The Crimson Petal and the White

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The Crimson Petal and the White
Author Michel Faber
Publisher Canongate (UK)
Harcourt (US)
Publication date
Pages 864
ISBN 978-1-84195-323-6
OCLC 315627914

The Crimson Petal and the White is a 2002 novel by Michel Faber set in Victorian England.

The title is from an 1847 poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson entitled "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal", the opening line of which is "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white."

Publication history[edit]

The novel was published (by Canongate) in hardback in the UK in 2002, with a paperback edition following the next year. Canongate also published 'The Apple', a selection of short stories based on characters from 'The Crimson Petal and the White', in 2006.

Plot synopsis[edit]

The novel details lives of two very opposite Victorian women, Agnes and Sugar, and the linchpin on whom they revolve: William Rackham.

William, the unwilling and somewhat bumbling heir to a perfume business, is a businessman of moderate success and little self-awareness.

He married the exquisitely doll-like Agnes, who embodies the Victorian 'female ideal' of naive femininity, for her beauty though he barely knew her. Kept completely in the dark on sexual matters, Agnes' diaries express utter confusion over events like menstruation (she believes a demon returns periodically to 'bleed' her), pregnancy, sex, or childbirth: she does not even acknowledge her young daughter, Sophie. Sophie, who takes after her father, is very carefully kept far from her mother's sight by the household staff, who otherwise disregard Agnes' desires and ignore her. Outside of the house, few know of Agnes' madness, who presents herself as an inveterate hostess and socialite to the world during each season.

William soon becomes obsessed with a worldly young prostitute named Sugar, an unconventionally intelligent and strong-willed young woman who uses the affair with William to climb to a higher perch in the rigidly stratified class system of the time. William purchases Sugar from her madame and sets her up in a luxurious flat of her own, where he regularly visits her on his terms. Sugar has been a prostitute since the age of 13 and views sex as a living, not a pleasure, with no physical act too taboo. She is resentful of her reliance on William's (and men in general's) favour and indulges her fantasies about harming her and her fellow prostitute's clients in an explicitly gruesome novel of revenge erotica she pens in her spare time as she works to maintain William's continued interest using both her body and her mind.

As William's fortunes climb from Sugar's excellent business acumen, Agnes becomes increasingly eccentric. William eventually decides to move Sugar into his household, hidden as a member of his staff. Sugar is designated as Sophie's governess and grows to genuinely love the girl as her own even as Agnes' mind begins to spiral into hallucinations of angels and William retreats to the man's world of his business dealings.

The book culminates in William losing all after having long and obliviously neglected the needs of the three women. A baffled William is left alone as both Agnes and Sugar leave him to pursue their desires in an ambiguous and open ending.

Other characters include Henry Rackham, William's pious brother who wants to be a clergyman, and his obsession and obstacle to the cloth, Emmeline Fox, a widow who works in the Rescue Society which tries to reform prostitutes.


The novel is told from the perspective of all of the main characters, and the omniscient narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly. There is also a meta-literary aspect, as Sugar is working on her own novel, Henry writes sermons, and Agnes keeps a diary.


The novel was generally well received by critics, with one review calling it 'supremely literary' and describing the quality of the writing as 'dizzyingly accomplished'.[1]

In other media[edit]

In 2010, the BBC announced the production of a four-part miniseries based on the novel; viewing started in April 2011. The adaptation's cast includes Romola Garai, Chris O'Dowd, Gillian Anderson, Richard E. Grant, Shirley Henderson, Amanda Hale, Mark Gatiss, Tom Georgeson and Liz White; it was adapted by Lucinda Coxon and directed by Marc Munden.[2] The director of photography was Lol Crawley.

It was referenced in the Gilmore Girls episode "The Reigning Lorelai."[citation needed]


  1. ^ Hughes, Kathryn (28 Sep 2002). "Review: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber | Books | The Guardian". The Guardian (London: GMG). ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 5 December 2012. 
  2. ^ "BBC Two - The Crimson Petal and the White". 2012. Retrieved 5 December 2012. 

External links[edit]