Magazine article The Spectator

No Petticoat Long Unlifted

Magazine article The Spectator

No Petticoat Long Unlifted

Article excerpt

THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE by Michel Faber Canongate, L17.99, pp. 864, ISBN 1841953237

Few admirers of Faber's recent spate of tales and novellas - the spacious and admirably unadorned The Courage Consort and The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, for instance - will be prepared for the solid and all-inclusive recreation of (an echo here of Iain Sinclair's White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings) The Crimson Petal and the White. Twenty years in the making, Faber's latest work boldly proclaims itself and its High Victorian intentions from the outset. No post-modern sleight of hand a la Fowles, no slab of pastiche Gothic a la Palliser's Unburied or Warwick Collins's The Rationalist, Crimson Petal is nothing less than a monumental no-holds-barred recreation of triple-decker proportions.

Reminiscent more of Wilkie Collins, middle-Trollope or R. D. Blackmore (Charles Reade, anyone?) than either Dickens or Thackeray with whom the publishers naturally, though unjustly, encourage comparison. Crimson Petal is a morality tale of fallen and falling women, of weak and greedy men, and of men aspiring to do good whilst succumbing all too readily to their basic instincts. It is, in short, a Victorian novel about Victorian sex: about sex bought, paid for and given, about sex as power, about sex as social leverage and, above all, about sexual desire as weakness.

The plot of Crimson Petal is thankfully simple: William Rackham, heir to a cosmetics fortune and husband to a cold, detached wife who may or may not be losing her mind, develops an obsession for a boyish, intelligent prostitute (we know she's intelligent because she's writing a book; we know she's boyish because Faber repeatedly tells us) called 'Sugar', who is only too happy to perform for him all those unspeakable and degrading acts his wife long ago literally turned her back upon.

William's brother Henry, meanwhile, a weak and sanctimonious man driven by religious fervour, with his own lustful failings and unspoken desires, embarks upon his mission to save London's remaining prostitutes, of whom there is a never-- ending supply sauntering through and loitering amid these pages.

It is much to Faber's credit that, while employing such well-worn themes and stock characters, he is able to hold our attention over so long a haul, at such a pace, and throughout a maze of wandering detours and longueurs. …

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