The novel follows a year in the lives of two very contrasting Victorian women “types”, Agnes; the Victorian ideal, the angel of the home; and Sugar, the archetypal “fallen woman” and the man that their lives revolve around (as does the world): William Rackham, Jr. It’s filled with lust, issues of class, wealth and poverty and of various falls and rises through the social hierarchy.
When we first meet William Rackham, he is a pathetic shell of a man buying a hat and cringing at the shabby disrespectability of his current, outmoded headwear. Scared of his sassy servants and living off of an increasingly meagre allowance from his cruel and unreasonable father, William is out in London spending money on prostitutes that he cannot possibly spare. After a doubly disappointing experience in a mediocre house, he goes off in search of Sugar, a girl advertised as one of the best in London. Enthralled by her unconventional beauty, intellect and wit, he resolves to knuckle down, accept responsibility for his father’s perfume business and become rich so that he can claim exclusive patronage of this rare and exquisite woman.
As his business goes from strength to strength with the canny assistance of Sugar, now his mistress, ensconced in luxurious rooms of her own, William’s life begins to fall apart, despite his increasing wealth, position and opulent lifestyle. His increasingly unstable wife Agnes is showing him up at every opportunity by claiming to see angels and by having loud and indecorous fits in public; his competitors are gaining increasing footholds in the cosmetics industry, his devout brother still won’t take his vows and the servants are becoming impossible to control. Add to that William and Agnes’ daughter Sophie, growing up lonely and strange isolated from her family in a distant corner of the house.
The star of the show, however, is Sugar. I absolutely loved her as a character, though she is impossible to properly understand. Sometimes she seems to genuinely and deeply care for William, sometimes she seems concerned only with maintaining the lifestyle he has offered her. Sometimes she seems to thoroughly loathe him. No doubt she is a manipulator and an opportunist, but she is also capable of powerful devotion and love as we see later in the novel. I found myself wondering if prostitution made an object of her, or if it started her on the road to success. Was she a degraded victim, or did she always have the upper hand? Undoubtedly Sugar fares better than the other prostitutes in the novel- but is that because she has ambitions or is it because she was simply a better, more desirable prostitute? The book made me think about luck and chance, and whether these are bestowed upon a person, or whether they make them for themselves. Sugar never came across as a victim to me. Though she has undoubtedly been abused and taken advantage of in the past, she refuses to be beaten. The reader watches her feelings evolve from rage, revenge and retribution to survival and propriety. She ends the novel as a respectable, self-sufficient woman with independent means, experience and references.
William’s wife Agnes, the doll like, pale and beautiful trophy wife is languishing at the other end of the social spectrum. The stepdaughter of a lord, she is a good catch by the second-son William, but he comes to feel that, when he is successful, he has been short changed by her delicate health, her unstable nerves and her apparent insanity, also by her apparent inability to provide him with an heir. Agnes is the other type of Victorian staple- the crazy wife that needs caring off to an asylum. Wife, prostitute, kept woman or servant. They are the four options for female roles as presented by this novel and by history.
William Rackham is characterised mostly by greed and a constant compulsion to want what he can’t have. When he is poor, he craves wealth and Sugar. When he has wealth and as much of Sugar as he could ever desire, he doesn't want it anymore. He wants family, something he neglected when he had it in pursuit of mistresses and fortunes. He’s a contradictory character, both pathetic and likable to begin with, before taking a nose dive into unforgivable tyranny.
The Crimson Petal and the White is a brilliantly crafted beauty of a novel, full of grotesques and beauties, visions and dreams and rises and falls. It never feels particularly Victorian in tone- Sugar is too worldly to feel 19th Century and the rest of the characters feel quite contemporary. Whilst the book is obviously set in the mid Victorian era, it never becomes bogged down in replicating the Victorian novel, though it does recreate Victorian London in all its squalor or luxury. I loved the constant switches in protagonist, the way the reader got to see into the deepest and most hidden corner of the characters’ brains and I the plot was incredibly pacy, without being hugely complex. The whole novel builds up to a dramatic episode at the end, but provides no conclusion, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions to a number of incidents.
Brilliant writing, brilliant characters and brilliant plotting.