The best-seller lists are not, for obvious reasons, packed with Victorian novels, but Michel Faber’s latest, The Crimson Petal & The White revives the form. The book is set in the 1870s, and tells the story of Sugar, a prostitute dragging herself up the ladder to polite society thanks to an association with William Rackham, a perfume magnate with literary pretensions. We also meet Rackham’s sickly spouse Agnes, his neglected daughter Sophie and pious brother Henry, who, in turn, is smitten by Emiline Fox, a campaigner for the rights of fallen women.
This is not, then, a terse thriller, nor a coldly intellectual chunk of postmodernism. So, why did Faber strike out against current literary tastes to craft an historical novel, in both setting and style?
‘I’ve been writing novels since I was a kid,’ he explains, ‘and all the novels I wrote in my early teens would die after ten or forty or a hundred pages, because I would start them in a rush of enthusiasm, and I would think that that momentum would carry me through to the end, but i would get stuck, and that novel would die. Eventually I decided that there had to be a better way of writing a novel than this, and decided to write a Victorian novel, that was completely planned out, like a piece of well laid architecture or something. Everything at the start would reflect something at the end. I would know exactly what happened to every character, and when and where. I had this immensely complicated plan written up for it, virtually down to the paragraphs in the chapters. And it worked, because i finished it.’
It is not The Crimson Petal’s multilayered, at times dizzying plot that leaps from the page, however, but the language. Each of those carefully mapped paragraphs vies with it’s predecessor, with vivid prose, whether describing the sordid ablutions of a back street whore or the curve of a lady’s whalebone corsetry, that conjours up the world inhabited by Sugar and the Rackhams.
‘It’s difficult to get away with that nowadays,’ Faber admits, ‘because American thrillers have had such an influence on what people think good prose is. Everything is meant to be stripped down to the bones. I think Stephen King was quoted as saying, ‘Adverbs are your enemy,’ and there’s this idea that you should remain utterly simple. I think sometimes it’s good to have a big sumptuous meal of prose and really get lost in it, to have all the pictures put on for you, not having to imagine them for yourself, but to have them created by the writing. I thought if i did that in a Victorian novel, then people wouldn’t complain, because that’s what you expect in a Victorian novel.’
The Crimson Petal isn’t simply a window into a lost world; the novel tackles contemporary, and weighty, concerns, and the question of class in particular. ‘For most of my life I have lived in circumstances that other people would describe as poverty,’ Faber says, ‘and I went to university with people who came from backgrounds of great privilege. For me one of the things which drives The Crimson Petal is that clash between the marginalised working class anger of Sugar and the reality of that position when you move away from poverty and realise there are some wonderful things about being middle class. I’ve always been very interested in that journey from a very alienated damaged past towards something that’s more functional, more connected to the rest of humanity.’
While it is, perhaps, dangerous to attempt a psychoanalysis of an author in order to find further meaning in his work, Faber’s interest in that journey from damaged past to functional present is not a theoretical one. The author’s life to date has been unconventional, to say the least. Born in Holland, at the age of seven Faber emigrated, against his wishes, to Australia, and other family members were left behind by his parents. Once in Australia, Faber spent his formative years largely in isolation, without much in the way of human contact. It cannot be a coincidence that The Crimson Petal is a book about outsiders, with every character a fish out of water.
‘I was taken away from Holland and taken to Australia,’ Faber confirms, ‘and even though I’m very happy that I grew up there, it didn’t feel like my home. So, I felt like an alien there, and of course now I’m in Scotland, I don’t fit in here either. There is one experience, one that I’ve been reluctant to bring up, because it might sound like I’m tailoring what I say for the readership of the Big Issue, but I did spend a short time homeless in London, in the early 80s. It was not for very long, but I spent that week sleeping in parks, and in doss-houses. Of course this was in the Thatcher era, so there was a very sharp division between the haves and the have nots, sharper even than now. I wouldn’t exchange that experience for anything, it was difficult but very constructive. I think that experience of the struggle of surviving, of finding a place to sleep and finding something to eat, does inform the early part of the novel.’
‘It’s the most autobiographical book I’ve written,’ he continues,’That sounds bizarre given that it’s a Victorian novel set in 1875, but I think there’s that idea of being very alienated, being on the margins of society, and looking at all those middle class people, those connected people, and saying ‘I hate you all, I despise everything you stand for!’ That was very much me when I was 18 years old. But that energy you get from anger and from pitting yourself against everything that is conventional and benign, it isn’t enough to get you through life. Eventually you do want to be more connected, and accepted. You don’t have the energy any more to hate, to rail against everything. The experience that Sugar has in the book mirrors the growth that i had over the 20 years that i wrote different versions of it.’
With The Crimson Petal & The White, then, Faber has crafted a rich work, taking on a Victorian form, style and setting - which in other hands might have been a mere conceit - and put it to work exploring themes that exercise us today, managing all the while to spin sugary prose, that, at times, takes your breath away. It’s a trite phrase to end on, but if you read one novel this year, this is it.
This interview was first publised in The Big Issue in September, 2002.
You can read the full interview conducted for this piece here.