Past and present
International author mixes the Victorian and the modern
We invite you, dear readers, to peruse the pages of The Crimson Petal and the White, a deliciously Dickensian jaunt through Victorian London that smacks of the city's seedier quarters. Full of scheming whores, surly servants, simpering society ladies and smartly dressed gents, the book's as rollicking, bawdy and brilliant a yarn as aught that's come out of the Empire since Mrs. Brown sat upon the throne. So settle your specs upon your nose, keep a cup of tea by your knee and take up Michel Faber's tale. We promise Petal will not disappoint.
Indeed, Faber's newest novel, a large-scale historical set piece that unfolds over 800-plus pages, is (pardon the pun) worth the weight. At once an old-fashioned entertainment and fiction of the highest order, it's a profound and eloquent exploration of class and gender in Victorian-era society whose implications will resonate with modern readers. The book marks another innovative move for Faber, whose last novel Under the Skin a genre-busting narrative about an alien from outer space was hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Backpedaling a couple of centuries, Petal follows a large cast of classic British characters, at the center of which is Sugar, a smart, seductive 19-year-old prostitute who insinuates herself into the life of a wealthy perfumer named William Rackham. The self-absorbed William, driven by his lust for Sugar, pursues her with an air of lordly entitlement. She soon steals his heart, becoming privy to his business and family affairs.
And what a family it is. Henry Rackham, William's devoutly religious brother, harbors feelings for Mrs. Emmaline Fox, a scandalously independent, good-hearted widow who ministers to London's lower classes. And then there's Agnes, wife of William, the consummate Victorian lady, delicate, nervous, dependent and completely deranged. Faber skillfully juggles these intersecting lives and multiple points of view to create a compelling social novel a narrative bolstered by his uncanny ability to channel female voices and his knowledge of London's Byzantine streets.
Faber, who was born in the Netherlands in 1960, wrote the first draft of the novel 22 years ago, composing on a typewriter and correcting errors with paint, scissors and glue. But he set the novel aside, fearing no one in the publishing industry would bother with the ragged manuscript. Revising the book after two decades has enabled him to fully explore the complexities of class and custom in an age of ornate social ritual, an era when private desires simmered beneath public facades. BookPage recently corresponded with the author, who says shuffling between bed and computer while at work on Petal has left him disinclined to begin another novel. These days, short stories occupy his time.
The Crimson Petal and the White was recently serialized in the British newspaper The Guardian, which posted each episode on the web. Did it feel odd to send your work out into cyberspace in this way?
Michel Faber: I haven't traveled into cyberspace to see it. I wrote it for myself, on paper. And I'm sure that if my work is destined to survive, it will survive on thin slices of tree, not as digital impulses flitting around in computers. Giving people a taste of my novel on the Internet is fun, but Bill Gates' dream of a future where books no longer exist is the sort of folly that only someone who doesn't appreciate literature could conceive. Books are meant to be held and taken to bed.
You've said that Petal combines the richness of Victorian prose with some of the effects that have been rendered possible in modern prose." What modern touches/effects do you feel you brought to the book, specifically?
The pace and density of the prose varies according to how fast I want the narrative to move. If you read Victorian pulp fiction the so-called penny dreadfuls" you'll find they're still a lot more verbose and ponderous than the spare, swift narratives of modern thrillers. In Petal, I could move from Dickensian richness to Chandleresque sparseness, as long as I handled the transition so smoothly that it wasn't obtrusive. Another way in which Petal is utterly modern is in its social, political and psychological perspective. The story maintains the seductive illusion that it's unfolding in 1875, but a lot of its insights are based on what we've learned since then, about feminism, child abuse and so on. Obviously the book is also much more sexually explicit than any Victorian novel was free to be.
You started the novel 22 years ago and put it away. What made you decide to have another go at it?
The first version of Petal was very grim, with Sugar getting crushed under the heel of Fate at the end, like a tragic Hardy heroine. I decided to give her more freedom, to give her a chance to be happy. In fact, I gave all the characters freedom to grow and develop. The original architecture of the book was sound enough to permit this.
Where did the idea of Sugar come from? With her intellect and wisdom, she makes William and most of the other men in the book look foolish.
Like Isserley [the alien heroine] in Under the Skin, Sugar isn't as clever and together as she imagines she is. She's sharp and well-read and resourceful, but there's a lot she needs to learn. Her potential, and the emotional damage that threatens to kill that potential, are among the more autobiographical aspects of the book.
You were born in the Netherlands, moved to Australia and now live in Scotland. How did these moves shape your sense of the world and the concept of home, and how have they influenced your writing?
I don't feel I have a home anywhere, which may be why some of my characters are so seriously alienated from their environment. Sugar and William are pretty much at home in London, though. If a story requires its characters to have roots, I give them roots. Authors have no right to impose their own screw-ups onto stories where they don't belong. Each story knows what's best for it, if the author will only listen.
I spoke only Dutch until I was seven, and in my shock at being dumped in an alien country I probably learned English better than I needed to. However, I think it's possible to make too much of this idea that having to cope with a language change at a tender age leads one to have certain notions about communication. I think it's family life, not nationality, that creates your sense of whether communication is difficult or easy, safe or treacherous.
Speaking of communication, we're curious about your reluctance to do phone interviews. Would you care to comment?
When we communicate by letter/email, we know what the limitations are and we allow for them. Telephones are evil because they encourage you to imagine that you're having a real conversation, when really you're hearing disembodied noises coming out of a plastic doodad.