The Crimson Petal and the White is the story of a group of people from opposite ends of the social scale who inhabit Victorian London. There’s William Rackham, reluctant heir to Rackham Perfumeries and his fragile wife Agnes, who spends most of her time in her darkened bedroom. William’s pious brother Henry who has rejected his claim to their father’s fortune, and his close friend, widow and member of the Rescue Society, Mrs. Emmeline Fox. And then there’s Sugar, teenaged prostitute who is the height of popularity with the men of London. Our narrator leads us through this complex world, advising us which characters to follow.
Although this novel is set in Victorian London it makes a point of not merely regurgitating the Jack the Ripper induced stereotype that is so often portrayed. There are moments near the beginning where it feels like the author is trying to squeeze in as many facts as he can from his research superfluously, but this is rare and overall it’s a very clear picture of the nineteenth century capital. It’s so well researched with detail nestled in to the narrative that you almost forget that you’re not reading a book written at the time, even if some of the scenes definitely wouldn’t have been considered appropriate.
The first character we meet is Caroline, a prostitute with a lower class clientele than Sugar, who lives in a poverty stricken area of London. Despite her position she is remarkably content, and grateful that she doesn’t have to start the day with all the labourers desperately trying to secure a day’s work every morning. Her job brings her a strange sense of financial security – waking up broke every morning but knowing she’ll be able to earn enough, a luxury shared by few of the labourers.
As we follow her through the streets there's a profusion of people trying to sell something in the crowded thoroughfares, using anything they can to make some money, even scavenging the remains of a carriage shortly after an accident. Rich and poor live practically next to each other and yet remain entirely separate. Oxford Street creates a parting between two streets at polar opposites on the scale of wealth and poverty. There’s a stark contrast between the people we’ve met so far and William Rackham. When we first meet him he is in a state of panic as he tries to dispose of his out of fashion hat and purchase one that won’t cause him great anxiety to be seen in. He appears foppish and shallow, his problems laughable compared to those struggling for enough money to stay alive. It does, however, also plant the idea that the middle classes aspiring to move upwards are trapped in their own gilt cages, unable to freely do as they wish for fear of being shunned. The theme of social sensibilities and the problems and misery they induce recurs throughout the novel.
The differences are not only obvious between characters with very different lives, but when Sugar and Caroline are first seen together they could not seem more different. Physically they are nothing alike, but their minds are also contrasted. Caroline is seemingly content, easily amused by simple activities, and does not think too deeply. Sugar is seething with hatred and sees the injustice of the world clearly. The cause for this outlook, beyond her profession, is not explained at this point, but her psychological history is revealed gradually throughout. It also gives a sense of her intelligence, a blessing and a curse in a world where she is unable to make use of a brilliant mind. It is commented what a pity it is that her mind was born in to a female body, what a difference she could have made if only she were male.
Her intelligence marks her apart from Rackham’s wife Agnes, who, despite being sent to top schools was taught not how to think and be accomplished, except of course at being seen in public and looking beautiful. When William meets Sugar he is impressed by her intelligent, active mind and enjoys talking to her about his business affairs and literature. Eventually, however, this becomes evidence in his mind of her mental instability – it is unnatural for a woman to have a mind such as Sugar’s.
According to William’s clownish friends Bodley and Ashwell, half the wives in London are mad. It shouldn’t therefore distress him too much that his wife is among them, it is no great social shame when so many others are dealing with the same problem. Women are, after all, exceedingly prone to madness. Their bodies are closely linked with madness, and Doctor Curlew regularly examines Agnes to find her ‘wandering womb’. There’s also a distinct lack of understanding of the adult body from both the male and female characters which contributes to the problem. Agnes has no concept of what menstruation is and so regards it with fear. It is also remarked upon several times that William has a dislike of it, arising from ignorance. Although the reproductive function of the female is not itself an indicator of madness, the lack of understanding of it leads both to abuse and distress. Agnes does not even understand her own pregnancy and refuses to acknowledge her daughter Sophie as a result.
There aren’t many likable characters in this novel. Agnes and William are both very much of their time and class – terribly concerned with their status in society (though William likes to pretend he is not) and relying on their servants for the simplest of tasks, not even opening a window for themselves. Agnes also comes across as selfish, complaining about being in mourning to those who are grieving more than she is. The mix of perspectives make it difficult to form a decisive opinion on some characters – are we to believe Agnes’s interpretation and despise Rackham? She is, after all, supposedly mentally unsound. Do we, then, believe Rackham’s memories and thoughts to be trusted over hers, even with Sugar loathing him at times? Although he behaves badly much of the time, he seems more of a fool, often not knowing what to do rather than being intentionally cruel. He does redeem himself somewhat by resisting sending Agnes to an asylum despite constant pressure from her doctor.
For all her strength Sugar has a vulnerability and need for affection. On becoming Sophie’s governess we begin to learn more about her history, of her mother forcing her in to prostitution and teaching her nothing but hatred. She fears that she is like her mother when flashes of potential cruelty cross her mind with Sophie. She manages to resist, proving that it is possible to throw off the chains of abuse and express love.
This is a brilliantly evocative novel that brings nineteenth century London to life. The array of characters are interesting for their contradictions and psychological complexities. Most are miserable and seemingly trapped in situations they have little control over. Lovers of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature will revel in the allusions that are used to reveal more about the personalities of the characters. It also considers subjects of debate such as the role of women and the moral and social issues around prostitution, science as opposed to religion, and the benefits and shortcomings of mechanisation, fixing it firmly in the latter part of the century. There’s a lot left unresolved, and although it leaves you wanting more it’s ultimately more satisfying, serving to make the story feel more real, as if you’ve just seen a snapshot of life. The characters had a life before you started watching, and they’ll continue with their lives after you reach the final page.