A universal theme, rich versus poor, is framed in the Victorian era, when society perfectly mirrors its extremes. Here the most advantaged live in a style befitting their privileged status, the perfection of womanhood buoyed by the superior male intellect. The Victorians fancy themselves at the apex of history, perfect examples of men and women as God intends them to be. Of course the crass underpinnings of this fragile society, the poor, fulfill their own function: grease to turn the wheel that supports the lifestyle of entitlement.
However, nothing is as it seems, and rich men sport with fallen women who wish to belong to the heady world that such men inhabit. Such is the case of Sugar, a well-read prostitute and daughter of a madame. With carefully acquired skills, Sugar is the preferred choice of many customers. Once William Rakham, heir to the Rakham family fortune, has spent time with Sugar, he determines to find a way to keep her for himself, ensconced in private quarters awaiting his pleasures.
Sugar accepts his proposal with pleasure, but soon grows bored with her new luxury and begins to follow William and his wife around town, the better to understand William's needs and interests. She even learns as much as possible about the art of perfumerie, and in fact becomes invaluable with her own business acumen. Much to her surprise, Sugar develops an affinity for the frequently unstable Agnes Rackham, in spite of their economic differences.
A third woman, Emmaline Fox, serves to illustrate another option for women, in this case that of societal do-gooder. A widow dedicated to The Rescue Society, Fox spends her days convincing women of the night to give up their sinful ways, accept religion and begin anew. Fox is the most foolish of all, her Christian temperament blinding her to reality as her own life disintegrates day by day. No matter what their station, Victorian women are severely constrained by Victorian society, and in The Crimson Petal and the White author Michel Faber clearly makes this point again and again.
The novel's pages are filled with authentic detail of the Victorian period. The Rakham's home, servants and accoutrements are replicated in a London that showers the rich with privilege and grandeur while the poor struggle for survival. The truly desperate crowd the underbelly of the city, coexisting with drunkards, con men and assorted criminals. Faber's London is more accessible than that of Dickens, and made all the more familiar as the reader is invited to peer into the windows of his very human characters' homes and observing them in action. Brutal and compassionate, The Crimson Petal and the White contains all the elements of daily drama, hours spent in toil from dawn to dusk or carelessly wasted on drink, dance and endless entertainment. Be forewarned: this is a long novel that requires commitment, its twists and turns only rarely predictable.