Street Walker; the Arts: Michel Faber's New Novel, about a Victorian Prostitute, Is Already an American Best Seller. Here, the Reclusive Author Explains How His Book Is a Fusion of Imagination, Research and Personal History

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

Street Walker; the Arts: Michel Faber's New Novel, about a Victorian Prostitute, Is Already an American Best Seller. Here, the Reclusive Author Explains How His Book Is a Fusion of Imagination, Research and Personal History


'Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before.

You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.'

AND so begins The Crimson Petal and the White, my new novel set in Victorian London. The reference to you being an "alien" is not just a historical observation about our attempts to revisit the 19th century, it's a wink at those readers who might be expecting another book like Under the Skin, my debut.

Unearthly goings-on beneath a farm in the Scottish Highlands have given way to top-hatted gentlemen and waspwaisted prostitutes in England's greatest city, circa 1875.

In truth, this sense of cultural collision, of arriving in a strange place without bearings, is common to both books. When I wrote Under The Skin, not long after emigrating to Scotland, I was trying to make sense of my new home.

When I started work on The Crimson Petal, many years before, I was trying to combine my fantasy of Victorian London, fuelled by the great 19th century novelists, painters and photographers, with the harsh realities I'd experienced during an abortive attempt to live in London in the early Eighties, which ended with me sleeping rough in parks and doss houses. This tension between fog-shrouded imaginings and the mundane struggle to survive suffuses the book.

Even today, I don't know London very well. I like to stroll around Abney Park Cemetery, I know how to find the second-hand record shops in Notting Hill Gate, I can navigate my way to a particular Thai restaurant in Soho, and so on.

I've even seen the Changing of the Guard, on a memorable occasion when I accompanied some Polish woodcutters to London and, noting that they were looking for Big Ben in Tottenham, volunteered to be their guide. But this is not the same as knowing the city in the way that Dickens or Mayhew knew it.

Perhaps none of us can really know it that way again. The intricate rabbit-warrens of Dickens's London were largely demolished - "ventilated", as the town planners put it - during the slum clearances of the 1880s. Much of what escaped the wrecking ball and pickaxe is now being renovated into oblivion.

The characterless ubiquity of chain stores discourages us from picturing a neighbourhood through its shops. Vast and intricate London may still be, but many of its frailer parts have been surgically replaced with plastic.

What doesn't change, of course, is the human body and soul. My book's perfume merchant, William Rackham, longs for maternal coddling from a sex goddess who is also infinitely compliant. Sugar, my ambitious prostitute, fancies herself unscathed by her abusive environment. …

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