As in, Dickens wishes he were alive today, and able to write without the constraints of Victorian censorship and attitudes. That is what Michael Faber has been able to do with ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. At over 850 pages it’s Dickensian in size, the constant death, suffering and odd characters remind me of Dickens, along with the jaunty narrator who occasionally asks us who we would like to follow next. And like a Dickens novel, it could effectively go on forever, following the characters and the children of the characters ad infinitum.
However, as it’s a novel with a strong theme of prostitution, and not just a quick or sympathetic glance at someone like Nancy or Little Em’ly, but real nuts and bolts of toxic contraception methods and the awfulness of some of the clients. Sugar, the main protagonist, is taken from her madam’s establishment, the acid-tongued Mrs Castaway who is also Sugar’s mother (also the woman who put her to work at the age of 13), by William Rackham, the heir of a toiletries company. Initially she becomes his kept woman in a comfortable flat, but later she enters his house as a governess. Although she has had no formal education, Sugar has educated herself with books, and likes to write (often about ways to murder clients). She is not what often patronising Victorian philanthropists (Dickens among them) and their societies to save fallen women could ever imagine, as a well-written letter to the The Times from a prostitute calling herself the ‘Unfortunate’ proved. Though our Sugar takes no stance over the virtues of her job, for her it was something she had little choice in, and society wasn’t about to offer her a way out, but when she does start work as a governess, she knows she never wants to go back.
Along with Faber being free to clearly depict graphic squalor and the darkest corners of the character’s inner worlds, the living conditions of even the more comfortable can be uncomfortable to read, and reminds me of the sharp physically of Sarah Waters’ writing. On her first night as a governess Sugar has an upset stomach, and to her horror, finds the window is painted shut and her chamber pot must remain under her bed all night, causing her to feel mortified at the maid wrinkling her nose as soon as she enters the room to collect it. Everyone take a moment to appreciate flushing toilets, something we have hardly improved upon as quite simply, they are wonderful. When Sugar visits a friend it means using their pot, in their room. Imagine going to visit someone in their boarding house and asking for use of their own pot? As much as I love to read about hard, Victorian times, I’m very glad I don’t live in them.
‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ has also been adapted by the BBC and has an amazing cast, but I have spent most of the summer with these characters and am not ready to take the risk of seeing them differently. Their potency will have to fade a little, first.