Even William's unfortunate wife, our 'White Petal' Agnes Rackham, although weak both mentally and physically, leaves the male characters in this book in the dark as her lonely story of a spoilt and severely unstable woman, still a child in many ways, leaves the reader feeling both deeply frustrated and saddened as those around her fail to identify what treatment will ultimately help her to recover. (I am put in mind of a 'mad wife in the attic' type scenario à la Jayne Eyre, although Agnes only hurts herself...) For me, the women, even those not in the foreground like Sugar, really stole the show. The book is so lengthy that it truly does take on 'epic' proportions as Faber is given the room to explore every street and alley, every home and every brothel and we come to know characters such as the pious and loveable Henry Rackham, Henry's brother, an avid admirer of another strong woman, Emmeline Fox, who works tirelessly in the streets of London for 'The Rescue Society' a group of women dedicated to helping 'fallen women' find alternative employment and safety, at the cost of her own fragile health.
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.
Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.
Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.
Alfred Tennyson, 1847
10/10 Go and read this immediately! I myself will promptly be purchasing The Apple, where Faber treats those of us who just can't get enough to further tales of the Crimson Petal characters, both before and after the main story...oo excitement!