger, and finally a more believable one than Faber's. Faber, who worked on this book through 21 years and four drafts (publishing another novel and collection of short stories in the meantime), re-creates Victorian London in order to seal it off. Fowles re-creates it in order to open a passage from our time to the past. (That is also part of what A.S. Byatt is up to in "Possession.") The final effect of "The Crimson Petal and the White" is of a cathedral built to display a dollhouse.

But while the book is damnably irritating, it is never less than compelling. Judging it solely as a read, the only complaint I would lodge against it is that the lack of incident makes the sudden rush of events toward the end of the book seem uncharacteristically melodramatic. A larger problem is that the story does not conclude but simply stops, which can make you feel like a bit of chump for investing so much time in it. It's as if, among all the other pleasures of the Victorian novel Faber is out to debunk, a satisfyingly rounded narrative is yet another.

I don't know when I've read a novel that divided my sympathies as much as this one does, engaging me on a narrative level while at the same time leaving me asking, "And? And?" There's no doubt that "The Crimson Petal and the White" is an achievement or that Faber is an ambitious and talented writer. The book is a compelling perversity: a long, detailed Victorian novel from someone who doesn't appear to like Victorian novels, who distrusts everything that would make a reader want to pick up "The Crimson Petal and White" to begin with.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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