Filed under: Costume Dramas, Literature, Painted Ladies, Victorian, Victoriana, Writers | Tags: 19th Century, Adaptation, BBC, Michel Faber, Novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, Victorian London, Victorian Prostitutes
Michel Faber’s The crimson Petal and the White, ticks so many of my boxes I hardly know where to begin. A richly detailed, viscerally engaging, beguilingly written novel that I fell deeply in love with when it first came out. Of course, ever practical, I got it in hardback and schlomped it around with me like a weighty talisman in the increasingly tattered velvet bag I carried everywhere at the time.
The narrative just drips with deliciously rank descriptions of The Great Stink which was Victorian London, the contrast between the perfumed, lace-clad middle classes and the guttersnipes living in utter poverty amidst unthinkable filth of every kind. Just my cup of tea, as regular readers of this blog will readily attest!
Here’s an excerpt from the start of Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, taken from Book Browse (you can read the first ten pages of the novel by following the above link):
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.
When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you’re actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street of unlit houses full of unknown people.
And yet you did not choose me blindly. Certain expectations were aroused. Let’s not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you’re too shy to name, or at least show you a good time. Now you hesitate, still holding on to me, but tempted to let me go. When you first picked me up, you didn’t fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect I would grip you so tightly, so fast. Sleet stings your cheeks, sharp little spits of it so cold they feel hot, like fiery cinders in the wind. Your ears begin to hurt. But you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray, and it’s too late to turn back now.
It’s an ashen hour of night, blackish-grey and almost readable like undisturbed pages of burnt manuscript. You blunder forward into the haze of your own spent breath, still following me. The cobblestones beneath your feet are wet and mucky, the air is frigid and smells of sour spirits and slowly dissolving dung. You hear muffled drunken voices from somewhere nearby, but what little you can understand doesn’t sound like the carefully chosen opening speeches of a grand romantic drama; instead, you find yourself hoping to God that the voices come no closer.
The main characters in this story, with whom you want to become intimate, are nowhere near here. They aren’t expecting you; you mean nothing to them. If you think they’re going to get out of their warm beds and travel miles to meet you, you are mistaken.
You may wonder, then: why did I bring you here? Why this delay in meeting the people you thought you were going to meet? The answer is simple: their servants wouldn’t have let you in the door.
What you lack is the right connections, and that is what I’ve brought you here to make: connections. A person who is worth nothing must introduce you to a person worth next-to-nothing, and that person to another, and so on and so forth until finally you can step across the threshold, almost one of the family.
That is why I’ve brought you here to Church Lane, St Giles: I’ve found just the right person for you.
Now I am eagerly awaiting the first in a 4-part BBC adaptation which begins tonight on BBC2 at 9pm. I CAN’T WAIT! Well, I mean I can wait, I suppose, because it’s not going to be shown before then and I doubt the BBC are going to courier a DVD copy over to me, either. The rotters.
Romola Garai, Chris O’Dowd, Gillian Anderson, Richard E Grant, Shirley Henderson, Amanda Hale and Mark Gatiss star in a bold four-part adaptation of The Crimson Petal And The White adapted from Michel Faber’s best selling novel by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and directed by award-winning Marc Munden (The Devil’s Whore, The Mark Of Cain), produced by Origin Pictures for the BBC.
A tale of love, lust, desire and revenge, it reveals the true sexual politics of Victorian life. In the words of the heroine, Sugar: “If you dare enter this world, you had better tread carefully.”
As ever, when someone films or in any way adapts a favourite book, one is struck with an initial shivering thrill of excitement. This is followed hot on the heels by that slowly sinking dread that they are absolutely bound to bugger it up. Oh, they are going to RUIN IT for you; and that if they do, you’ll shake your fist at the skies, shouting “Why, God, WHY did you let these incompetent curs loose on my favourite book/film/other thing?” and then you’ll write a letter to the Guardian’s Media section, treating the editor to a frame-by-frame critique, entitled Everything That is Wrong with This Adaptation and including that well-worn line “I cannot believe the BBC have spent MY license fee on this utter drivel”, as though you, alone, fund The BBC and are entitled to personally approve of every single thing they produce.
But I digress.
Imagine how scary it must be to have written that novel, and to be watching your ‘baby’ reborn on TV. Luckily, Michel Faber entirely approves and was actually incredibly moved by the adaptation.
A few days ago, watching a TV show, I got tears in my eyes. That doesn’t happen very often. For a start, I haven’t watched television for many years, and also, it takes a lot to make me cry. My own private sorrows can make me weep, and occasionally a song can penetrate my defences (June Tabor’s “A Proper Sort of Gardener” does it to me every time), but when it comes to novels or on-screen narratives, I’m tough to crack. Pathos and poignancy are, to me, tactics and techniques; in my work as a writer, I fetch them from my toolbox and use them as required. Show me a tear-jerking movie, and I’ll sit stony-faced, analysing the hell out of it. “Oh yes, this is the bit where they hope people will start sniffling. Not badly done at all, I suppose, for this sort of thing. I’d rate it a 6/10. Maybe even a 7.” Yet a few days ago, sitting in front of the TV, I got choked up… I was anxious what TV would have done to my baby in the BBC’s adaptation, but its new artistic guardians have treated it very well indeed.
You can read his reaction in full in the piece he wrote for The Guardian today.
I am currently finalising my choices for an Etsy Treasury inspired by The Crimson Petal and the White (a themed, curated collection of items available at Etsy) and shall hopefully publish this in the next couple of days, after I’ve seen the programme and can let you know what I think of it!
Now, must be off as I’m trying to combine cooking Jambalaya, ironing and looking at delicious things on Etsy.
Until next time, darlings
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