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The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Historical Fiction, Harcourt (hardcover), 2002, 838 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

London in the Victorian Era was a cauldron of repressed sexuality and exaggerated class distinctions.  These explosive elements have been fertile ground for artists and social commentators throughout the subsequent century.  From the outmoded prudishness of Sherlock Holmes to the post-modern self-awareness of The French Lieutenant's Woman, from the formulaic crime novels of Anne Perry to the irreverent hijinks of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman, from the encyclopedia wareness of Charles Dickens to the sociological musings of Patricia Cornwall, the interpretation of Victorian values has been a comparative index for the evolving mores that dominate the modern era.

Michel Faber has labored for two decades to add to this body of literature, and has succeeded mightily in this lengthy novel whose core is a clandestine relationship between a perfume magnate and an elegant but "fallen" woman.  The time is the 1870s and William Rackham has taken over his father's thriving perfume business.  Rackham is the perfect epitome of the striving
nouveau riche, with a wife who only thinks of the latest fashion or fad, a daughter closeted away and cared for by surrogates, and a small army of lower class servants who do all the work around his London estate.  A man with this much power and spare time certainly deserves a mistress or three, so Rackham begins prowling the ordure-clogged streets of the East End in
search of working women.  He establishes a deeper relationship with one prostitute named Sugar and soon she is mistress solely to him, kept in a new flat in Marleybone, becoming closer to William than his own wife, Agnes.  Sugar advises him on his business dealings and accompanies him on his travels.

Sugar is also a social climber and now, with time on her hands and money in her pocket, she sets out to delve deeper into Rackham's picture-perfect "society" life.  Sugar follows the deluded Agnes to the opera, befriends servants, and discovers hypocrisy in William's seemingly pious older brother Henry.  Sugar suggests that she be allowed to move in to William's mansion as governess for his neglected daughter Sophie.  In the bosom of the family, Sugar now sees the reality behind the elaborate social fašade.

As the intertwined lives of William Rackham and Sugar, of Sophie and Agnes, of a host of minor characters, continue their march toward an inevitable conclusion, the reader is treated to a multi-layered depiction of Victorian Era prejudice and deception, faith and hypocrisy, repression and obsession.  This is a story told with passion and elegance, yet written from a modern, more open, sensibility.  Faber is the closest novelist I've found to a twentieth century Dickens.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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