‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and the Complex Heroine

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber, may be my favorite book of all time, besides some choice classics. I’ve written about this lush, transporting tome before, but for the past couple weeks I’ve been re-reading it (again), and I’m surprised by how much I still learn from it every time I pick it up. It’s taught me about the world a woman lives in and how her choices and determination and kindness affect others. It’s taught me about the importance and relevance of writing a complex female heroine. And that’s who Sugar is.

Sugar is one of the best female heroines I’ve ever read. She’s a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian London who’s gained a reputation for giving men the best experience, a reputation that has allowed her to move from St. Giles, a London slum, to Silver Street, the “middle-class,” so to speak. Sugar has a harrowing childhood history, having been forced into prostitution when she was only 13 by her own mother. She’s not typically attractive: she’s tall, “scrawny,” flat-chested, and she has ichthyosis, a severe form of psoriasis that makes her entire flesh cracked and rough. But she’s brilliant, well-read, charming to a fault, and filled with a white-hot anger for the world. “God damn God, and all His horrible filthy Creation” is her oft-repeated motto, and on her days off, she writes a novel in which the heroine, her namesake, slowly and sadistically murders the men who have taken advantage of her over the years. All Sugar wants to do is escape, which is so understandable for someone like her, a survivor, a warrior, and she finds her way out when she meets a man named William Rackham.

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Rackham, a cowardly man of complex, sometimes paradoxical character, falls in love with Sugar and makes her his mistress, removing her from Silver Street and moving her into an apartment in Marylebone, and then he makes her the governess to his daughter. As Sugar moves up through the strata of this labyrinthine late-Victorian society, she comes to terms with the person she’s become, and the person she wants to be. I’m constantly held in thrall to Sugar, and to her complexities.

Sugar is at once nurturing, cutthroat, compassionate, impatient, self-loathing, confident, scared, courageous, insecure, calculating and passionate, and she is as real as you or me. On Silver Street, she’ll tell a man anything to make him love her, and do anything to keep him paying. When she is esconced as a mistress in Marylebone, she falls victim to bouts of self-doubt and insecurity, constantly afraid that William will stop loving her and either dump her back onto the streets, or else kill her. She begins to feel true affection for William as well, and must reform her long-held beliefs that all men are beasts. She also uses her brilliance to spy on William and his troubled wife Agnes, following them to balls and theatres, eager to use any knowledge she gleans to make sure she never loses her status. Sugar must be cunning to rise out of the gutter in which she was born. But it’s when Sugar is appointed governess to William’s daughter Sophie that she learns the most about herself, and finds liberation in becoming a virtual mother to a six-year-old girl.

Lately, Sugar has been confounded, even disturbed, but how intensely physical her feelings for Sophie have become. What began, on her arrival in the Rackham house, as a determination to do her hapless pupil no harm, has seeped from her head into her bloodstream and now pumps around her body, transmuted into a different impulse entirely: the desire to infuse Sophie with happiness.”

Sugar’s character is also interesting when set aside Agnes Rackham, the wife of William. Agnes is a little bit “mad,” and when she sees Sugar loitering around her property (trying to glean details about William’s life), Agnes believes Sugar is her guardian angel. Agnes is the perfect image of female, the “ideal” in every way: she is curvy yet slim and petite, has alabaster skin and big, blue eyes, grace, charm, beauty, and every other asset you’ve come to understand as the “perfect woman.” Against Agnes, Sugar feels both superior in intelligence and cripplingly inferior in appearance. Sugar both cares for and loathes Agnes in turns, but both women are complex, and function as a way to break down the virgin/whore dichotomy. Agnes is the typical virginal woman, but she can also be cruel and shallow. And Sugar is both an angel (to Agnes) and a whore (to William) but she’s also a mother, a daughter, a “fallen woman,” an intelligent writer, and the ultimate hero with the ultimate hero’s journey. Reading about Sugar makes apparent the need for complex female heroines in all stories from sitcoms to literature, to erase the notion that a woman must be an “ideal,” or that she is either a whore or an angel. Sugar is both, at once, literally.

It’s a long book—830ish pages—but it’s so completely worth the time. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn about a slice of Victorian history, if you want to read about sexual politics, and especially if you want to read an interesting, complex portrait of a young woman trying desperately to find her place in a hostile world.


Buy the book here: The Crimson Petal and the White at Wordery.com.

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  • I haven’t read this book but I saw the mini series and I loved it. I really liked her as a character.
    Amazing post!