First of all, can we appreciate what a cool title ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is? Not only an incredible title, its so evocative when you’ve read the story and begin to understand the two polar opposites to be found in this book.
William Rackham is the younger son of a successful business owner, poised to take the helm of the company over his pious elder brother. As the book goes on, we are introduced to William’s wife Agnes, completely in denial about the birds and the bees, a little bit unhinged and unstable and generally rather helpless. William, as seems to be the Victorian man’s way, seeks passion elsewhere and hears of the mysterious ‘Sugar’, a 19 year old prostitute at ‘Mrs Castaway’s’ who ‘will do anything’ for a man. They’re coy about what this is, for the purposes of the repressed Victorian age this novel falls in.
The novel develops in complexity over its 800 odd pages, but I loved every moment of it. I love this contrast between the seedier side of this Victorian London underground and the pure, childish innocence that comes from Agnes – remember what I was saying about the Crimson Petal and the White as a title? This for me is its main contrast between the two female leads.
The characters are all so complex and deep and the narrative weaves a wonderful web in between William’s ‘charming’ friends, his brother Henry’s struggles with ‘carnal’ thoughts in his pious, guilty mind and Sugar’s desire to find something better for herself and how close she gets to the people around her.
I’m not sure whether by the end you were supposed to be feeling sorry for Sugar or hating her, I guess a bit of both? She had done a lot wrong in life, particularly as the book began to close, but she did feel genuinely guilty about a lot of her actions, and those actions themselves seemed to stem from love more than malice.
Overall a great venture into gender, religion and madness in Victorian London. A delicate and painstaking climb before an epic crescendo and an admittedly abrupt ending.