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June 20, 2022

Review in Haiku: The Crimson Petal and the White

By Katrina Stonoff

Upwardly mobile
Victorian prostitute
shines in modern book.

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber, is a great read, especially for fans of Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontes, and other Victorian novelists.

In fact, it was touted to be the "first great 19th-Century novel of the 21st Century" (it was published in 2002), and that's not a bad description. Not only does Faber follow many of the Victorian-era literary devices, at 894 pages, it even hefts like a Victorian novel.

However, you won't find yourself bogged down in description. Crimson Petal skips along like ... well, a rose petal blown by the wind. It's a surprisingly quick read for its size.

Faber doesn't follow the Victorian Lit recipe exactly. Crimson Petal edges right up to "over-sentimentality, unrealistic plots and moralising (that obscures) the story," but he never wobbles across. This is more Thomas Hardy than Charlotte Bronte.

Faber also breaks with the Victorians on the Prim and Proper front. Main character Sugar (no last name) is a prostitute. That, in itself, isn't so unusual for Victorian Lit, but Faber describes her life in vivid Technicolor -- right down to the ingredients of her questionable prophylactic, contraceptive douche.

Both brighter than most of her peers and completely uninhibited sexually, Sugar is very popular, even getting regular writeups in the fictional (I hope!), More Sprees in London, a bound periodical for gentlemen seeking adventure. Via the publication, she catches the eye of Perfumer William Rackham, and he becomes her ladder up to a closed, higher caste.

Maybe.

My writing buddy, Ophelia Bodelia, recommended Crimson Petal. It might have languished on my To Be Read list for years though, like a 19th-Century heroine in a too-tightly laced corset, had I not gone to London.

Ever since I read Dan Brown's Angels and Demons in Italy, I've appreciated how much richer a book can be, read in its locale.

So I took Crimson Petal to London. Kind of ironic, since it weighs a ton, and I never cracked the cover. Hey, we were busy! But when I returned, I read it as a way to extend my trip, and as Faber described settings, I could picture them because I'd just been there. Well, not to a walk-up tenement with rotting stairs where a leering old man in a wheelchair charges you by the visit, but you know what I mean.

I loved it. It's a searing diatribe against elements of the society (some of which persist, especially the trap of poverty and the poor treatment of women by certain men). It's a trip in a time machine, to a life you'd never want to really live, but a fun ride nonetheless.

It wasn't perfect though. I was deeply put off by the author addressing the reader in the first chapter.

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and 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 place altogether. (Chapter 1, First Paragraph)

ICK! That's one Victorian convention I hated, even in Victorian Literature.

You can certainly argue that Faber is using the device as just another tool to let the reader know Crimson Petal is Metafiction (he also has several characters writing; Sugar herself is writing a novel), but it simply doesn't work for me. If the book had not been recommended in the highest terms by someone whose opinion I respect immensely, I would have thrown it across the room. Library book and all.

Fortunately, Faber drops the tactic early on, so I kept reading.

A number of readers have also complained about the ambiguous ending. This might be a spoiler of sorts, but if you are a reader who insists all strings be neatly tied up, you might want to skip this one. Especially since you'll have committed a significant number of hours to it by the time you turn the last page and ask yourself, "What the heck just happened?"

I supposed that's another way Faber doesn't follow the Victorian model strictly.

The title comes from a Tennyson poem that begins, "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white." The last stanza of the poem is, "Now folds the lily all her sweetness up, / And slips into the bosom of the lake. / So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip / Into my bosom and be lost in me."

Perhaps the poem, especially that ending stanza, answers the ambiguity of the novel's ending. Or perhaps not.

Myself, I liked the ending. I know how *I* think it ended, and I can point out specific passages in the book to argue my case. When I went back and looked at passages that misled my thinking, I realized that Faber had artfully told me exactly what was going to happen, but I misread it (as, indeed, he intended). So when I point to these specific, ambiguous passages and say with confidence, "This is why I believed it ended thus," at the very least, you have to concede the possibility.

That's the kind of literature I like best. That in which the author gives subtle clues, and a careless reader won't have any idea what happened. But a careful reader, one willing to go back and check details, reread key passages ... ah, that reader will find layer upon layer of puzzle, solution, and further puzzle to amaze and intrigue.

I love Victorian Literature. And I think Crimson Petal and the White stands with the best of it. Even if it is a post, Post-Modern novel.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-06-16
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