I broke my general rule with this one, watching the television adaptation before I read the book. Occasionally I find myself disappointed when an adaptation proves better than the book - not this time. Faber's mammoth book can only be described as a masterpiece of historical fiction though, admittedly, it's not for everybody.
The Crimson Petal and the White tells the story of Sugar, a prostitute desperate to escape the lower levels of London and work her way up. She encounters William Rackham, the heir to a successful business he wants nothing to do with. His wife, Agnes, is labelled as mad by most; his brother, Henry, is desperate to become a clergyman but is also struggling with his desire to commit sins of the flesh with Mrs Emmeline Fox. Sugar manoeuvres her way into William's life then his affections and business dealings and then his home as she takes up the post of governess to his young daughter, Sophie. She proves herself to be invaluable but the fragile life she's acquired threatens to fall apart very easily.
Firstly, there are a couple of things I disliked about the book. The intrusive narrator is a personal dislike of mine and being pulled along by this voice and told what I'm seeing and what I will be seeing was a tad irritating. I can forgive it in Victorian-era texts but not modern texts apparently! My second issue was how much the book traded on the salacious aspects to come in the following pages. Yes, there are many sex scenes and lurid descriptions but as the novel progresses they become fewer as the characters come into their own. The salaciousness leads to a real story and I don't think the hype in the early chapters was necessary to hook the reader in.
What did I love about it? Brilliantly evoked characters, starting with incidental prostitute Caroline all the way up to Sugar and William Rackham themselves. Even the servants of the Rackham household had personalities of their own. My favourite characters were, however, the characters I'd favoured most in the adaptation - Henry Rackham and Emmeline Fox. Emmeline's descent into despair following Henry's death is one of the most interesting representations of grief I've read, certainly worthy of the character and the story. Agnes's chaotic personality was depicted well, while William's dependency colours his character throughout. Sugar shines brightly but is wonderfully consistent, even as her life changes around her.
London is, of course, a character and a detailed one at that. There's nothing laboured about the description of the setting, however, and every reference to the surroundings feels in-keeping with the particular scene. One thing I was unsure about in the adaptation was Sugar's friendship with her young charge, Sophie, which leads to the novel's climax. The novel made this much more believable, with Sugar's connection growing more naturally than it seemed to in the adaptation. Equally, her attitude towards Agnes feels more believable in print.
The trouble with a book like this is that it has to end. Even at 800+ pages it feels too short. Faber has created such an intricate web of character relationships that I wanted to follow them as far as I could. A riveting book till the end, beautifully recreating the London of the nineteenth century.