Interview with Michel Faber
The Crimson Petal and the White seems to begin with you, the
writer, personally addressing the reader and then leading him or her into the
intimate details of characters and events. The entire effect is somewhat like
voyeurismin effect gazing into a crystal ball to view another's secrets. Did
using this technique help with character development as you, too, stepped back
to view their lives?
It's actually not so easy to figure out whose voice it is that's addressing
you at the startwhether it's the author, or a lady of the night, or the book
itself. Whatever it is, it lures you into the world of 1875 until you're in too
deep to pull out, and then leaves you to fend for yourself. I use the metaphor
of a novel being like a prostitute, promising the reader a good time, promising
intimacy and companionship. Ironically, even though you feel at first that
you're being strung along by this beguiling voice, you do end up getting
everything it promised you. And more, I hope.
I can't agree that the effect is one of 'voyeurism'. Voyeurism implies that
you're watching something from a safe distance, with no emotional involvement
required of you. The Crimson Petal is a very moral and humane book, not
in the least flippant or insincere. Voyeurism is spiritually cold and I try my
best to give all my work genuine warmth.
Q: Your written depictions of the environments, clothing, and social
activities of the people in this world are incredibly visualgraphic even. And
you conducted a great deal of research to achieve this. What sources of
historical material did you find most useful in creating the visual descriptions
of this era?
We're very lucky that the Victorian era was the first age of photography,
because photographs capture so much, including things that the photographer
never meant to capture. Victorian painting has also helped me enormously, plus
of course I've read hundreds of books. In the later rewrites of Petal, I
joined an online forum called VICTORIA, which was superbly helpful. In the end,
though, the Victorian London in my story is a vision from my imagination, in the
same way that the Scottish highlands in my earlier novel, Under The Skin, were a
personal vision. Every writer uses the "real" world as raw material
for creating his or her own universe.
Please explain the underlying meaning of the title of the book, The
Crimson Petal and the White.
It comes from a Tennyson poem that begins "Now sleeps the crimson
petal, now the white". But the poem has no particular relevance to my
story. I like the complexity of associations suggested by crimson and whiteSugar
is a "scarlet woman" but she is mistaken for an angel by Agnes Rackham,
and is also desperate to move into a new life that's respectable and innocent.
Agnes is, by birth and inclination, pure white, but is troubled by the
phenomenon of blood. William uses and destroys petals of both colours in his
profession of perfume manufacture.
The ending of this wonderfully written book is both happy and unhappy.
Does this add more reality to the story than a traditional happy ending or an
In its early versions, the story ended tragically. I was manipulating the
characters like prisoners, knowing full well what their fate would be. As I've
grown older I've come to the conclusion that life doesn't have to be a
deterministic nightmare. I gave Sugar a chance to rescue herself and she took
In The Crimson Petal and the White, you generate remarkable empathy
between reader and characterand not just the main charactersSugar's
prostitute friends, William's carefree writer friends, the maids, the carriage
drivers, the local elite, the pious. All can be pitied, admired, or at the very
least understood. The effect seems to inspire open-armed acceptance of all
creatures. And yet few of the book's characters feel this same "social
acceptance." Is this type of acceptance only possible in a book, or can it
exist outside of "fiction?"
I don't know. One of the most absurd tragedies about us as a species is that
each of us is convinced we're misunderstood, alone, a misfit. There doesn't seem
to be anybody in the world who feels they're what a standard-issue human being
ought to be. Literature reminds us of this paradoxour specialness and our
Interview reproduced by permission of the publisher, Harcourt Books.