Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Manufacturer, his Wife, her Angel, and his Whore

I’m about to write a review of a novel I finished at the weekend. First I want to say a word or two about book reviewers, or rather about the Grub Street hacks that George Orwell conjured up in his essay Confessions of a Book Reviewer. I’ve no idea if this is an accurate portrait or not, but the brush strokes are bold and the colours vivid.

There he is, that poor debased soul, paid by the word, sent a package of books, some of impossible length, all to be dissected within the tightest possible deadline. It’s important not to be too negative because the reviewer’s income, and part of the income of the paper or journal he writes for, depends on the goodwill of publishers and the indulgence of readers. So, out come the clichés, all marching to order:

Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases — ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc. etc.’ — will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetizing books will have arrived by post. So it goes on. And yet with what high hopes this downtrodden, nerve-racked creature started his career, only a few years ago.

I rarely come to books on fist publication. By the time I buy my copy - most often in paperback - they have been gutted and filleted, with the choicest cuts laid out, as on a fishmonger’s slab, across the outside and inside covers. Nothing negative, you understand; no, it’s hyperbole here, superlative there, all slightly hysterical stuff about the best book ever written.

Sometimes it becomes laughable in the weight of sheer absurdity. A year or so ago I read The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Second World War epic, a grossly overrated novel which one reviewer, in a transport of banal stupidity, compared with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Now I hold another in my hand, Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, the book I've finished, a novel of Victorian times, which might conceivably have appeared under the title The Manufacturer, his Wife, her Angel, and his Whore. The reference here is, of course to The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, a movie directed by Peter Greenaway.

The praise is lavish, all the best fillets from the most glowing reviews. It’s ‘a cracking read’, ‘wildly entertaining’, ‘unbelievably pleasurable’, ‘a masterpiece’, ‘an epic’, ‘extremely sophisticated’, ‘alluringly readable’, and so on and so blah and so blah. Some of the reviewers are named, not all Orwell’s literary proletariat by any means.

Yes, I came late, and I confess a certain weary cynicism has set in, a strong temptation to shout “Look, see; the emperor has no clothes; he’s naked”, all in my childish naïveté. No, what I will say is that this is an indifferent big book, over eight hundred pages, with a good small book struggling to get out.

So, there you have it, the little girl’s view: The Crimson Petal and the White is overlong and overwritten, a simple theme that carries far too much weight, a Gothic cathedral without the flying buttresses. Careful; it might just collapse in on itself. Once the critical adulation and the hype have finally passed away I’m convinced that it will pass into the literary canon as just another good bad book.

I came to it lately, as I have said, and via a BBC adaptation shown earlier this year, which I enjoyed immensely. A reading of the novel managed to tell me little more than the Beeb dramatisation did in four hours, which might tell you something about self-indulgent writers and lazy editors!

My goodness, here I am, a few hundred words later and I’ve yet to say anything about the contents or the style of Faber’s magnum opus! It’s a Victorian novel; that is to say it is Victorian in style as well as in theme and content, the sort of leisurely exploration that might have been written in that age, though with forms of language and licence allowed by our less censorious times.

The author is present himself as a sort of tour guide, holding high his umbrella for the sheep, sorry, readers to follow on – “If you are bored beyond endurance, I can only offer my promise that there will be fucking in the very near future, not to mention madness, abduction, and violent death." Now, who could resist that? Actually, it isn’t really a ‘dirty book’, Bleak House free from Victorian forms of restraint. In some ways it’s quite coy, fucking quickly fucked, with none of the excess of the actual underground literature of the time.

For a big book there is surprisingly small cast. There is William Rackham and his wife, Agnes, mad, morbid and neurotic; Mrs. Rochester not dangerous enough to be confined in the attic. There is Sugar, the prostitute who becomes his mistress and then, with an abrupt fracture in verisimilitude, the governess of Sophie, his neglected daughter. There is morbidly religious Henry, William’s older brother, and Emmeline Fox, the widow on a mission, whom Henry wants to join in spiritual or carnal union, though he has difficulty in making up his mind which. Then there are the incidentals, like the rather sinister Doctor Curlew, Emmeline’s father, Mrs. Castaway, Sugar’s heartless mother, and Bodley and Ashwell, William’s disreputable friends, a sort of Mutt and Jeff act joined, seemingly, at the hip, the one as absurd as the other.

I persevered right to the end; I always persevere unless a book is truly dire. The Crimson Petal and the White is far from that; it’s just overblown and overhyped. Agnes is mad, though why she is mad, or the source of her mania, is never revealed. I actually lost all interest in her quite early on, and why Sugar felt compelled to read her tiresomely dull diaries quite escaped me.

It was on page 657 of the book where everything seemed to fall into place. Sugar, the Crimson Petal, is working her way through the said diaries, dairies that Agnes, the White Petal, has buried in the garden of the Rackham house –“She reads a page, two pages, two and a half pages, but the Agnes Rackham revealed in them is an intolerable irritation, a vain and useless creature whom the world would not miss for an instant if she were removed.” In my only marginalia I note that that would seem to be the key to the whole novel!

The more I write the more negative this is becoming, which wasn't really my intention when I started. Now I was tempted to write that The Crimson Petal and the White is a vain and rather silly book, but it’s not; it’s actually quite good in parts, rich in period detail, a tribute to better writers, better books and a better age. Faber is a good writer, just not a very good one, a good story teller, just not a very good one. To me his Victorian-tribute novel reads like the work of a kind of Daisy Ashford, trying to imitate an adult world with results that are both amusing and ever so slightly ridiculous. I agree with one of the reviewers on Amazon. I, too, would rather have Dickens, even without the swearing…and the fucking.

Don’t expect to see any of this across the dust jacket of a future edition!


  1. Give me the TV dramatisation any day 'Books are a load of crap' in this particular instance and others of its like. Besides, I have a childish crush on Romola Garai.

  2. Rehan, in the context of that TV adaptation, so have I!

  3. I saw the BBC rendition of this - it was excellent.