The Crimson Petal and the White

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

The Crimson Petal and the White
The Crimson Petal and the White.jpg
AuthorMichel Faber
PublisherCanongate (UK)
Harcourt (US)
Publication date

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 historyEdit

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 synopsisEdit

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. Since she has been 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 (though knowledge of it spreads during the length of the story), 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 (Sugar's own mother) 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. Agnes catches sight of Sugar around the property and becomes convinced that Sugar is her angel come to take her to the Convent of Health.

The book culminates in William losing all after having long and obliviously neglected the needs of the two women. The day before Agnes is to be moved to an asylum on the orders of William, she runs away in search of the Convent of Health on the advice of Sugar, who indulges Agnes' fantasy that she is her angel. A body is later found in the river Thames, which William believes is Agnes but that Sugar has reason to believe is not that of Agnes. After Agnes' supposed death, it is implied that William is considering courting another woman of his station rather than marrying Sugar. Sugar discovers that she has become pregnant by William and before she is able to end the pregnancy by jumping down the stairs of the house, the doctor (the same doctor who was implied to be sexually abusing Agnes) discovers the pregnancy and reports it to William. William dismisses Sugar from the household in a letter. Sugar, having grown fond of Sophie and convinced William will not care for her, takes Sophie with her when she leaves. The end implies that William never finds Sophie, Sugar or Agnes.

Other characters include Henry Rackham, William's pious brother who wants to be a clergyman, and his obsession and obstacle to the cloth, and 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 mediaEdit

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.


  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.

Gilmore Girls: Season 4, Episode 16 ‘Emily Gilmore’ mentions ‘Sugar’ being a prostitute who meets some vivid characters.

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