Sugar is a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian London who wants a better life, William Rackham a perfumer’s son who wants to be a gentleman and not a businessman. Married to a lord’s stepdaughter with mental problems, however, he visits Sugar after hearing about her from others and is so infatuated with her, he wants her to be his mistress. He even enters his father’s business just so he can afford her. She is not only a skilful lover but smart, intelligent and well-read, which appeals to the Cambridge-educated dilettante.
Rackham prospers after she becomes his mistress. Sugar, who agrees to the relationship only for a better life, comes to love him. The relationship changes. Sugar, the unusual prostitute who quotes poetry and has been writing a book, becomes the typical mistress, dependent on her lover. She asks him to make her his daughter’s governess so they can live under the same roof. He agrees.
She and his daughter are drawn to each other while his wife, who never cared for the child, grows more and more unbalanced. The doctor says she should be committed to a lunatic asylum. Rackham hesitates. Sugar dreams of taking her place. Will she succeed? That would be giving away the story.
The Crimson Petal and the White is more than a love story, however. It is social history presented as fiction. Michel Faber lovingly recreates the London of the 1870s, recalling its manners and mores. We see the young men about town, the upper class ladies, the high morals and the base passions. One is reminded of Thackeray and Vanity Fair as Faber tells his story as an omniscient narrator, occasionally addressing himself directly to the reader, asking the reader to follow this or that character as he takes the story from one scene to another. Faber writes about 19th century English society as knowingly as Thackeray though not with as much irony.
The Crimson Petal and the White is a remarkable achievement. It recreates the Victorian world in modern English. The language is modern but that does not break the illusion that we have been transported back to Victorian London, so authentic are the period details. The reader-friendly language makes that lost world more accessible.
It was a worldly world. True, ladies were supposed to know little about sex but the men took their pleasures elsewhere. Much as pious, well-meaning people like Rackham’s elder brother tried to "rescue" "fallen women" from prostitution and take up "decent" jobs as factory workers, the "fallen women" had no desire to be rescued, knowing factory work would wear them out faster than sex.
Sugar is almost a feminist at times while Rackham is completely Victorian. That is not surprising. Some of the Victorian women were more forward-looking than the men. Think of George Eliot.
The Crimson Petal and the White is a big book, more than 800 pages long. But it lovingly recreates a lost world and has plenty of sex. Sugar and Rackham are absolutely true to life.