Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White

"Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether."

So starts "The Crimson Petal and the White", a novel by Michel Faber about 19th century London. I bought this book at Heathrow airport right before I took my plane back to The Netherlands. I still had some pounds left before returning to the continent, so I went into a bookstore and my eye immediately fell on this book. On the cover Romala Garai with red curls and in period costume. "Now a major BBC drama" right above the author's name. Without hesitation I bought it, the fact that it was over 800 pages didn't scare me at all. Still I started reading the book months after I had purchased it. And once I had started, I was hooked.

The book is divided in five different parts: The Streets, The House of Ill Repute, The Private Rooms and the Public Haunts, The Bosom of the Family, and The World at Large.
When you start reading the book you will feel as if you've suddenly appeared in Victorian and an unknown person is guiding you through the city, making clear that you will have to start at the bottom of society. Your journey starts at Church Lane, St Giles. The first person you "meet" here is a prostitute named Caroline. And soon enough you get the picture of a 19th century prostitute. You could call this novel somewhat the opposite of Jane Austen's work. If you are familiar with her work you'll perhaps have an idea of the 19th century as sunny and friendly. In Faber's book you can almost smell the filth of Church Lane, you can feel the darkness. For a "fallen woman" in Victorian London, life is anything but a pretty picture.

After learning a bit about Caroline's life you soon meet the person which the novel is mostly about: Sugar. Just as Caroline, she is a prostitute. But Sugar stands out from the other "fallen women". She is a smart girl who reads an awful lot and soon knows how to use this in her advantage. She is working on her own book, a story of revenge.

By the time you reach chapter three you meet William Rackham. The son of a perfumer who refuses to persue his father's career and rather wants to be a writer. He thinks it would be far less troublesome if his father would just sell the company so he can life happily off the allowance. In fury, Mr Rackham has cut off William's allowance entirely and William has become a somewhat miserable figure. When most London prostitutes can't satisfy William's needs, he hears about Sugar and meets her in the Fireside.

Only after their first encouter William has already grown very fond of Sugar and wants her all for his own. And Sugar is clever enough to use William Rackham to climb the social ladder.
Slowly you'll meet more and more people of William's family and aqcuintance. Agnes Rackham, his sick, delusional wife. His strongly religious brother Henry Rackham and Henry's good friend, Mrs Fox, just to name a couple.

I don't want to spoil too much about the story because I highly reccomend you to read this book. Because of the way it's written, it'll keep you curious about what happens next and who you will meet. Once you start reading, you will be hooked, and those 800 pages won't even seem that much. The characters are all very detailed, which is what I like most about the book.

Now the BBC has made the novel come to life onto the small screen. The mini series has four episodes to tell you the story about Sugar, William, Agnes and the other characters. 800 pages. 4 episodes. You see the problem. You can NEVER put everything from the book into 4 episodes. So the series kind of lack the depth and character developement of the book. But this is the case with almost every book turned into a film or series. So I'm not too bothered with that. And the series makes up for that, because the visuals are really stunning. As I mentioned before, Faber has written his novel in such a way that you can almost smell the filth and feel the darkness, and also in the series has done this perfectly.

The first episode starts immediately off with Sugar, instead of meeting Caroline first that like in the book. You see Sugar walk through Silver Street and Church Lane to visit a friend, a prostitute who has been attacked and then dies of her injuries. When Sugar descends the stairs, Mrs Fox from the rescue society comes to visit and help the prostitute and Sugar tells her in a low voice "Too late, she's dead." A light-hearted story? No it is not.

Nothing but praise for the actors. Romala Garai, known for her role of Jane Austen's Emma, portrais Sugar perfectly. Another outstanding role is Gillian Anderson as Mrs. Castaway. William Rackham is played by Chris O'Dowd, Amanda Hale plays Agnes Rackham and Shirley Henderson as Emmeline Fox.

I reccomend reading the books first and then watch the series. In that way, the series is a great addition to the book but you still know everything about the characters that isn't mentioned or developed in the series.

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