The Crimson Petal and the White|
by Michel Faber
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|Sex and Drive in the Victorian Era
by Raj Mehta
Michel Faber's first novel, a satire of sorts, Under the Skin, and his collection of rather crotchety short stories, Some Rain Must Fall, have attracted much flattery and even infatuation over the past few years. His writing has come to foil expectation and indeed faithful description, infused as it is with a kind of subjective strangeness and fullness of subtlety that swings between hyperactivity and quiescence. Now we have his second novel, a result of some purported twenty-odd years of research and writing. The Crimson Petal and the White is a meticulously crafted, come-hither look at extreme alienation, sexual volition and zeal, and the moral climate of characters inhabiting Victorian London.
The Crimson Petal and the White quite literally escorts us along and introduces us to Sugar, a young, cultured prostitute who comes to command us with her nimble wit and quest for a better life. She encounters, rather by happenstance, the affluent William Rackham, ordained it turns out, to be the head of Rackham Perfumeries. Rackham is from the world of "hatted men" and enacts the narrator's early interjection and promise: "If you are beyond endurance, I can offer only my promise that there will be fucking in the very near future, not to mention madness, abduction, and violent death." Rackham becomes sexually passionate with Sugar¨to put it mildly. The vivid raunch and sexual lewdness is hardly Spartan fare in the novel. Nonetheless, Rackham's encounter with Sugar bespeaks not just of her magic sexual spell and energy, but also of the rigor and sexless life with his wife, Agnes, an instantiation of the specimen upper class Victorian woman:
He and Sugar speak, and Rackham comes to life. He has been dead these past few years, dead! Only now can he admit that he has been underground, hiding in fear from anyone worth knowing, deliberately avoiding bright company. Any company, in fact, in which he might be tempted or called upon toÓwell, let's put it this way: what is audacious promise in a golden-haired youth can be mocked, in a man with graying sideboards and an incipient triple chin, as mere gasbagging. For a long time now, William [Rackham] has made do with his internal monologues, his fantasies on park benches and the lavatory, immune from the risk of sniggers and yawns.
Rackham takes on Sugar as his mistress and governess (she is to look after his neglected daughter, Sophie), and the novel in the main is about the collision of their situations, concerns and wants, the deepening of their relationship, and Sugar's eventual rise from poverty, misery and servitude.
Whatever else might be said of Faber's titanic, 800-page tome, it has the sterling mark of the uneasiness with which Victorian novels begin. "Watch your step" the narrator says, "Keep your wits about you." And so we follow, if only with some apprehension, the teasing narrative voice as an act of seduction: "When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at homeÓ. Let's not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you're too shy to name, or at least show you a good time." It is in this way we are escorted through the story to the allure of the unfamiliar¨a world of streets, Mrs. Castaway's house of prostitutes, and rooms of sultry and scurrilous sex¨and cautioned even against distraction: "Are you still paying attention?" we are asked parenthetically at one point and nudged along, only to be confronted by the omniscient narrator once again at the end of the novel:
An abrupt parting, I know, but that's the way it always is, isn't it? You imagine you can make it last for ever, then suddenly it's over. I'm glad you chose me, even so; I hope I satisfied all your desires, or at least showed you a good time. How very long we've been together, and how very much we've lived through, and still I don't even know your name! But now it's time to let me go.
The Victorians had an indelible sense that they had inherited a fragmented world and that the coherence of the Christian era no longer served as shelter. "These are damned times," Matthew Arnold would tell us. So we tend to regard Nineteenth-century fiction as prefiguring Freud's ideas, most especially in the mediation it so usually seeks between narrative and desire. It has become a platitude of sorts now to regard characters in Victorian novels as being burdened by the dead hand of the past and living for the future. Victorian narrators frequently represent their activity as a quest. And the narrative object of desire is frequently a woman, the by now familiar portrait of a lady¨think for instance of characters like Austen's Emma, Bronte's Villette, Flaubert's Bovary, Eliot's Deronda, and Dicken's Dorrit.
That the novel's Victorian model is not anachronistic for Faber we need to charitably heed, for this is what captures the progress towards maturity and improvement on the part of the heroine, Sugar. It should be noted that Sugar's development is atypically un-'feminine' for a Victorian-style novel: she is "precocious", has "peculiar habits" and "[not] only is Sugar able to read and write, she actually enjoys it." We learn that "it isn't simple submission and depravity" that she provides, and that it is a shame that "Sugar's brain was not born into a man's head, and instead squirms, constricted and crammed, in the dainty skull of a girl. What a contribution she might have made to the British Empire!" Sugar then, is very much an approximation of the male hero of the Bildungsroman, and her quest to better her circumstance is best seen in this light. She is not necessarily an irreproachable or especially laudable character, but a protagonist around whom the narrative pools and with whom our sympathy lies and grows. A fundamental aspect of the characterization of Sugar is her marginalized status in society. Faber has centered his focus on a character of otherwise small importance or consequence in order to make her preeminent. It's interesting that her position and the broader patriarchal context is determined not only by class, but also by other women¨prostitutes and otherwise. Her character is always at the centre of our attention, and because of this transparency, Sugar differs from most other female character portraits in Nineteenth-century fiction.
As we read the novel we come to empathize with Sugar's desire to affirm a higher social position, and she becomes a convenient and captivating tool for a kind for social surveillance. Faber has artistically inverted the theme of reversed fortunes and sudden impoverishment. Thus what we have ultimately is rather a hybrid of the classically Victorian in scheme, setting and detail, with something more contemporary in tone, disposition and reckoning. This novel is more an invitation to Victorian vitality than mere duplication or impersonation. These points become moot to my mind in any instance. I imagine the novel will spark much debate about the extent of its fidelity to the norms of Victorian fiction. Needless to say, despite my use of the term here, the Victorian period was rather more resilient than facile and teachable versions of it would have us think; it is not the match to some homogeneity that matters here, but the field of view that Faber proffers up. Sugar is very much like the orphan in Victorian literature (but here has the status of heroine)¨she stands alone, a remainder and discard of society, and William Rackham, albeit altogether mindlessly, takes on the role of a Victorian ministrant patron and benefactor, who, despite the buffoon he is, helps Sugar through her derelict life. One cannot help but suspect, if we are to take Faber's Victorian piety to heart, that more often than not, Rackham functions as the author's mouthpiece, an advocate for Sugar and her ultimate fate. In this regard, Sugar is rather impotent and less the driving weight of the plot than I suspect she might have been. True, we come across passages when clearly Sugar is in control:
'When are you going to put me out of my misery?' she [Sugar] purrs into his ear, managing to modulate a tremor of hysteria into a thrill of lust. Yet, when she lifts her leg to climb onto him, she's surprised to feel how wet her sex is. William [Rackham] is behaving like a brute, it's true, but he's deranged by worry, and his heart's in the right place, she's sure, and¨thank God¨he still desires her. If she can only fuck him now, and hear his helpless groan of surrender as he spends, everything can still be all right.
But so too is she defenseless and forlorn at moments (perhaps most notably in Chapter Thirty-Three). This alerts us to the complexity of her character, and there's the sense that had she had more control over her own fate and been less dependent on Rackham, we might then question the sheer believability of a prostitute's movement to the position of power she attains in the imagined Victorian context.
Faber's novel might well be likened to other relatively recent novels of a Victorian bent¨Graham Swift's Waterland, Peter Carey's Oscar & Lucinda, and A. S. Byatt's Possession most notably come to mind. These works prey on atypical sexuality to offer supposedly modern renditions of Victorian habits. To be sure, each of these novels accomplishes this in rather different ways, but even so, each takes advantage of the popular conception of asexuality and prudishness as defining a fundamental facet of the Victorian moral climate. What we encounter are unexpected forms of repressed sexuality¨incest or adultery for example. Likewise, in Faber's novel, sexuality is the channel for the plot, but Faber's approach here is engaging in a rather different manner, in that we have a seemingly less repressed Victorian "erotic parlour frolic," dominated as it is by the belief that Sugar's sex and sexuality are at the core of her identity, potentiality, social standing and freedom.
The novel The Crimson Petal and the White takes its title from a line out of "The Princess" by Alfred Tennyson (line 176, Canto VII). This is indicative of Faber's treatment of Sugar. Indeed, few of Tennyson's works have received as much critical attention as "The Princess". Its concerns with the history and meaning of femininity perhaps are overplayed, but still, it intimates the value of the myth of the sexes, a clear source of inspiration for Faber. Faber's interest in social-sexual conventions and the ruinous lives they engender cuts through all his writing, and no more obsessively so than in this novel, and no more directly than in the few lines that Rackham contends with from a page of a manuscript that Sugar has been working on:
How smug you are, Reader, if you are a member of the sex that boasts a scrag of gristle in your trousers! You fancy that this book will amuse you, thrill you, rescue you from the horror of boredom (the profoundest horror that your privileged sex must endure) and that, having consumed it like a sweetmeat, you will be left at liberty to carry on exactly as before! Exactly as you have done since Eve was first betrayed in the Garden! But this book is different, dear Reader. This book is a KNIFE. Keep your wits about you; you will need them!
Raj Mehta teaches English at Camosun College and at the University of Victoria. His interests are particular to the 19th century and postcolonial literature.