If you’d have told me last year that I would be bang into historical fiction I’d have laughed heartily in your face. I used to be the type of person who would pick up a book from the shelves, flip it over to peruse the blurb and on seeing anything akin to ‘It was 1790 in Northern France,’……I would see the date and immediately put the book back down.
No thanks, not for me. If it doesn’t refer to iphones or Google then its faaaarrrrr too outdated a story for me…..
Shocking I know.
However, you’ll all be pleased to know that I have more or less abandoned contemporary fiction recently in favour of historical fiction which was instigated by one Sarah Waters. I have spoken about her novels and writing style a little on here before and it’s safe to say I’m a huge fan.
In The Paying Guests she took us back to WW2 London. In The Nightwatch it was more of the same…..easing me in gently. Then it was time for Fingersmith set in Victorian London, Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue bringing more of the same.
It was here with Mary and Doll that I fell in love with this time period and the life at that time. Particularly involving prostition and destitution and institutions (all the ‘tions’ there!).
When I saw The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber talked about and reviewed on Booktube I thought it sounded right up my strasse……or right down my proverbial cobbled dirty Victorian back alley if you will. Ooh err.
I picked this up from Waterstones, full price no less! I must have REALLY wanted it. Being totally superficial it’s such a lovely book. A big old chunky beast (which I love), tiny print (which I adore), paperback (huge tick) and lovely floppy pages (ch-ching!). Yes I’m a geek.
The story starts by immediately drawing you in by talking directly to you the reader as if you were there in the story yourself:
‘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. 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 home. Now that you’re actually here, the air is bitterly cold and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street of unlit houses full of unknown people….’
We go on to meet Sugar a prostitute working in a brothel run by Mrs Castaway, who incidentally is also Sugar’s mother. Sugar is known locally as the girl who will do anything or perform any act for any man. She is also highly intelligent, wise and knowledgeable in lots of areas. She already stands head and shoulders above the other girls as she can read and is also secretly writing her own manuscript for a dark and violent novel. She isn’t the most attractive girl but at 19 she is wise beyond her years and has a certain charisma that draws the customers in.
One such customer is Mr William Rackham, poised to take over his fathers perfumery business and not being best pleased about it. During one drunken depressed evening in London, William decides to pay a visit to Mrs Castaway’s where he meets Sugar.
He quickly becomes obsessed with her, and the story follows the various stages of his efforts to make her his own using his wealth and success. Purchasing her from Mrs Castaway, installing her in a secret residence (William is married), and then employing her as his child’s Governess in his home.
We are introduced to various colourful characters along the way, William’s young wife Agnes who is suffering with an (undiagnosed) brain tumour and the various ways in which this manifests itself, namely her strange behaviour which the Doctors of the time attribute to her being ‘mad’ and pushing William to have her incarcerated in an asylum.
I have absolutely fallen in love with this era and Michel Faber writes about it in such depth of detail that you can’t fail to be drawn in and become immersed in it. There’s no denying that at times this book is quite grim and dark and some of the situations and language used to describe them are quite graphic. It’s not entirely for the faint hearted but I have to say that I love the graphic nature and often found myself wondering ‘ewwwww I wonder if things like that actually happened?! It would take quite a bit to shock me.
Some of the phrasing Faber uses is beautiful and I particularly love the French phrases that were in every day use at the time. For example calling an invitation ‘cartes d’invitation’ and an umbrella a ‘parapluie’.
This book has made me want to read more stories set in Victorian London OR quite possibly research the era more in general. I find it fascinating. From the dirty streets to the upper classes it was all very intriguing.
I think it is safe to say that I loved this book. I can rank it as one of my all time favourites and thoroughly recommend it.
When I eventually reached the end I didn’t know whether I was satisfied with the conclusion or not…..
In retrospect I think it was probably quite fitting.
I now have Michel Faber’s The Apple to read, which is a series of short stories about the characters we met in The Crimson Petal and The White. I’m looking forward to seeing Sugar again hopefully…..
To sum up. Go and read Crimson Petal immediately!