Novel of the week

The Crimson Petal and the White

Michel Faber <em>Canongate, 833pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 1841953237

Here is a heart-warming story to dispel the first chill of autumn, the tale of a lonely, sensitive child who endures neglect and upheaval in early life, followed in adulthood by gruelling factory work, a broken marriage and near-starvation, yet who, through a combination of perseverance, intelligence and hard work, wins through in the end to find fame, fortune and happiness. And that's just the author.

Michel Faber's personal life is scarcely less romantic in outline than the plot of his second novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, which is already a bestseller in the US. (His first, Under the Skin, was nominated for the Whitbread Prize in 1999. There's also been a well-received collection of short stories, and two novellas.) Faber has been acclaimed as "the new Dickens", credited with having written "the first great 19th-century novel for the 21st century".

True, it is set in 19th-century London, and it does centre on a theme beloved of many Victorian writers, namely the fallen woman. It is also very long, but why that makes it any more 19th-century than John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, or Margaret Forster's Lady's Maid, or Matthew Kneale's English Passengers, I can't think.

It's a good deal more reminiscent of John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in 1748. Both have as their heroines clever young women, sold into prostitution, determined to make the best of it and sleep their way up the social ladder into good marriages as fast as possible. Like Cleland's Fanny, Faber's Sugar is keen to write an account of her profession, but, unlike Fanny's fond memories of her time on the game, Sugar's novel is a violent outpouring of rage, in which one man after another is brutally tortured and killed. There is no indulgent fantasy of shared pleasure here.

True to stereotype, Sugar is cultured and beautiful and before long has secured an exit from the brothel in the shape of William Rackham, a gentleman and businessman, who embodies without a qualm the sexual hypocrisy of his age. Unwilling to share Sugar, he sets her up in private rooms, and later installs her under his own roof as governess to his daughter Sophie. The relationship that develops between Sugar and her young charge (as traumatised by emotional neglect as her teacher has been by other means) is the most moving and successful part of the whole book.

The Crimson Petal and the White is, in many ways, a deeply moral work. Material gains are continually offset by personal losses. William Rackham gains no lasting pleasure from his acquisition of Sugar, can hardly spare time to visit her once he's got her. Gradually, she becomes as surplus to requirements as his pathetic, deranged wife Agnes, doused on laudanum and kept locked in her bedroom. By the end of the novel, he is a wealthy man, the head of a powerful manufacturing empire, yet utterly unable to understand how he forfeited his brother, wife, mistress and daughter along the way.

A sturdy Marxist heart beats beneath the bodice of The Crimson Petal. On every page and level of human intercourse, the spirit of capitalism is shown to be the root of all evil. Of all the stenches the modern world can supply - and this is a novel that teems with descriptions of shit, sweat and spunk - the foulest comes from commerce. A running joke throughout the book is that the Rackham fortune is founded on the manufacture of perfume.

Bad odours suggest moral decrepitude. In the privacy and luxury of the house bought for her by Rackham, Sugar gags on the overpowering scent of red roses, dimly aware that, like the flowers, she has been cut and purchased. Later, the smell of her own diarrhoea threatens to overwhelm her.

The Crimson Petal is a confident, self-conscious, resolutely modern novel. It's a good read (the second half better than the first), and makes explicit all those things about which real Victorian novelists were so frustratingly coy. There's no end of erections and cunts and glistening semen in these pages, and if you ever wondered how prostitutes tried to avoid pregnancy, undid their dresses without the help of maids, or kept their sheets clean, you'll find out here. Only one glaring omission in this respect: not one single word about depilation.

Long as the novel is, the plot is straightforward, the cast of characters small, and, a more serious weakness, despite abundant evidence of historical research in terms of facts, there is no attempt to recreate the rhythms, patterns and idioms of late Victorian thought or speech. A feeling of inauthenticity floats over the whole enterprise, like those costume dramas in which the realism makes the story too modern. An unshakeable coolness to the writing further alienates us from the very lives with which we are meant to engage. Clever, well-crafted and enjoyable this book may be, but Dickens it ain't.

Rebecca Abrams is writing a novel based on the life of Benjamin Disraeli

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Why George no longer loves Tony