The Crimson Petal and the White
tells an ugly story. It’s very dark and even amidst all of the beautifully colorful late Victorian gowns and essences of perfumes and potpourri infused throughout, nothing is really able to mask the harshness and vice that corrodes the London middle class society described.
In regards to plot, the stories that make up the 900 pages of Faber’s novel are quite simple and could easily be summed up in a few sentences. But what makes Faber’s novel a compelling read is his ability to slowly unmask all of the façades of the London setting he describes, and how this in turn affects the personalities of his characters, forcing the reader to wonder how will these characters survive, and which ones will be able to escape from the city’s overbearing clutches.
Faber’s London is a living, breathing entity and is arguably the book’s most important character, inviting and providing intrigue and shelter, as well as helping or hindering discovery and/or escape. Through London’s manipulative hand, none are left unscathed. Faber illustrates this well.
That said, I didn’t entirely enjoy all of the storylines in this book. My favorite stories were associated with the minor characters. On the one hand, I loved the eccentric aloofness of Emmeline Fox. I also liked the awkward interplay between Caroline and Henry. These two stories worked well, and I wished more of the story could have been dedicated to them. On the other hand, I was rather disappointed with Sugar, one of the main characters of the novel. Even though Sugar is in some ways redeemed in the end, it is hard to forget that she did become something she should have despised. Compared to the strong-minded girl the reader is introduced to in the beginning, as the story progresses, Sugar’s character seems to regress when she meets William Rackham. I thought she had a stronger sense of independence and even though she does regain some of it, there’s a kind of mourning for what once was.
Agnes’ etherial qualities are the strangest sections of the novel, yet her story makes the reader wonder how many girls at that time were just as innocently ignorant of life. For me, her story was the most disconcerting in the book, however Faber does not portray her as a sympathetic character. Her story is equally as ugly and disappointing as the rest—but not for how the narrator chooses to end her story. Arguably, I’d say that she is the strongest character in Faber’s novel—steadfast in her beliefs to the end and beyond....
As for the men in this story, their proclivity to vice and dissipation is horrible and at times disgusting. William’s treatment of Agnes was truly deplorable. That said, Faber is at his best playing with façades when he describes his male characters. Even the most upstanding male figure in this story is plagued with a hidden vice that gradually eats away at their character like a disease. For these men, life becomes a game where only the strongest survive.
Despite its ugliness, Faber created an interesting tale, one that I’m looking forward to seeing on film.