Tag Archives: Victorian England

The Crimson Petal and the White

7263Before I read this book, I heard rumblings that it was unsatisfactory. This seemed weird, because the front and back cover were filled with critical praise. And it’s a lovely long book, set in the 1870s. My novels are set in the 1870s, so I was excited to read this one.

The book spans, in Dickensian fashion, nearly 900 pages and begins with the lowest dregs of society (whores near St. Giles) before taking the reader through the middling neighborhoods to the upper echelons (ladies enjoying the London season, the newly created ‘suburbs’ of Notting Hill). Though there are many characters, two are the most important.

William Rackham. At university, he was a dandy and an intellectual. As he grows older, he is intensely dissatisfied with his life. His wife is mentally ill and hates him, his father will no longer pay his expenses if William does not begin to be responsible for the family business, Rackham Perfumeries, and he’s had no great success in his attempted literary career. He is mediocre to the nth degree. Until he meets Sugar.

Sugar is a prostitute. Her mother roped her into that life when she was a tween, and it’s all she’s known since. She is unique for a whore of this era, because she is (self-)educated, and she knows how to manipulate men emotionally as well as physically. She is thoroughly unimpressed with William when she first meets him, but he is utterly taken with her. She hates men and is working on a novel about a prostitute (named Sugar) who disembowels the most pathetic of the species.

After their first night together, William decides to turn his life around. To stop dithering and to take over the family business, to make a large fortune, and to spend a good deal of it on Sugar. Within a few weeks, he’s paying for the privilege to be her only client. His fortunes continue to rise with her careful stroking of his ego (and his other parts), and her advice on matters of business and etiquette. A month or so later, he has moved her from her dingy whorehouse to her own private abode.

There’s a lot going on in the book, and a lot to wrap your mind around. William’s wife, Agnes, was raised to be the female ideal. That means she is pretty, naive, and plays the piano. It also means she has no knowledge of sex, and doesn’t understand why she bleeds every month. She thinks it’s a demonic affliction. She has similar feelings toward her baby girl.

Sugar, on the other hand, has grown up with experiences of everything vile (death, disease, poverty) and everything sexual (she’s been a prostitute since she was 13, and has a reputation for never saying no to any sexual act).

In the end, as you might expect, both female characters inspire far more empathy than William. William is a blundering, selfish, disloyal villain of a man. His least likable quality is that he feels he’s accidentally pushed into these situations where he hurts the women in his life.  But he’s not. He chooses to be a complete ass, and attempts to explain it away with any available excuse. Pitiful.

The narrative style is engaging, and the writing is good. Technically good. I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t over or understimulated to the point of distraction. The characters were realistic and relatable, very fully developed. (WordPress, why do you insist that relatable is not a word when it is a completely cromulent one? Why are you now insisting that cromulent is not a word?)

So what is keeping me from writing a glowing review? Two things.

1) The Ending. It was nonexistent.

Agnes departs the story about 70% through, and we’re never entirely certain what happened to her. We get the beginning of a denouement between Sugar and William, but then we’re left to fill in the blanks ourselves. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help wondering what the real point had been.  Why start the story where it started and end it where it ended? What was this story saying?  After 900 pages, you don’t want to feel that way.

2) The strange and constant fixation on bodily fluids.

Here’s the thing about fiction. You’re taking a huge data set (all things you know about the world) and you’re editing. You’re taking out what’s unimportant, and leaving in only what furthers your story. This can mean you take out the guy standing in line at the grocery checkout. Or it can mean you leave in the checkout line, when the guy has a complete meltdown because the lady in front of him has more than 10 items in her basket and how dare she.  It depends on the story. But there are a few almost universally omitted things.  Like trips to the toilet.

How many times do Jane Austen’s characters mention a chamber pot?  Did anyone from the Great Gatsby stop to pee? What about the Hunger Games? How on earth did they go to the bathroom while attempting to not be killed?

Why do writers omit it? Because it detracts from the story. It’s not important, it’s just something that has to be done. It only makes its way into the story if it’s suddenly significant. The shower scene in Psycho, the heinously awful scene in Trainspotting that nearly made me sick, and I can’t even think of a third one.

In addition to detracting from the story, it also conflicts with the purpose of the characters. They are simulacra; they are not human. The purpose of a book’s characters is to help us understand humanity, not to accurately capture humanity. You don’t need to know that the character sneezed (unless the character is sick), or that they have something stuck in their teeth (unless they’re on a first date!). Their humanity is exposed only when it is in service to the story. The rest of the time, it isn’t present.

This author, Michael Faber, does not approach literature this way. He is somewhat obscenely fascinated with body fluids. There were many descriptions of the sound, smell, and sensation of someone (usually women) emptying their bladders or their bowels. There were many mentions of the slippery dribbles of semen down women’s thighs. There was a particularly grotesque scene depicting a woman having a miscarriage on a public toilet.

The worst part, for me, was descriptions of the red inflamed skin of the vulva of a young girl, because she habitually wets the bed.

I’m not a prudish person, in general. I’m not overly fond of raucous humor, but I am not the type of person to pretend I don’t have a human body. And a human body sometimes means unfun things, like bogeys and belches and menstruation. But this was too much for me. It made me uncomfortable, by the end of the book. And it served absolutely no purpose, that I could tell. The miscarriage was obviously a ‘plot point’, but is there some reason I needed to know that the maid scrunched up her nose at the smell of diarrhea on the 3rd day the governess was in the house? No.  Did I need to have my attention directed to the vulva of a young girl? No.

It was creepy. It was unnecessary. I’m not in favor of censorship, I’m not saying this should be taken off the shelves. But…I wouldn’t recommend reading it. It’s more scatological than it is meaningful. Although if you have a fetish for urine or feces, this might be just the book for you.

There is a miniseries. It came out in 2011 and stars Chris O’Dowd plays William Rackham.

the_crimson_petal_and-the_whiteThough I’m sure they’ve removed much of the strangely biological portions, I’m still afraid to watch it. I adore Chris O’Dowd, particularly since Moone Boy, and since I saw him on Broadway in Of Mice and Men. I’m not sure I can handle watching this. I’m working up my courage, but no promises.

 

Enola Holmes series

I came across these books while searching for some new historical fiction to read.  They are middle grade level, which can sometimes be quite tiresome as the characters are oversimplified for the children that read them.  I was pleasantly surprised by these books however.  It’s not Proust or anything, but I enjoyed reading them and they fed my current obsession with Sherlock Holmes.  Nancy Springer, the author, has been nominated for a few Edgar Awards, so that is always a good sign!

First, let me say to anyone who thinks it’s ridiculous for a grown woman to read books for children: 1-I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading ‘children’s’ books. 2-Many of the classics of English literature have teen/tween protagonists–David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Scout Finch, Holden Caulfield. 3-I think to keep your interest and imagination as a reader (and as a writer), it’s vital to embrace variety.  Last month, I reread Slaughterhouse Five and finished two modern classics that were challenging and rewarding intellectually.  But it’s also important to view reading as entertainment.  I went through a period in my life where I only read things that were intellectually challenging, and in the end you are burnt out and you don’t want to read anymore.  I like to switch between challenging works and works that are rewarding and entertaining.  These books fall, as do most of the YA I read, into the latter category.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, on to my review!

I was a bit skeptical of these books when I heard the premise: Enola Holmes is the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft.  In the first book, The Case of the Missing Marquis, Enola’s mother walks out of the house on her birthday and doesn’t come back.  Mycroft tries to enroll Enola in a restrictive boarding school, a harsh change after a carefree youth spent in the country, so Enola runs away.

The thing that I ended up really loving about these books–besides the kickass covers–is Enola herself.  She’s 14 when the first book starts, but she is incredibly smart, brave, and honest about her feelings.  She’s a really rare type of heroine and I liked her immediately.  She has the fragility of every 14-year old girl, but she is incredibly self-aware for her age.

She spends the next three books trying to evade her brothers as they search for her, and also trying to fulfill her dream of becoming a ‘scientific perditorian’ or a seeker of things lost. She solves a mystery in each book, though I have to say that her mystery solving is less exciting to me than the fun/challenge of outwitting her brothers. She idolizes Sherlock, but she refuses to fit into the restrictive feminine life that would be her fate if she turned herself over to her brothers.  Because of Victorian law, she cannot control her own destiny until she is 21 years old, so they could do anything they want with her, regardless of her feelings.

Enola has two huge advantages that her brothers don’t really get.  One-she is a female.  She understands things about female life that they would never know.  For example, when she is preparing to run away, she stocks ‘bust enhancers’ and other corset accessories meant to augment a lady’s shape with things like money and food, extra clothes, etc. Ladies of the time had a lot more hiding and pretense in their lives than men did, nor did most men (particularly her bachelor brothers) know how much artifice goes into making a woman beautiful.  She uses that to her advantage.  Two-she is habitually underestimated.  Her brothers always see that she must be desperately in trouble because she is a young girl in the big bad world.  An example: Sherlock attempts to lure her to meet him at one point by sending her a message supposedly from their mother.  She sees through his ploy, and takes the opportunity of breaking into 221B Baker Street while she knows he is off trying to catch her.  She is able to repeatedly slip out from the fingers of both her brothers because she knows how to disguise herself, and because she devotes a lot of time to thinking about what they might be thinking about her.  As I said, she is very self-aware.  She knows they think her an unattractive young girl with a beaky nose, so she disguises herself as a beautiful woman at one point, and fools them both utterly.  It’s a rare 14-year-old that can think of herself so objectively.

Obviously, these books are not for everyone.  But as someone obsessed with Victorian London, going through an extreme Sherlock Holmes phase, and always in the mood for YA Historical Fiction, they were perfect for me.  They are short, quick, and give you a really good perspective on some aspects of Victorian England not usually seen in more straightforward novels.  A lot of fiction from that time was made by men or does not include some ubiquitous parts of society, like the different colors of sealing wax women used to seal letters–each had a meaning, apparently.  I liked the attention to detail, the quick format, and I really loved the heroine.

There are 6 books total, but I have only read the first three so far: The Case(s) of the Missing Marquess, Left-Handed Lady, and the Bizarre Bouquets. The first book mostly revolves around Enola’s escape from her brother’s plans for her, though she is also looking for the eponymous Marquess.  The second book involves another missing noble, a lady who secretly drew portraits of London’s poorest occupants.  The third book revolves around John Watson going missing, and Enola’s attempts to help find him. In each book, she also has to avoid her brothers, always searching for her. I’m looking forward to reading the next three once I order them from Amazon–I haven’t been able to find them in local bookstores.