Post-Modern Victoriana; Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White

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Post-Modern Victoriana; Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the WhiteTitle: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Published by Mariner Books
Published: September 1st 2003
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 901
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

At the heart of this panoramic, multidimensional narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. Faber leads us back to 1870s London, where Sugar, a nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs. Castaway, yearns for escape to a better life. Her ascent through the strata of Victorian society offers us intimacy with a host of lovable, maddening, unforgettable characters. They begin with William Rackham, an egotistical perfume magnate whose ambition is fueled by his lust for Sugar, and whose patronage brings her into proximity to his extended family and milieu: his unhinged, childlike wife, Agnes, who manages to overcome her chronic hysteria to make her appearances during “the Season”; his mysteriously hidden-away daughter, Sophie, left to the care of minions; his pious brother, Henry, foiled in his devotional calling by a persistently less-than-chaste love for the Widow Fox, whose efforts on behalf of The Rescue Society lead Henry into ever-more disturbing confrontations with flesh; all this overseen by assorted preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all stripes and persuasions.

Twenty years in its conception, research, and writing, The Crimson Petal and the White is teeming with life, rich in texture and incident, with characters breathtakingly real. In a class by itself, it's a big, juicy, must-read of a novel that will delight, enthrall, provoke, and entertain young and old, male and female.

Agnes lowers the latest issue of The Illustrated London News to her lap, offended and upset. An article has just informed her that the average English woman has 21,917 days to live. Why, oh why must newspapers always be so disagreeable? Have they nothing better to do? The world is going to the dogs.

Michel Faber’s vast expanse of a novel delves into the life of a nineteen year old prostitute named Sugar. And by vast expanse of a novel, I mean it’s a doorstop. I sometimes felt awkward bringing it with me wherever I went because it’s so large. But it’s one of those novels that doesn’t feel large and impossible at all. It’s so engaging and lush that you very nearly believe you’re right there in 19th century London.

I read The Crimson Petal and the White many, many years ago, before I decided to go for my degree in English and before I really knew anything about post-modernism and Victorian literature. When I read it for the first time, I read it for the historical fiction aspect of the novel. Historical fiction, especially fiction set in England, is one of my favorite things to read, so naturally, a huge one that’s vaguely scandalizing was something meant for me.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of post-modernism, a very concise way to describe it is that there are many truths to one story, that there are different perceptions and ways to know something, and that life is infinitely more complex than our puny human minds could ever fully comprehend. The University of Pennsylvania (found in a link from Wikipedia), in a course description, suggests that

Postmodernism articulates a world that is culturally one of multiplicity, diversity, contingency, fragmentation and rupture and accepts that we now live in a state of perpetual incompleteness and permanent unresolve.  Postmodernism promotes the notion of radical pluralism, many ways of knowing, and many truths. From a postmodern perspective knowledge is articulated from local perspectives, with all its uncertainties, complexity and paradox. This viewpoint suggests that knowledge is relational and that all reality is woven and rewoven on shared linguistic looms.

It’s one of those -isms that can never fully be explained because of the definition itself, but that’s one I particularly enjoy for a semblance of clarity.

Anyway, not to digress too much, Faber touches on this post-modern viewpoint in the terminology of itself and in the fact that one cannot return to Victorian England, so that viewpoint of that time is through the lenses of our own time. We, as readers, cannot help but interject our own views and perceptions of the world upon this as the author imposes his view of the time on us in tandem. The narrator plays with the reader on several occasions, dropping little bits about the state of women in that time and about authorship itself. Both Sugar and William aspire to be authors, but for William it’s an occupation, but for Sugar the prostitute it’s a means to pass the time with hopeful abandon; and Agnes writes vivid accounts in her diaries, which give major insight into her madness, only to discard them in a frantic act. Other characters speak about authorship, being an author, or even comparing their roles in life to roles in a novel throughout the course of the book.

A conversation between a poor man and Henry, William Rackham’s older brother, offers a quip that’s pretty clearly a dig at famous authors like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins:

“You ain’t a norfer, are ye?” he asks.
Henry repeats the strange word to himself silently, straining to divine its meaning.
“I beg your pardon?” he’s obliged to ask.
“Orfer,” repeats the man. “A fellow as writes books about poor men that poor men can’t read.”

Sugar, especially, having spent much of her time reading, compares her new role of governess to roles of governesses she’s explored in the novels she has read (which is a spoiler, my apologies):

Sugar steps back, confused: if she’s so superior in rank to the household servants, where does she get her deep-seated notion that governesses are lowly and despised? From novels, she supposes – but aren’t novels truth dressed up in fancy clothes?

The Crimson Petal and the White offers so much to a variety of readers, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed about it the second time around. My biggest frustration about it is the ending. It’s a bit abrupt, there isn’t much explanation as to why what’s done is done, and in some ways it reads to me as if Faber had to end somewhere otherwise it would continue on and on for ages. He’s apparently published a collection of stories set before and after the novel called The Apple that others have said read like “deleted scenes,” so I think I’ll have to find that in the library for further reading. I’m most desperate to know what happens to Sophie, William and Agnes’ daughter.

There is so much detail to delight in as you read this novel. Faber is a master at weaving those old world ideas and sensibilities with our modern perceptions in this, and you hardly know where one ends and one begins. It’s incredibly enjoyable, and I’m glad it’s my first read of 2016.

And, at the very end (more spoilers, but you’ve already made it this far), we as readers are offered the suggestion that someone we know, perhaps Sugar herself, wrote the novel, giving more rise to the post-modern ideas of authorship:

And to you also: goodbye.

An abrupt parting, I know, but that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?

#RockMyTBR Challenge 2016

Sarah’s #RockMyTBR is a challenge focused on reading all of those books that have been sitting on our shelves for ages! I want to read at least 40 books on my shelves, mostly ones I haven’t read, but a few I have. I want to focus on curating my collection to books I really, absolutely, and totally adore. It’s part of my personal challenge to have less stuff and do more with what I have.

My personal particulars about this challenge is that none of these books can coincide with the other challenges in which I’m participating. They can, however, be books I’ve read before, but I want to keep rereads for this particular challenge to a minimum.

Here’s a partial list of what I plan to read:

  • Harold and Maude, Carol Higgins
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (read it ages ago, want to revisit before reading the second)
  • Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald (personally recommended to me by Julian Barnes)
  • Stoner, John Williams
  • The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
  • From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  • The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

THE OFFICIAL LIST

  1. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber
  2. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket

Flights of Fantasy Challenge 2016

Perhaps I should have made scheduled posts for these, but I’m too excited for my 2016 reading year that I’m getting them all out now! The second blogosphere challenge I’m participating in is the Flights of Fantasy challenge hosted by Alexa and Rachel! There aren’t any categories for this one, but I’m challenging myself to read at least 12 new to me fantasy books (and review them)!

I have a few choices for this challenge, like Anne Lyle’s Night’s Masque series, the rest of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (I’ve only read the first two!), Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street among others! I’ll come back to this post with a tentative list and a final list as books are finished and reviewed!

  1. Moth and Spark – Anne Leonard
  2. Truthwitch – Susan Dennard

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016

I want to have a more focused reading year because 2015 seemed somewhat lackluster and all over the place, so I’m participating in a few challenges in 2016! The first one is the Back to the Classics challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. There are twelve categories, and I think that’s a reasonable amount to do. I have a personal goal to read 24 classics with 12 of them new to me, so this will be a nice challenge in conjunction with it. Aside from the one reread, each of the books read for this challenge will be ones I’ve never read but have always been meaning to read!

Here are the categories:

1. A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

I’m not sure if Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd fits this one as it was revised in the early years of 1900, but as it was first published in the 1870s, I’ll probably count this one toward this point.

2. A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1966. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later.

Because I’m still surprised at myself for never reading his works before, I’ve picked John Steinbeck’s East of Eden for this bit.

3. A classic by a woman author.

There are a few I’d like to read for this bit, so it’s a toss up right now between Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I’ll read you Wuthering Heights for once and for all this year. I’ve tried so many times to finish it, but I’ve never been able to.

4. A classic in translation. Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is fitting the bill for this one.

5. A classic by a non-white author. Can be African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American, etc.

I feel like a terrible reader because I’ve realized lately that I don’t read many works by diverse writers, so I’m going to fix that. For this challenge I’ve chosen James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

6. An adventure classic – can be fiction or non-fiction. Children’s classics like Treasure Island are acceptable in this category.

I think for this one I’ll be reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

7. A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. Dystopian could include classics like 1984, and children’s classics like The Hobbit are acceptable in this category also.

I’ve picked Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for this bit.

8. A classic detective novel. It must include a detective, amateur or professional. This list of books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is a great starting point if you’re looking for ideas.

There are two Sherlock Holmes novels I’ve not read… so it’ll be one of those.

9. A classic which includes the name of a place in the title. It can be the name of a house, a town, a street, etc. Examples include Bleak House, Main Street, The Belly of Paris, or The Vicar of Wakefield.

James Joyce’s Dubliners will fit!

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review.

D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover!

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college). If it’s a book you loved, does it stand the test of time? If it’s a book you disliked, is it any better a second time around?

I read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth for a Women Writers course I took for my undergrad degree, so I think after taking my masters and having a bit more life experience, I’m ready to come back to it for a second time and see if it’s still as striking to me now as it was then.

12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories. It can be an anthology of stories by different authors, or all the stories can be by a single author. Children’s stories are acceptable in this category also.

I have a book of Henry James’ New York Stories, but it’s a bit big, so I might have a look through my collection once it’s unpacked. But as this is a challenge, I’m going to stick to a larger title!

I’m really excited about this challenge, and it’s because I’m excited about reading all of the books. Well, most of them. As mentioned above, Wuthering Heights has always been a challenge for me, but I am determined to finish it this year.

The Keen Rapunzel, Marissa Meyer’s Cress

cress

The Keen Rapunzel, Marissa Meyer’s CressTitle: Cress by Marissa Meyer
Series: The Lunar Chronicles #3
Published by Feiwel & Friends
Published: February 4th 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 550
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 

I first read this book as an e-copy while studying in England, and I plowed through it in a day. I couldn’t bring myself to do much else. I love Rapunzel as a fairy tale. Cress embodies that role perfectly – innocent, yet intelligent and intuitive. She grows throughout the entire book in a way that I never found forced or false. Her budding relationship with Thorne is perfect too. They’re probably my favorite relationship in the series because Thorne (the charming scoundrel) learns to love Cress without being able to see her (and it’s a nice reference to the fairy tale itself with him being blinded after a fall).

One of the things I am really liking about this series is the way Marissa Meyer can add new characters to the plot and not have it feel like those additions are too much or too confusing. Each character adds their own flavor to the story and round it out nicely. On some occasions it does tend to drag out a little bit, which may be the only downside to multiple POVs, and that makes it for a weaker novel if you’re looking at it from a standalone perspective. I honestly cannot wait to see how everything is resolved in the last book!