The Crimson Petal and the White (Review)

by drpoppy

Note: Mostly I will be discussing the outward appearance, rather than the content, of books. However, I will occasionally share a review with you, in hopes that you will enjoy it.

I put off reading Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White for quite some time because the main character is a prostitute. I don’t have anything against prostitutes per se, but novelists and especially filmmakers, especially male ones, seem to be obsessed with prostitutes, especially the kinds with hearts of gold and whatnot. So I was skeptical. A feeling that intensified when I found out this prostitute character was writing a novel. You know, I’m not some slave to historical realism, but given the level of illiteracy in the 19th century, it really seemed outrageously absurd to think that a woman born into prostitution (that is, rather than having “fallen” into it) would be literate.

Then a good friend of mine recommended the book, so I suspended my disbelief. And I’m glad I did.

I will say that a neo-Victorian novel about a prostitute seems less repugnant to me than a modern novel or film about a prostitute, because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the Victorians were at least as obsessed with prostitutes as we are today. In fact, this is such a universal truth that I sometimes wonder if it might not be overstated somewhat. But I digress. In any case, prostitution seems to have been a theme of interest to Victorians, and the point of a neo-Victorian novel, if I’m not mistaken, is to take Victorian themes and say things about them that most actual Victorian novelists (at least, “respectable” ones) couldn’t or wouldn’t say, at least not out loud.

It really helped me to suspend disbelief that Sugar (the protagonist, ostensibly—though the stories of the other characters are written from their perspectives much more often than I expected) is such a fantastic character, and that her literacy is utterly necessary for her character; it is what makes her “reputation” as a prostitute, and it is what makes her inner monologue interesting. One of the most amusing aspects of the novel is to see how she feeds the man who eventually makes her his kept mistress every line he wants to hear; she knows enough about literature to agree outwardly with all of his opinions on it while smirking at his gullibility—and still reading his every expression in order to gauge how to please him next, because this is about her survival, not his pleasure. She is complex and smart and acts in unexpected ways—even when those unexpected ways are detrimental to her “rise.”

And her novel-in-progress is gloriously unexpected— rather than a something deeply profound or as complex as she is, it’s the very penny dreadful that you’d expect from a 19 year-old writer. I love the part when she re-reads it and discovers it is much worse, much more childish, than she remembered. That feeling is well known to anyone who has ever written fiction.

One of the major moves of the neo-Victorian novel is to consider the unwritten/unspoken stories of women and minorities in a society where they held few legal rights or positions of public power. These novels do this in various ways; Peter Carey’s novels begin with comedy and end in the tragic inability to get beyond social pressure, while Sarah Waters’s novels delve into an underground that typically provides some kind of liberation for the characters, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell spends a lot of time with rich, white males, showing how their ignorance of women and minorities ultimately make their own lives less meaningful, and showing a gradual movement toward a break in this power. The Crimson Petal and the White makes a similar move—that is, of showing the inability of the character with the most power to really see the women in his life, and a tiny, gradual, mere suggestion of a change in power. But my favorite thing about this is how, by the end of the novel (and I hope I’m not giving away too much here), so many female characters are, for lack of a better word, “off the grid.” They have vanished, out there somewhere in unknown circumstances, and even our lack of knowledge about their fates is a liberation, both for the characters and the reader.

PS: I was pleased with the excessive length of this novel, nearly 1,000 pages. You should read it just to be able to read the last page—ah, a brilliant, fun comment on the joy of reading. I would include it here, but that would rob you of the enjoyment of discovering it for yourself.