100 Essential Books – The Crimson Petal And The White- Michel Faber (2002)



I admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste. It is, however, in my opinion a monumental achievement. Set in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Victorian London where dubious moral standards abound. With money, every sexual need can be met. Publications such as “More Sprees in London “are recommending and rating brothels in a thinly veiled code. Henry Rackham, heir to his father’s perfume empire has a copy of this book. He becomes obsessed with the thought of a prostitute called Sugar, who he is led to believe will do anything for money.

Nineteen year old Sugar, living in a seedy brothel run by her mother, is the life blood of this novel. Fewer characters in fiction get to be known as intimately by their readers and every step of the way the reader is right behind Sugar. She becomes essential to Rackham and his very different world. The double standards of the times are ever present. How people behave on surface does not reflect the turbulence underneath. Society might demand “the white petal” but the crimson is ready to dominate. Sex is never too far away in this novel and it is this which can make it a challenging read. An innocent descriptive passage can be shattered by an explicit sexual image. It is the unexpectedness of this which shocks, more than the language itself. There are so many examples of this, but I think you are better off discovering them for yourself.

In 800+ pages Faber transports us totally into Sugar’s world. It’s a time of unprecedented change and society is being questioned as never before. The story telling skills of Dickens and Wilkie Collins are present but with Faber’s retrospective, unflinching stance. The only modern novel I have read which has captured the sense of the Victorian existence as well is John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. The 2011 BBC television series was quite faithful to the plot-line but could not capture the robustness of Faber’s writing and that is one of the great joys of this book. Ami Mckay’s 2012 novel “The Virgin Cure” explored similar themes in a New York setting with the same time-frame and was well received but it lacked the edge and grime of Faber’s London. Fans of either of those books should snap this one up.

Characterisation is superb. The men are ruled by their lusts, even William’s brother Henry who has lofty ambitions to join the clergy but cannot come to terms with his more “animal side”. The female characters are often in contrast to this as for them sex equates survival or in the case of William’s wife is dangerously ignored. She has no understanding of the basic facts of life, despite having a child.

This is a long novel but I find myself hanging onto every word. It re-reads superbly. Reading groups will be divided because of the graphic elements. The reader will know within the first pages whether they feel they will be able to accompany Sugar on her momentous journey. Sticking with it has great rewards. This truly is a modern classic.


The Crimson Petal And The White was published in 2002 by Canongate.  This review also features in the latest edition of newbooks magazine.


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