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Some thoughts about The Crimson Petal and the White

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chuntzy 19th December 2006, 04:39 PM

As I'm not very good at literary criticism I'll make the following brief points about this novel:-

(1) that I finished a 800 page novel in two weeks means that I enjoyed it and it was a page turner
(2) I liked how the author subverted some of the conventions of Victorian novels and involved the reader in this strategy: just one example (as I expect I mustn't spoil things) - the governess isn't a harridan and uncaring
(3) the author obviously did a lot of thorough research into the period
(4) I don't think Faber quite knew what to 'do' with Agnes, especially near the end
(5) Wondered if Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope et al would have liked to write about sex as graphically as here if they'd had had the chance

Vicky 21st December 2006, 12:13 PM

1)I started reading this book three days ago and as such haven’t had a decent nights sleep until it was finished. It was one of those books that I couldn’t put down even when I knew that it meant going to work the next day after only five hours sleep

2)I also liked the way Faber managed to add in a good blend of characters and didn’t just stand by stereotypes. Although saying that I can’t think of many strong male characters.

3)The research was very thorough and that added to my interest immensely, but then I am a history freak. Incidental details that were thrown in but not overlaboured (ie. how was Sugar to know that only a whore would order extra cream) made this book very engaging.

4)Agnes was a pretty strange figure overall, I’m certainly not sure what I’d have done with her! I think when a character is there to serve a purpose a satisfying conclusion is hard to find, I expect that is why it is left open for interpretation.

5)I’m not a great fan of Dickens and I’ve never read anything written by Trollope (perhaps you can suggest a good place to start) but I can’t imagine Thackeray missing a chance like that, if only to ruffle a few feathers. It would be interesting to see how the structure of novel would have changed had they been as free to write as graphically. Saying that I doubt he’d have focused on prostitutes, it was Dickens who had a strong interest in London’s poorer classes.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was the way Faber used post modernism very cleverly to make you feel like a tourist rather than attempt to parade his own existence (especially when compared with something like The French Lieutenants Woman.) He also made me challenge some of my own assumptions about life in the Victorian Period, rather than relying on convention.

katrina 21st December 2006, 01:06 PM
I'm rereading at the moment but here are my thoughts from the things I can remember from the first read.

I think that Dicken's would have written about Prostiutes if he had had the opportunity, they were members of the poor who suffered and it would have made sense for him to focus on them, although his male characters tend to be male. He did in a way bring prostitutes into Oliver Twist with Nancy and her friend whose name escapes me, I've always assumed that they were kind-hearted prostitues.

I loved the historical detail and the descriptions of the pub, clothes and streets.

I thought Agnes was actually a let down and the most sterotypical thing in the who novel, the crazy, unloved wife - I can't remember what actually happened to her in the end, so I'm assuming it was nothing major and shocking.

I liked the way that the reader was refered to as a visitor to this place, a visitor who knew the history of the Victorian period without knowing too much about this hidden part of it, little comments like "Of Jack the Ripper she need have no fear; it's almost fourteen years too early..." and in the opening paragraph when the narrator says that the reader may well think that they know this place well because of other books that the reader will have read, but in fact this place is an alien world.

chuntzy 21st December 2006, 01:52 PM


Originally Posted by Vicky

4)Agnes was a pretty strange figure overall, I’m certainly not sure what I’d have done with her! I think when a character is there to serve a purpose a satisfying conclusion is hard to find, I expect that is why it is left open for interpretation.

5)I’m not a great fan of Dickens and I’ve never read anything written by Trollope (perhaps you can suggest a good place to start) but I can’t imagine Thackeray missing a chance like that, if only to ruffle a few feathers. It would be interesting to see how the structure of novel would have changed had they been as free to write as graphically. Saying that I doubt he’d have focused on prostitutes, it was Dickens who had a strong interest in London’s poorer classes.


Vicky (and Katrina),I'm reassured that it wasn't just me (re Agnes). Regarding Trollope, I must admit I only have read 'Barchester Towers' and that was because some years ago the BBC did an excellent dramatisation and I realised that I might be missing something if I didn't dip my toe in. I really enjoyed the book. Although Dickens did have the interest in the poorer classes I agree that Thackeray might have enjoyed lifting the lid more and with less pathos involved.

Lady Lazarus21st December 2006, 08:57 PM
I finished the book last night, and can honestly say I loved it! I agree with Vicky that I haven't slept at all well the past two weeks, for lying in bed tryign to get through it! I kept on thinking I'll just read another page, just one more and I couldn't stop!

As to whether Dickens would have written a book about prostitutes, I think perhaps he would, as he did seem (to me) to champion the 'underdog' in society. Not sure Dickens would have used the explicit language in the book though!

I found the characters and descriptions of the setting really vivid, and could really imagine the sights and smells of the dark alleys where the 'ladies' sold their trade.

As to Agnes, I actually quite liked the character! I thought yes perhaps it was a little stereotypical to have a 'mad woman in the attic' character, but I felt it fitted with the story of why William was visiting Sugar in the first place, and didn't make me hate William for it as much as if he'd had a more 'attentive' wife (for want of a better word).

I found the treatment of Sophie Rackham quite shocking (in that her parents never spent any time with her), and wonder how much of that really went on in the houses of the well-to-do with a governess to do all of that side of things. Also, the flashbacks to Sugar's childhood with Mrs Castaway were heartbreaking!

All in all a fantastic read!

P.S. After a bit of Googling, have just found this short interview with Michael Faber about the book.

katrina 22nd December 2006, 06:30 PM
I reckon that Dicken's would have been more likely to have written a book about Caroline than about Sugar, as Caroline's life is one of downfall from respectable wife to prostitute with no hope of moving up the social scale whereas Sugar is too attractive a figure to catch the readers empathy.

Barblue 31st December 2006, 10:12 PM
Just finished reading this today. What a story. What a fantastic beginning. What a tantalising end. I have simply got to read The Apple now.

This is a great book. The detailed descriptions bring the whole of London to life and since we were reading this for a slant on London, for me this achieved it magnificently. For that reason I want to thank BGO for putting me in contact with this novel.

I was particularly intrigued with Faber's writing style here. As has been said already, from the first line of the book the reader gets hooked. Not only that, for such a thick tome, it held my concentration throughout. Perhaps there were times when the pace slackened a little, but as I have said elsewhere, I feel that was in keeping with the times in which this was set and for me it was appropriate.

Although some might say that there are some unsavoury details of the life of prostitutes, bodily functions and the day to day drudgery people had to endure, I felt that it was well proportioned within the narrative of the story that was being told and descriptions of time, place and people. In fact I think it was a very well balanced story.

My only criticism was that it was so very difficult for me to hold the book as I borrowed the hardback version from the local library. I did manage to read some of it in bed but only once I had found a way of balancing it on my knees

megustaleer 4th January 2007, 03:31 PM
I'm very impressed by the number of threads/posts about this book. Possibly the best response so far to a BGO Bookclub choice.

I haven't been reading the posts as I might want to read the book at some point. I presume it's a good one if the post count is any measure?

(But then HP gets a high post count, so maybe not?)



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katrina 4th January 2007, 06:13 PM

Well I loved it and people have been fairly positive sbout it, I 've just lent my copy to a friend who's holidaying for a month in Tailand which is kind of annoying because there are elements I want to go back and refer to or comment on and I prefer to have the book in front of me to spur me on.


Vicky 4th January 2007, 10:28 PM

It is a stunning book and has started me on a bit of a Michel Faber trend. You might need your scissors though Meg! Saying that for a long book I didn't find it a slog, in fact it was harder to put it down.

Brightphoebus 4th January 2007, 11:05 PM

Originally Posted by Vicky

It is a stunning book and has started me on a bit of a Michel Faber trend. You might need your scissors though Meg! Saying that for a long book I didn't find it a slog, in fact it was harder to put it down.

I endorse all your glowing reports of this book, fellow BGOers. Meg, it's a terrific book and one that even fiction-reading phobic friends have enjoyed immensely. Might you add it to your 12 foot shelving stacks? Is it lurking there already?


Grammath 5th January 2007, 11:56 AM

Originally Posted by Vicky

It is a stunning book and has started me on a bit of a Michel Faber trend. You might need your scissors though Meg! Saying that for a long book I didn't find it a slog, in fact it was harder to put it down.


I felt similarly after reading "Crimson Petal..." and moved swiftly onto "The Courage Consort", a vastly different book (only 150 pages for a start!) on a very different subject yet almost the equal of "Crimson Petal...".


His Whitbread nominated novel "Under The Skin" and recent short story collection "The Farenheit Twins" have been added to the TBR mountain, but he's one of those writers I rate so highly I don't want to devour all of his books because then there won't be any more of them to read. I want to save them for a time when I can luxuriate in them, if that makes sense.


Vicky 5th January 2007, 04:04 PM


Originally Posted by Grammath

I want to save them for a time when I can luxuriate in them, if that makes sense.


It makes perfect sense. I also find if I read too many books by the same author at once they begin to blend into one another. Saying that The Fahrenheit Twins was very good and I'm not usually a fan of short stories, so don't bury it too deeply.

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  • 9 months later...

Somewhat late to this BGO monthly read, I finished TCPATW, in the early hours of Wednesday morning. I went to bed at 1ish and galloped through the remaining pages till 3am. There are simply too many things to be said about this novel that I could never say everything. But I'll have a go at relaying my somewhat mixed thoughts.


On the positive side, I found the book very easy to read and a gripping tale. I loved that you never knew quite who you liked or disliked, the reader's empathy for characters was a frequently changing entity. Sugar, had all our sympathies yet at times, I really didn't like her. Her treatment of the dying prostitute (Kitty?),

her disdain towards Caroline at the end

...William, a pitiful character indeed, yet the ignoring of his daughter,

his final treatment of Sugar

was detestable. Even Bodley and Ashwell (?) I found myself laughing along with then recoiling at their behaviour. I loved, at the end,

that Sugar rescued not only herself, but Agnes and Sophie too. The open end was a great choice, and I like to believe the 3 women reunited and lived happily together.



The narrative voice, is where the genius lies. Playful, theatrical and knowing - it is what keeps the reader turning those pages. I really wanted to know what he/she deigned to show us next.


My criticisms of the novel, apart from the sheer size of my hardback which nearly snapped my wrists lying in bed, are small things really. I found that for a '19thC' work the book wasn't quite complex enough for me to be fully immersed. Yes, Faber did an excellent job creating the 'Dickensian' world with all its muck and squalor. Actually, he takes it once step further and we learn things about prostitutes in those days that Dickens, Collins et al would never have told us. But the cast of characters, myriad plotlines, just weren't there, and approaching this book as a 19th C work, I was disappointed not to find those. The tale was really just a little too straightforward and simple for me to completely lose myself. And of course, Faber's modern twist to the genre,

having an open end

contradicts an attempt at a 19th C novel - and I loved that.


I think Katrina said that if Dickens were to write this novel, he would focus on Caroline - I disagree, I think he would focus on poor little Sophie Rackham. Children and misery? Right up his street.

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  • 2 months later...

What a huge disappointment!


I picked up this book without any preconceptions. I didn't even know what it was about. And I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. It was very funny with well-developed characters with lots of flaws and foibles. But about half-way through it just slowed down. In fact it almost ground to a halt. I persisted hoping that things would improve and that a great final quarter would help to redeem things. But no. It didn't get any better.


Into the bin with this one.

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  • 1 year later...

I just finished reading the book and found i,t for the most part, enjoyable. It reminded me a little of a British Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I had a couple of questions I would be interested in hearing peoples ideas about.




1) Firstly, did anyone else feel that Mrs Castaway was William's estranged mother. I know there were multople references to his mother being disgraced and thrown out, and her name suggests a similar story?

2) And secondly, was Faber trying to suggest that Sugar had become Mrs Castaway and Sophie the new Sugar? Thrown out a good home, just a woman and a girl, expected to live for themselves. There were many parts of the story where Sugar's behaviour is influenced by that of her mother.

Like I said, just musings - I would love to hear anyone elses opinion on them

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