Rating: 5 stars
I loved the BBC adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel about life in Victorian England from both sides of the wealth divide. It was a pleasure to finally read the book. Faber writes with fluidity and poise, balancing a phrasing appropriate to the era he describes with a tone that suits the modern ear.
I truly loved this book, in a way that made me want first to revise all my previous star ratings and second to forget about star ratings entirely. It’s a wonderfully entertaining novel, quite slight on the surface (for all its 800+ pages) but full of insights into human behaviour and Victorian society. It’s up there with Possession as a convincing contemporary version of the classic Victorian novel. There isn’t a single spare character within its pages. Even the supporting cast of servants, madams and whores has personality and meaning beyond exposition.
I was surprised by William Rackham. He’s a much spikier character in the novel than the portrayal by Chris O’Dowd. I’m not a fan of O’Dowd’s work, and hadn’t found him convincing in The Crimson Petal and the White. I much prefer the Rackham that Faber brings to the page. He makes more sense. For a start, he’s short in stature, as tall as his wife’s maid, and pompously ridiculous as only short men can be. O’Dowd brought out too much of the fopp and delivered a softness of head, heart and body that I didn’t find in the Rackham of the book. The Rackham of the book struck me as more George Osborne than George Roper.
I enjoyed the disembodied narrator guiding us through the levels of society occupied by Caroline the Church Lane prostitute, our female protagonist Sugar, and finally William Rackham, treating the reader as a voyeuristic tourist of the seedy side of life. It lent an objective slant to the goings-on. It’s a better conceit than having Sugar act as tour guide, although that worked for the TV adaptation. I also appreciated Faber’s satirical subversion of the Victorian leisure pursuit of observing the lives of the poor and the immoral under the guise of social concern, nailing it as the 19th century precursor to shows like Big Brother, Naked Attraction, and TOWIE today. Peering and sneering at lives considered inferior in order to bolster the voyeur’s own rickety morals, while simultaneously hoping to see some fucking.
Faber captures this moralising hypocrisy early on in proceedings:
So there you have it: the thoughts (somewhat pruned of repetition) of William Rackham as he sits on his bench in St James’s Park. If you are bored beyond endurance, I can only offer my promise that there will be fucking in the very near future, not to mention madness, abduction, and violent death.
Hooray! I’m going to put something out there now. My guess is that Big Brother was cancelled because Channel 5 wasn’t able to deliver on the abduction and violent death. Fucking and madness, no problem. You need a True Crime label to get away with titillating your audience with the rest.
Something the book made me want to do was plot the locations on an old map of London. There was something authentic about the routes travelled by characters through the city. Some locations were familiar to me by name from my own tourist wanderings in the capital. I don’t have time for such side projects, so I googled to see if someone else had done the work for me. I was delighted but unsurprised to find that Faber had papered the walls of his study with Victorian maps of London while writing the book.
I didn’t find anything that layered Sugar’s London over contemporary Victorian maps, but an article in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online makes for fascinating reading. It references, among other things, Charles Booth’s maps of London that pick out pockets of poverty and crime – maps that I studied in my undergraduate degree. More interestingly, it refers to Faber’s technique of cherry picking aspects of Victorian society that served his purpose of forging authenticity, and to the TV production company’s attempts to do Faber’s vision of London justice. It also raises the question of whether the Victorian London understood by us is a real London, or whether what has travelled through time is the result of Victorian manipulation of the facts by those who sought to capture the sympathy of charitable visitors looking for a philanthropic cause.
The London School of Economics’ online Charles Booth resource is also worth exploring if you’re interested in this philanthropist’s take on London. I couldn’t find Church Lane on the map showing St Giles in the Fields, but this online resource has it running between High Street and New Oxford Street. By Booth’s time, this area was newly gentrified.
But enough distraction. Back to the novel.
It’s a funny book, particularly in the scathing descriptions of people and their motivations. Rackham is a fool, easily codded by street hawkers and whores, so pompous as to make a clear target for the poor who disdain the rich for their lack of a sense of reality. Faber creates characters who pass across the pages of the book, serving temporary purpose, skirting the edges of caricature, but each one vital in their moment. It’s almost nightmarish, the carousel of bawds and shills that line Rackham’s path to Sugar.
Sugar is his destiny. Her skill lies in drawing out the person a man could be, if he could get past his own arrogant misbelief in who he presents to the world at large. In her hands, Rackham is remoulded, his petty foibles transformed. To be made to feel interesting, the only person in the room, whether truthfully or not, is enough to make anyone feel alive. No wonder Sugar is in demand.
There are other characters, and the women are the more interesting. Agnes Rackham is a study in Victorian womanhood raised to be decorative, of a type that becomes overwhelmed by the rudeness of real life. But she isn’t just a feeble drip. Faber allows us to see inside her, to witness the turmoil wrought by a lack of consideration for her person wrapped up in consideration for her supposed feminine delicacy. She’s the contrast to Sugar’s independence wrested from dependence on men’s desire for the things nice women are encouraged to feel ashamed of. If Sugar is a free thinking young woman seeking emancipation of the mind if not the body, then Emmeline Fox is her parallel – a virtuous widow seeking emancipation of the mind through good works. In a world where the goal of well bred women is to become the property and protectorate of a man, both Sugar and Mrs Fox have chosen not to exist as chattels.
Faber makes it clear that the male gaze is constantly upon each of these women. For Agnes, it’s her molesting doctor who likes nothing more than a good grope inside Agnes under the guise of identifying what ails her. His repugnant behaviour is as bleak as the comedy in the TV show Quacks. For Sugar, it’s Rackham’s arrogant presumption that she would be grateful to him for denying other men the opportunities with her flesh that he wishes to buy for himself. For Mrs Fox, it’s Rackham’s brother Henry and his tentative fantasies that skirt around the bodily attractions of his amour and clothe themselves in virtue. Faber also makes clear that each of these men is ridiculous and it is only a matter of time, as Sugar writes in the margins of a tract decrying female intellect, that a new century will soon come when patronising men will be no more. It’s a dream women still hold onto 150 years down the line from Sugar’s time. Evolution of the mind is painfully slow.
At heart, The Crimson Petal and the White is a story about how to love and how to be loved. Nobody gets it right. Like real life, each character stumbles along, making assumptions, not wanting to intrude on the person they love by asking what they want or telling them what is needed from them. Everyone is wrapped up in their own personal fantasy of what love is, instead of inhabiting love’s reality. The adults that have emerged from childhood have been skewed by their childhood experiences: William Rackham as the disappointing younger son who necessarily has to take the place of his elder brother and Henry the lost eldest son struggling to find his place, frozen in childhood; Agnes as the unwanted child from a previous marriage who is denied the chance to be her true self by her stepfather; Sugar as the daughter of a prostitute brought into prostitution herself by her mother. All we know of Mrs Fox is that she is the daughter of the awful doctor who treats Agnes Rackham. Reading between the lines, she comes across as the daughter who disappointingly wasn’t a son, endlessly trying to prove her worth, never receiving love, let alone approval.
The only, very minor, niggle I had was when Sugar becomes governess to William’s daughter. I didn’t like the way it temporarily dulled her provocative independence, turning her into yet another servant lodged in William’s house, making her subservient to him where once she’d had a freer relationship. If I had written Sugar, she would never have put herself in that position, and I wasn’t convinced by Faber’s reasons for having her do so. That’s not to say that there weren’t aspects of this part of the story that I enjoyed. I enjoyed very much the care and respect Sugar shows to Sophie Rackham, and her attempts to learn from her own childhood in ensuring that Sophie experiences a happier version. When Sugar finally regains her senses and realises that William is an utter shit when it comes to his wife, though, I was relieved.
I loved the ending, too. I found myself cheering Sugar on, confident that she would meet with success in her future, free to do so because Faber does the reader the courtesy of not tying the ending up like a neat parcel.