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The Crimson Petal and the White

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Overview


At the heart of this panoramic, multidimensional narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. Faber leads us back to 1870s London, where Sugar, a nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs. Castaway, yearns for escape to a better life. Her ascent through the strata of Victorian society offers us intimacy with a host of lovable, maddening, unforgettable characters. They begin with William Rackham, an egotistical perfume magnate whose ambition...
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Overview


At the heart of this panoramic, multidimensional narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. Faber leads us back to 1870s London, where Sugar, a nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs. Castaway, yearns for escape to a better life. Her ascent through the strata of Victorian society offers us intimacy with a host of lovable, maddening, unforgettable characters. They begin with William Rackham, an egotistical perfume magnate whose ambition is fueled by his lust for Sugar, and whose patronage brings her into proximity to his extended family and milieu: his unhinged, childlike wife, Agnes, who manages to overcome her chronic hysteria to make her appearances during “the Season”; his mysteriously hidden-away daughter, Sophie, left to the care of minions; his pious brother, Henry, foiled in his devotional calling by a persistently less-than-chaste love for the Widow Fox, whose efforts on behalf of The Rescue Society lead Henry into ever-more disturbing confrontations with flesh; all this overseen by assorted preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all stripes and persuasions.

Twenty years in its conception, research, and writing, The Crimson Petal and the White is teeming with life, rich in texture and incident, with characters breathtakingly real. In a class by itself, it's a big, juicy, must-read of a novel that will delight, enthrall, provoke, and entertain young and old, male and female.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Aptly described by the publisher as "the first great nineteenth-century novel of the twenty-first century," Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White is an authentic evocation of Victorian London that recalls the triple-decker extravaganzas of Eliot, Trollope and, of course, Dickens.

Writing in a clear, seductive voice that draws you effortlessly in, Faber depicts a very real city populated by a deeply credible gallery of flawed, struggling souls. Included among them are Caroline, an ignorant low-class streetwalker; Mrs. Castaway, a vicious brothel keeper; William Rackham, a self-involved perfume magnate; and Sugar, a remarkably well-read teenage prostitute who believes in "the reality of dreams." Sugar's particular dreams -- of escape, of rising above her circumstances -- and her relationships -- with Mrs. Castaway, with Rackham and his peculiar family -- dominate the novel, which illuminates virtually every level of Victorian society, warts and all. Faber, who spent more than 20 years researching and developing his panoramic narrative, writes with absolute confidence and a lively, enthralling attention to detail.

Resolutely modern in its sexual frankness but steeped in the ambiance of an earlier age, The Crimson Petal and the White is unlike anything in recent fiction. Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, which brought a similar breadth of research and imagination to its sprawling portrait of Victorian social inequities, is its closest contemporary literary sibling. Admirers of The Quincunx -- and of the 19th century masterpieces that served as its primary models -- will lose themselves for days at a time in this rich, thoroughly convincing novel. Bill Sheehan

Time Magazine
"Gorgeous. Capable of rendering the muck of a London street and the delicate humming-bird flights of thought with equal ease."
From the Publisher

PRAISE FOR THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE
"Don't wait for the movie. Read The Crimson Petal and the White now, while it's still a living, laughing, sweating, coruscating mass of gorgeous words. . . . Words say things even bodies can't. And that's why a book like this is even better than sex."-Time

"A big, sexy, bravura novel that is destined to be surpassingly popular . . . Dear Reader, the author has unpretentiously revived the spirit of the [19th century's] broad, socially conscious narrative tableau."-Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Nothing could have prepared readers for the sweep and subtlety of The Crimson Petal and the White."-The New York Times Book Review

"A lasting love affair; the intimate relationship one develops with the characters after reading for 834 pages is much more satisfying than the mere one-night-stand promised by other novels."-People

"Cocky and brilliant, amused and angry, the author is rightfully earning comparisons to observer extraordinaire Charles Dickens. . . . It's hopeless to resist."-Entertainment Weekly

"This year's most entertaining novel."-The Boston Globe

The Washington Post Book World

"Tell[s] a good story grippingly and colorfully ... An old-fashioned page-turner with pleasingly new-fangled twists."
The New York Times Book Review

"Ambitious and accomplished ... Nothing could have prepared readers for the sweep and subtlety of The Crimson Petal and the White."
Time

"Gorgeous. Capable of rendering the muck of a London street and the delicate humming-bird flights of thought with equal ease."
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE
"Don't wait for the movie. Read The Crimson Petal and the White now, while it's still a living, laughing, sweating, coruscating mass of gorgeous words. . . . Words say things even bodies can't. And that's why a book like this is even better than sex."-Time

"A big, sexy, bravura novel that is destined to be surpassingly popular . . . Dear Reader, the author has unpretentiously revived the spirit of the [19th century's] broad, socially conscious narrative tableau."-Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Nothing could have prepared readers for the sweep and subtlety of The Crimson Petal and the White."-The New York Times Book Review

"A lasting love affair; the intimate relationship one develops with the characters after reading for 834 pages is much more satisfying than the mere one-night-stand promised by other novels."-People

"Cocky and brilliant, amused and angry, the author is rightfully earning comparisons to observer extraordinaire Charles Dickens. . . . It's hopeless to resist."-Entertainment Weekly

"This year's most entertaining novel."-The Boston Globe

Time
"Gorgeous. Capable of rendering the muck of a London street and the delicate humming-bird flights of thought with equal ease."
The New York Times Book Review
"Ambitious and accomplished ... Nothing could have prepared readers for the sweep and subtlety of The Crimson Petal and the White."
The Washington Post Book World
"Tell[s] a good story grippingly and colorfully ... An old-fashioned page-turner with pleasingly new-fangled twists."
People
Readers...are in for a lasting love affair; the intimate relationship one develops with the characters after reading for 834 pages is much more staisfying than the mere one-night-stand promised by most novels.
Chris Barsanti
Faber's labyrinthine novel of Victorian England features William, the bored, married son of a wealthy perfumer; Sugar, the otherworldly whore he defiantly loves; his odd wife, Agnes; and his puritanical, reformist older brother Henry. There's a feeling of anticipation as the book's narrator leads readers down seedy London streets: "Watch your step," he cautions. "Keep your wits about you; you will need them." Faber is an energetic storyteller, and this book is often as lively as its characters.
From The Critics
Faber's labyrinthine novel of Victorian England features William, the bored, married son of a wealthy perfumer; Sugar, the otherworldly whore he defiantly loves; his odd wife, Agnes; and his puritanical, reformist older brother Henry. There's a feeling of anticipation as the book's narrator leads readers down seedy London streets: "Watch your step," he cautions. "Keep your wits about you; you will need them." Faber is an energetic storyteller, and this book is often as lively as its characters. —Chris Barsanti
Library Journal
Set in 1870s London, Faber's second novel (after Under the Skin) is a powerful portrayal of a young prostitute named Sugar. Intelligent and ambitious, Sugar yearns to escape from the livelihood forced on her at age 13. Enter William Rackham, a besotted philanderer and idle heir to a family perfume business,who installs Sugar as his secret mistress in a fashionable hideaway. When the incompetent William is forced into managing the family firm, he initially seeks advice from Sugar, who, fearful of losing his affection, schemes to gain closer proximity to the Rackham family. She succeeds by becoming governess to William's only child, young Sophie, who is cruelly ignored by her father and his insane and sickly wife, Agnes. As William's interest in Sugar wanes, she seeks to maintain her position both by earning Sophie's respect and by gaining possession of the intimate diaries that Agnes has foolishly discarded. Faber's mastery of character, evocative descriptions of Victorian England, and rich dialog, together with his weaving of enduring themes throughout a complex plot, creates a remarkable novel. Strongly recommended for most literary and historical fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/02.]-Joseph M. Eagan, Enoch Pratt Free Lib., Baltimore Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Time
...don't wait for the movie. Read The Crimson Petal and the White now, while it's still a living, laughing, sweating, coruscating mass of gorgeous words.... Ever since last fall readers have been watching for another knockdown, breakout book on the order of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. It's here.... The result is so fresh it makes contemporary novels, however packed with up-to-the-minute pop-culture references, feel dated. And although it's almost 300 pages longer than The Corrections, miraculously it feels shorter.
New York Times Book Review
Michel Faber's previous work ... was certainly ambitious and accomplished, but nothing could have prepared his readers for the sweep and subtlety of The Crimson Petal and the White.... Slowly we find ourselves inside the heroine's head, led there by a rhetoric so skilled and daring, that we hardly know it is operating.
Entertainment Weekly
Here's a tale of a true city. London, 1874. Whores, high society, smut-soaked streets, the polished ceilings of Royal Albert Hall. The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber's bulging, bawdy Victorian epic, is a gloves-off kind of novel, one not to be passed along lightly to your grandmother. Cocky and brilliant, amused and angry, the author is rightfully earning comparisons to observer extraordinaire Charles Dickens.
Washington Post Book World
It's Fowlesian nouveau-roman trickery, pasted onto 19th-century melodrama. The combination works surprisingly well. When he's not rubbing the reader's nose in Victorian sewage and soiled underwear, Faber has the Victorian virtue of telling a good story grippingly and colorfully. The Crimson Petal and the White is an old-fashioned page-turner with pleasingly newfangled twists.
New York Newsday
If you start reading this suspenseful, beautifully written novel, with its compelling characters, subtle psychology, wit and heart, you won't be able to stop.
New York Times
The late-19th-century London setting and mores of the book suggest Victoriana ... the author has revived the spirit of the era's broad, socially conscious narrative tableaus. But this is also a story told in the present tense, alert and teasingly satirical about its characters even as it evokes real compassion for their peculiarly Victorian plights. There is as much "Bonfire of the Vanities" as Dickens here, not to mention a graphic sexual realism that is Mr. Faber's own. Janet Maslin
Kirkus Reviews
Imagine a Dickens novel freed of the restraints imposed by Victorian propriety. There's no other way to describe this enthralling melodrama from the British author of Under the Skin (2000). Set in 1870s London, Faber's second outing is a brilliantly plotted chronicle of the collision between high and low, as played out in the complex relationship binding would-be writer William Rackham, heir to a perfume-maker's fortune and an inveterate whoremaster, and a cunning prostitute known as Sugar, whose special erotic talents inflame the smitten Rackham to the extent that he installs her in his home, ostensibly as his young daughter's governess; in fact, as the mistress who distracts his attention from the illnesses and "fits" endured by his frail (and possibly "mad") wife Agnes. Faber tells this story through the voice of a cajoling omniscient narrator implicitly likened to a whore luring her customer on, incidentally providing a thickly detailed panorama of 19th-century urban life. And the characters: not only the egoistic, self-justifying Rackham, the fascinating Agnes (a keen study in what used to be called "female hysteria"), and the calculating Sugar (herself a secret authoress, of "a tale that throws back the sheets from acts never shown and voices never heard")-but also William's priggish brother Henry, who wishes to reform prostitutes but suffers "nightmares of erotic disgrace"; Henry's cohort in benevolence, "Rescue Society" bluestocking Emmeline Fox; the Hogarthian procuress Mrs. Castaway and the ghastly Colonel Leek; "eminent swells" Bodley and Ashwell, William's companions in depravity and the exploitation of women-these and many others leap from Faber's crowded pages, as the whoreSugar's progress clashes with the sanctity of the Rackham hearth, Agnes's runaway manic-depression, William's inexplicable recovery of love for his wife and eventual dismissal of her replacement-and leads to Sugar's horrific climactic revenge. It's hard to imagine that any contemporary novelist could have appropriated with such skill and force the irresistible narrative drive of the Victorian three-decker, or that readers who hunger for story won't devour this like grateful wolves. Riveting, and absolutely unforgettable.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156028776
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/20/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 920
  • Sales rank: 82,308
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Michel Faber

Michel Faber's work has been published in twenty countries and received several literary awards. He lives in Scotland.

Biography

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them.

Thus Michel Faber lures readers into the Victorian saga of The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel that has earned Faber comparisons to Charles Dickens and delivered on the promise of his first, markedly different novel Under the Skin. Petal is an exhaustively researched chronicle of 1870s London as seen through the eyes of a young prostitute whose ambition carries her (and the reader) to higher levels in society. Faber's come-hither approach to writing the book jives with both his characters and his approach to reading. "I use the metaphor of a novel being like a prostitute, promising the reader a good time, promising intimacy and companionship," he says in a publisher's interview. "Ironically, even though you feel at first that you're being strung along by this beguiling voice, you do end up getting everything it promised you. And more, I hope."

Faber seduced readers with a predatory protagonist in the sci-fi-like Under the Skin. He brings his audience in league with Isserley, an otherworldly character who preys on human men in Scotland for their body parts, then sends the fruits of her labor back to her home territory. Faber's potency as a writer lies in his ability to lead the reader into a story with a number of matter-of-fact details, some sticking out more than others -- things don't get completely strange in Under the Skin until Isserley happens to flick a switch in her car and needles emerge from the passenger seat, sedating the hitchhiker she's picked up.

"The more the writer tries to force the reader to regard something as amazing and special, the more suspicious and bored the reader will become," Faber said in an interview with the Barcelona Review in 2002. "The reader needs to feel that the weirdness or the beauty or the horror in a story has an independent reality from what anyone says about it. That’s an illusion, of course: the writer is responsible. But the illusion is essential." Faber succeeds in crafting these illusions, whether they are the stuff of real life or fantasy. As the New York Times noted in its impressed and bemused review of Under the Skin, "His writing is chaste, dryly humorous and resolutely moral. The fantastic is so nicely played against the day-to-day that one feels the strangeness of both..."

It's evident from these two novels and from the short story collection Some Rain Must Fall, which mixes fantastic and humdrum settings, that Faber knows no bounds when it comes to genre or milieu. Like his protagonists, he can take his strengths into foreign territories, succeeding by coercion if necessary.

Good To Know

The first third of The Crimson Petal and the White was serialized online at the Guardian's web site.

One of Faber's early publisher bios said that "he has worked as a nurse, a pickle-packer, a cleaner, and a guinea pig for medical research."

In 2002, Faber published a novella called The Courage Consort, which has not yet been released in the U.S.

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    1. Hometown:
      A remote cottage in Ross-shire, Scottish Highlands
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 13, 1960
    2. Place of Birth:
      The Hague, Netherlands
    1. Education:
      Melbourne University
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt


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.

I must warn you, though, that I'm introducing you at the very bottom: the lowest of the low. The opulence of Bedford Square and the British Museum may be only a few hundred yards away, but New Oxford Street runs between there and here like a river too wide to swim, and you are on the wrong side. The Prince of Wales has never, I assure you, shaken the hand of any of the residents of this street, or even nodded in passing at anyone here, nor even, under cover of night, sampled the prostitutes. For although Church Lane has more whores living in it than almost any other street in London, they are not of the calibre suitable for gentlemen. To connoisseurs, a woman is more than a carcass after all, and you can't expect them to forgive the fact that the beds here are dirty, the décor is mean, the hearths are cold and there are no cabs waiting outside.

In short, this is another world altogether, where prosperity is an exotic dream as distant as the stars. Church Lane is the sort of street where even the cats are thin and hollow-eyed for want of meat, the sort of street where men who profess to be labourers never seem to labour and so-called washer- women rarely wash. Do-gooders can do no good here, and are sent on their way with despair in their hearts and shit on their shoes. A model lodging-house for the deserving poor, opened with great philanthropic fanfare twenty years ago, has already fallen into the hands of disreputables, and has aged terribly. The other, more antiquated houses, despite being two or even three storeys high, exude a subterranean atmosphere, as if they have been excavated from a great pit, the decomposing archaeology of a lost civilisation. Centuries-old buildings support themselves on crutches of iron piping, their wounds and infirmities poulticed with stucco, slung with clothes-lines, patched up with rotting wood. The roofs are a crazy jumble, the upper windows cracked and black as the brickwork, and the sky above seems more solid than air, a vaulted ceiling like the glass roof of a factory or a railway station: once upon a time bright and transparent, now overcast with filth.

However, since you've arrived at ten to three in the middle of a freezing November night, you're not inclined to admire the view. Your immediate concern is how to get out of the cold and the dark, so that you can become what you'd thought you could be just by laying your hand on me: an insider.

Apart from the pale gas-light of the street-lamps at the far corners, you can't see any light in Church Lane, but that's because your eyes are accustomed to stronger signs of human wakefulness than the feeble glow of two candles behind a smutty windowpane. You come from a world where darkness is swept aside at the snap of a switch, but that is not the only balance of power that life allows. Much shakier bargains are possible.

Come up with me to the room where that feeble light is shining. Let me pull you in through the back door of this house, let me lead you through a claustrophobic corridor that smells of slowly percolating carpet and soiled linen. Let me rescue you from the cold. I know the way.

Watch your step on these stairs; some of them are rotten. I know which ones; trust me. You have come this far, why not go just a little farther? Patience is a virtue, and will be amply rewarded.

Of course - didn't I mention this? - I'm about to leave you. Yes, sadly so. But I'll leave you in good hands, excellent hands. Here, in this tiny upstairs room where the feeble light is shining, you are about to make your first connection.

She's a sweet soul; you'll like her. And if you don't, it hardly matters: as soon as she's set you on the right path, you can abandon her without fuss. In the five years since she's been making her own way in the world, she has never got within shouting distance of the sorts of ladies and gentlemen among whom you'll be moving later; she works, lives and will certainly die in Church Lane, tethered securely to this rookery.

Like many common women, prostitutes especially, her name is Caroline, and you find her squatting over a large ceramic bowl filled with a tepid mixture of water, alum and sulphate of zinc. Using a plunger improvised from a wooden spoon and old bandage, she attempts to poison, suck out or otherwise destroy what was put inside her only minutes before by a man you've just missed meeting. As Caroline repeatedly saturates the plunger, the water becomes dirtier - a sure sign, she believes, that the man's seed is swirling around in it rather than in her.

Drying herself with the hem of her shift, she notes that her two candles are dimming; one of them is already a guttering stub. Will she light new ones?

Well, that depends on what time of night it is, and Caroline has no clock. Few people in Church Lane do. Few know what year it is, or even that eighteen and a half centuries are supposed to have passed since a Jewish troublemaker was hauled away to the gallows for disturbing the peace. This is a street where people go to sleep not at a specific hour but when the gin takes effect, or when exhaustion will permit no further violence. This is a street where people wake when the opium in their babies' sugar-water ceases to keep the little wretches under. This is a street where the weaker souls crawl into bed as soon as the sun sets and lie awake listening to the rats. This is a street reached only faintly, too faintly, by the bells of church and the trumpets of state.

Caroline's clock is the foul sky and its phosphorescent contents. The words 'three a.m.' may be meaningless to her, but she understands perfectly the moon's relationship with the houses across the street. Standing at her window, she tries for a moment to peer through the frozen grime on the panes, then twists the latch and pushes the window open. A loud snapping noise makes her fear momentarily that she may have broken the glass, but it's only the ice breaking. Little shards of it patter onto the street below.

The same wind that hardened the ice attacks Caroline's half-naked body too, eager to turn the sheen of perspiration on her pimpled breast into a sparkle of frost. She gathers the frayed collars of her loose shift into her fist and holds them tight against her throat, feeling one nipple harden against her forearm.

Outside it is almost completely dark, as the nearest street-lamp is half a dozen houses away. The cobbled paving of Church Lane is no longer white with snow, the sleet has left great gobs and trails of slush, like monstrous spills of semen, glowing yellowish in the gas-light. All else is black.

The outside world seems deserted to you, holding your breath as you stand behind her. But Caroline knows there are probably other girls like her awake, as well as various scavengers and sentinels and thieves, and a nearby pharmacist staying open in case anyone wants laudanum. There are still drunkards on the streets, dozed off in mid-song or dying of the cold, and yes, it's even possible there's still a lecherous man strolling around looking for a cheap girl.

Caroline considers getting dressed, putting on her shawl and going out to try her luck in the nearest streets. She's low on funds, having slept most of the day away and then passed up a willing prospect because she didn't like the look of him; he had a poxy air about him, she thought. She regrets letting him go now. She ought to have learned before today that it's no use waiting for the perfect man to come along.

Still, if she goes out again now, that would mean lighting another two candles, her last. The harsh weather must be considered, too: all that thrashing about in bed raises your temperature and then you go out in the cold and lose it all; a medical student once told her, as he was pulling on his trousers, that that was the way to catch pneumonia. Caroline has a healthy respect for pneumonia, although she confuses it with cholera and thinks gargling plenty of gin and bromide would give her a good chance of survival.

Of Jack the Ripper she need have no fear; it's almost fourteen years too early, and she'll have died from more or less natural causes by the time he comes along. He won't bother with St Giles, anyway. As I told you, I'm introducing you at the bottom.

A particularly nasty gust of wind makes Caroline shut the window, sealing herself once more into the box-like room she neither owns nor, properly speaking, rents. Not wanting to be a lazy slut, she tries her best to imagine walking around out there with an enigmatic look on her face; tries to conjure up a picture of an eligible customer stepping out of the darkness to call her beautiful. It doesn't seem likely.

Caroline rubs her face with handfuls of her hair, hair so thick and dark that even the crudest men have been known to stroke it in admiration. It has a silky texture, and is warm and pleasant against her cheeks and eyelids. But when she takes her hands away she finds that one of the candles has drowned in its puddle of fat, while the other still struggles to keep its flaming head above it. The day is over, she must admit, and the day's earnings are in.

In the corner of the otherwise empty room sags the bed, a wrinkled and half-unravelled thing like a bandaged limb that has been unwisely used for a rough, dirty chore. The time has come, at last, to use this bed for sleeping. Gingerly, Caroline inserts herself between the sheets and blankets, taking care not to tear the slimy undersheet with the heels of her boots. She'll take her boots off later, when she's warmer and can face the thought of unhooking those long rows of buttons.

The remaining candle-flame drowns before she has a chance to lean over and blow it out, and Caroline rests her head back against a pillow fragrant with alcohol and foreheads.

You can come out of hiding now. Make yourself comfortable, for the room is utterly dark, and will remain that way until sunrise. You could even risk, if you wish, lying down beside Caroline, because once she's asleep she's dead to the world, and wouldn't notice you - as long as you refrained from touching.

Yes, it's all right. She's sleeping now. Lift the blankets and ease your body in. If you are a woman, it doesn't matter: women very commonly sleep together in this day and age. If you are a man, it matters even less: there have been hundreds here before you.

A while yet before dawn, with Caroline still sleeping beside you and the room barely warmer than freezing outside the blankets, you had better get out of bed.

It's not that I don't appreciate you have a long and demanding journey ahead of you, but Caroline is about to be jolted violently awake, and it's best you aren't lying right next to her at that moment.

Take this opportunity to engrave this room on your memory: its dismal size, its moisture-buckled wooden floor and candle-blackened ceiling, its smell of wax and semen and old sweat. You will need to fix it clearly in your mind, or you'll forget it once you've graduated to other, better rooms which smell of pot-pourri, roast lamb and cigar smoke; large, high-ceilinged rooms as ornate as the patterns of their wallpaper. Listen to the faint, fidgety scufflings behind the skirting-boards, the soft, half-amused whimper of Caroline's dreams...

A monstrous shriek, of some huge thing of metal and wood coming to grief against stone, rouses Caroline from her sleep. She leaps out of bed in terror, throwing her sheets into the air like a flurry of wings. The shrieking grinds on for several more seconds, then gives way to the less fearsome din of a whinnying animal and human curses.

Caroline is at her window now, like almost every other resident of Church Lane. She's squinting into the gloom, excited and confused, trying to find evidence of disaster. There's none at her own doorstep, but farther along the street, almost at the lamp-lit corner, lies the wreck of a hansom cab still shuddering and splintering as the cabman cuts loose his terrified horse.

Her view hampered by dark and distance, Caroline would like to lean further out of the window, but gusts of icy wind drive her back into the room. She begins a fumbling search for her clothes, under the scattered bed-sheets, under the bed; wherever the last customer may have kicked them. (She really needs spectacles. She will never own any. They turn up in street markets from time to time, and she tries them on but, even allowing for the scratches, they're never right for her eyes.)

By the time she's back at her window, rugged up and fully roused, events have moved on remarkably quickly. A number of policemen are loitering around the wreck with lanterns. A large sack or maybe a human body is being bundled into a wagon. The cabbie is resisting invitations to climb aboard, and instead circles his upended vehicle, tugging at bits of it as if to test how much more it can possibly fall apart. His horse, placid now, stands sniffing the behinds of the two mares yoked to the police-wagon.

Within minutes, as the pale sun begins to rise over St Giles, whatever can be done has been done. The living and the dead have trundled away, leaving the wrecked cab in their wake. Splintered wheel-spokes and window-frame glass shards hang still as sculpture.

Peeping over Caroline's shoulder, you may think there's nothing more to see, but she remains hypnotised, elbows on the window-sill, shoulders still. She isn't looking at the wreck anymore; her attention has shifted to the house-fronts across the street.

There are faces at all the windows there. The silent faces of children, individually framed, or in small groups, like shop-soiled sweetmeats in a closed-down emporium. They stare down at the wreck, waiting. Then, all at once, as if by communal agreement on the number of seconds that must pass after the cabman's disappearance around the corner, the little white faces disappear.

At street level, a door swings open and two urchins run out, quick as rats. One is dressed only in his father's boots, a pair of ragged knickerbockers and a large shawl, the other runs barefoot, in a night-shirt and overcoat. Their hands and feet are brown and tough as dog's paws; their infant physiognomies ugly with misuse.

What they're after is the cab's skin and bone, and they're not shy in getting it: they attack the maimed vehicle with boyish enthusiasm. Their small hands wrench spokes from the splintered wheel and use them as chisels and jemmies. Metal edgings and ledges snap loose and are wrenched off in turn; lamps and knobs are beaten, tugged and twisted.

More children emerge from other filthy doorways, ready for their share. Those with sleeves roll them up, those without fall to work without delay. Despite their strong hands and wrinkled beetle-brows, none of them is older than eight or nine, for although every able-bodied inhabitant of Church Lane is wide awake now, it's only these younger children who can be spared to strip the cab. Everyone else is either drunk, or busy preparing for a long day's work and the long walk to where it may be had.

Soon the cab is aswarm with Undeserving Poor, all labouring to remove something of value. Practically everything is of value, the cab being an object designed for a caste many grades above theirs. Its body is made of such rare materials as iron, brass, good dry wood, leather, glass, felt, wire and rope. Even the stuffing in the seats can be sewn into a pillow much superior to a rolled-up potato sack. Without speaking, and each according to what he has in the way of tools and footwear, the children hammer and gouge, yank and kick, as the sound echoes drily in the harsh air and the framework of the hansom judders on the cobblestones.

They know their time is likely to be short, but it proves to be even shorter than expected. Scarcely more than fifteen minutes after the first urchins' assault on the wreck, a massive two-horse brewer's dray turns the corner and rumbles up the lane. It carries nothing except the cabman and three well-muscled companions.

Most of the children immediately run home with their splintery armfuls; the most brazen persist for another couple of seconds, until angry shouts of 'Clear off!' and 'Thief!' send them scurrying. By the time the dray draws up to the wreck, Church Lane is empty again, its house-fronts innocent and shadowy, its windows full of faces.

The four men alight and walk slowly around the cab, clockwise and counter-clockwise, flexing their massive hands, squaring their meaty shoulders. Then, at the cabman's signal, they lay hands on the four corners of the wreck and, with one groaning heave, load it onto the dray. It settles more or less upright, two of its wheels having been plundered.

No time is wasted scooping up the smaller fragments. The horse snorts jets of steam as it's whipped into motion, and the three helpers jump on, steadying themselves against the mangled cab. The cabman pauses only to shake his fist at the scavengers behind the windows and yell, 'This 'ere was my life!' and then he, too, is carted away.

His melodramatic gesture impresses nobody. To the people of Church Lane, he is a lucky man, a survivor who ought to be grateful. For, as the dray rattles off, it exposes a pattern of dark blood nestled between the cobbles, like a winding crimson weed.

From where you stand you can actually see the shiver of distaste travelling down between Caroline's shoulder-blades: she's not brave about blood, never has been. For a moment it seems likely she'll turn away from the window, but then she shudders exaggeratedly, to shake off the goose-flesh, and leans forward again.

The dray has gone, and here and there along the house-fronts doors are swinging open and figures are emerging. This time it's not children but adults - that is, those hardened souls who've passed the age of ten. The ones who have a moment to spare - the bill-poster, the scrubber, and the fellow who sells paper windmills - dawdle to examine the blood-spill; the others hurry past, wrapping shawls or scarves around their scrawny necks, swallowing hard on the last crust of breakfast. For those who work in the factories and slop-shops, lateness means instant dismissal, and for those who seek a day's 'casual' labouring, there's nothing casual about the prospect of fifty men getting turned away when the fittest have been chosen.

Caroline shudders again, this time from the chill of a distant memory. For she was one of these slaves herself once, hurrying into the grey dawn every morning, weeping with exhaustion every night. Even nowadays, every so often when she has drunk too much and sleeps too deeply, a brute vestige of habit wakes her up in time to go to the factory. Anxious, barely conscious, she'll shove her body out of bed onto the bare floor just the way she used to. Not until she has crawled to the chair where her cotton smock ought to be hanging ready, and finds no smock there, does she remember who and what she's become, and crawl back into her warm bed.

Today, however, the accident has shocked her so wide awake that there's no point trying to get more sleep just yet. She can try again in the afternoon - indeed, she'd better try again then, to reduce the risk of falling asleep next to some snoring idiot tonight. A simple fuck is one thing, but let a man sleep with you just once and he thinks he can bring his dog and his pigeons.

Responsibilities, responsibilities. To get enough sleep, to remember to comb her hair, to wash after every man: these are the sorts of things she must make sure she doesn't neglect these days. Compared to the burdens she once shared with her fellow factory slaves, they aren't too bad. As for the work, well...it's not as dirty as the factory, nor as dangerous, nor as dull. At the cost of her immortal soul, she has earned the right to lie in on a weekday morning and get up when she damn well chooses.

Caroline stands at the window, watching Nellie Griffiths and old Mrs Mulvaney trot down the street on their way to the jam factory. Poor ugly biddies: they spend their daylight hours drudging in the scalding heat for next to nothing, then come home to drunken husbands who knock them from one wall to the other. If this is what it means to be 'upright', and Caroline is supposed to be 'fallen'...! What did God make cunts for, if not to save women from donkey-work?

There is one small way, though, in which Caroline envies these women, one modest pang of nostalgia. Both Nellie and Mrs Mulvaney have children, and Caroline had a child once upon a time, and lost it, and now she'll never have another. Nor was her child an illegitimate wretch: it was born in loving wedlock, in a beautiful little village in North Yorkshire, none of which things exists in Caroline's world anymore. Maybe her blighted insides couldn't even sprout another baby, and all that flushing with alum and sulphate of zinc is as pointless as prayer.

Her child would have been eight years old now, had he lived - and indeed he might have lived, had Caroline stayed in Grassington Village. Instead, the newly widowed Caroline chose to take her son to London, because there was no dignified work in the local town of Skipton for a woman who'd not had much schooling, and she couldn't stand living on the charity of her mother-in-law.

So, Caroline and her son boarded a train to a new life together, and instead of going to Leeds or Manchester, which she had reason to suspect were bad and dangerous places, she bought tickets to the capital of the civilised world. Pinned inside her provincial little bonnet was eight pounds, a very substantial sum of money, enough for months of food and accommodation. The thought of it ought to have comforted her, but instead she was plagued by headache all the way into London, as if the massive weight of those bank-notes was bearing down hard on her neck. She wished she could spend this fortune right away, to be rid of the fear of losing it.

Within days of arriving in the metropolis she was offered help with her dilemma. A famous dress-making firm was so impressed with her manner that it commissioned her to make waistcoats and trousers in her own home. The firm would provide her with all the necessary materials, but required the sum of five pounds as a security. When Caroline ventured the opinion that five pounds seemed a great deal to ask, the man who was engaging her agreed, and assured her that the sum was not of his choosing. No doubt the manager of the firm, his own superior, had become disillusioned by the dishonest behaviour of the folk he'd taken on in more lenient times: yards and yards of the best quality cloth stolen, hawked in street markets, only to end up in tatters on the bodies of street urchins. A chastening picture for any businessman of a generous and trusting nature, did not Caroline agree?

Caroline did agree, then; she was a respectable woman, her boy was no urchin, and she considered herself a citizen of that same world her employer was trying to keep safe. So, she handed him the five pounds and began her career as a manufacturess of waistcoats and trousers.

The work proved to be tolerably easy and (it seemed to her) well-paid; in some weeks she earned six shillings or more, although from this must be deducted the cost of cotton, coals for pressing, and candles. She never skimped on candles, determined not to become one of those half-blind seamstresses squinting over their work by a window at dusk; she pitied the shirt-makers eulogised in 'The Song of the Shirt' in the same way that a respectable shop-keeper might pity a ragged costermonger. Though keenly aware of how much she'd come down in the world, she was not dissatisfied: there was enough to eat for her and her boy, their lodgings in Chitty Street were clean and neat, and Caroline, being husbandless, was free to spend her money wisely.

Then winter came and of course the child fell ill. Nursing him lost Caroline valuable time, particularly in the daylight hours, and when at last he rallied she had no choice but to engage his help.

'You must be my big brave man,' she told him, her face burning, her eyes averted towards the single candle lighting their shadowy labours. No proposal she would ever make in later years could be more shameful than this one.

And so mother and son became workmates. Propped up against Caroline's legs, the child folded and pressed the garments she had sewn. She tried to make a game of it, urging him to imagine a long line of naked, shivering gentlemen waiting for their trousers. But the work fell further and further behind and her drowsy boy fell forwards more and more often, so that in order to prevent him burning himself (or the material) with the pressing iron she had to pin the back of his shirt to her dress.

This dismal partnership didn't last very long. With dozens of waistcoats still waiting, the tugs at her skirts became so frequent it was obvious the boy was more than merely tired: he was dying.

And so Caroline went to retrieve her bond from her employer. She came away with two pounds and three shillings and a sick, impotent fury that lasted for a month.

The money lasted slightly longer than that and, with her child in marginally better health due to medical attention, Caroline found work in a sweater's den making hats, jamming squares of cloth onto steaming iron heads. All day she was handing dark, shiny, scalding hats farther along a line of women, as if passing on plates of food in an absurdly steamy kitchen. Her child (forgive this impersonality: Caroline never speaks his name anymore) spent his days locked in their squalid new lodgings with his painted ball and his Bristol toys, stewing in his sickliness and fatherless misery. He was always fractious, whimpering over small things, as if daring her to lose patience.

Then one night at the end of winter he began coughing and wheezing like a demented terrier pup. It was a night very like the one we are in now: bitter and mucky. Worried that no doctor would agree, at such an hour and in such weather, to accompany her unpaid to where she lived, Caroline conceived a plan. Oh, she'd heard of doctors who were kind and devoted to their calling, and who would march into the slums to combat their ancient foe Disease, but in all her time in London Caroline had not met any such doctor, so she thought she'd better try deception first. She dressed in her best clothes (the bodice was made of felt stolen from the factory) and dragged her boy out into the street with her.

The plan, such as it was, was to deceive the nearest physician into believing she was new to London, and hadn't a family doctor yet, and had been all evening at the theatre, and only realised her son was ill when she returned and found the nurse frantic, and had hailed a cab immediately, and was not the sort of person to discuss money.

'Doctor won't send us away?' asked the child, scoring a bull's-eye, as always, on her worst fear.

'Walk faster,' was all she could reply.

By the time they found a house with the oval lamp lit outside, the boy was wheezing so hard that Caroline was half insane, her hands trembling with the urge to rip his little throat open and give him some air. Instead she rang the doctor's bell.

After a minute or two, a man came to the door in his night-gown, looking not at all like any doctor Caroline had met before, nor smelling like one.

'Sir,' she addressed him, doing her best to keep both the desperation and the provincial burr out of her voice. 'My son needs a doctor!'

For a moment he stared her up and down, noting her outmoded monochrome dress, the frost on her cheeks, the mud on her boots. Then he motioned her to come in, smiling and laying his broad hand on her boy's shivering shoulder as he said:

'Well now, this is a happy coincidence. I need a woman.'

Five years later, moving sleepily through her bedroom, Caroline stubs her toes on the ceramic basin and is provoked to clean up her bedroom. She transfers the stagnant contraceptive bouillon carefully into the chamber pot, watching, as she pours, the germs of another man's offspring combine with piss. She heaves the full pot onto her window-sill, and pushes the window open. There's no crack of ice this time, and the air is still. She'd like to toss the liquid into the air, but the Sanitary Inspector has been sniffing around lately, reminding everyone that this is the nineteenth century, not the eighteenth. Threats of eviction have been made. Church Lane is infested with Irish Catholics, spiteful gossips the lot of them, and Caroline doesn't want them accusing her of soliciting cholera on top of everything else.

So, she tips the chamber-pot slowly forwards and lets the mixture trickle discreetly down the brickwork. For a while the building will look as though God relieved Himself against it, but then the problem will get solved one way or another, before the neighbours wake up - either the sun will dry it or fresh snow will rinse it.

Caroline is hungry now, a sharp belly-hunger, despite the fact that she doesn't normally wake until much, much later. She's noticed that before: if you wake up too early, you're famished, but if you wake later, you're all right again, and then later still you're famished again. Needs and desires must rise and fall during sleep, clamouring for satisfaction at the door of consciousness, then slinking away for a while. A deep thinker, that's what her husband used to call her. Too much education might have done her more harm than good.

Caroline's guts make a noise like a piglet. She laughs, and decides to give Eppie a surprise by paying an early-morning visit to The Mother's Finest. Put a smile on his ugly face and a pie in her belly.

In the cold light of day, the clothes she hastily threw on in order to see the wrecked cab don't pass muster. Rough hands have wrinkled the fabric, dirty shoes have stepped on the hems, there are even speckles of blood from the scabby shins of old Leo the dyer. Caroline strips off and starts afresh with a voluminous blue and grey striped dress and tight black bodice straight out of her wardrobe.

Getting dressed is much easier for Caroline than it is for most of the women you will meet later in this story. She has made small, cunning alterations to all her clothing. Fastenings have been shifted, in defiance of fashion, to where her hands can reach them, and each layer hides short-cuts in the layer beneath. (See? - her seamstressing skills did come in useful in the end!)

To her face and hair Caroline affords a little more attention, scrutinising the particulars in a small hand-mirror tacked upside-down to the wall. She's in fair repair for twenty-nine. A few pale scars on her forehead and chin. One black tooth that doesn't hurt a bit and is best left alone. Eyes a little bloodshot, but big and sympathetic, like those of a dog that's had a good master. Decent lips. Eyebrows as good as anyone's. And, of course, her splendid nest of hair. With a wire brush she untangles the fringe and fluffs it out over her forehead, squaring it just above the eyes with the back of her hand. Too impatient and hungry to comb the rest, she winds it up into a pile on top of her head and pins it fast, then covers it up with an indigo hat. Her face she powders and pinks, not to conceal that she's old, ugly or corrupt in flesh, for she isn't any of these yet, but rather to brighten the pallor of her sunless existence - this for her own sake rather than for her customers.

Arranging her shawl now, smoothing down the front of her dress, she resembles a respectably well-to-do woman in a way she never could have managed when she slaved in the steam of the hat factory, suffering for her virtue. Not that an authentic lady could so much as fasten a garter in less than five minutes, let alone dress completely without a maid's assistance. Caroline knows very well she's a cheap imitation, but fancies herself a cheekily good one, especially considering how little effort she puts into it.

She slips out of her room, like a pretty moth emerging from a husk of dried slime. Follow discreetly after her. But you are not going anywhere very exciting yet: be patient a while longer.

On the landing and the stairs, all of last night's candles have burnt out. No new ones will be lit until the girls start bringing the men home in the afternoon, so there's not much light to see Caroline downstairs. The landing receives a lick of sunshine from her room, which she's left open to distribute the smell more evenly around the house, but the stairs, corkscrewed as they are inside a windowless stairwell, are suffocatingly gloomy. Caroline has often thought that this claustrophobic spiral is really no different from a chimney. Maybe one day the bottom-most steps will catch fire while she's on her way down and the stairwell will suck up the flames just like a chimney, the rest of the house remaining undisturbed while she and the spiral of dark stairs shoot out of the roof in a gush of smoke and cinders! Good riddance, some might say.

The first thing Caroline sees when she emerges into the light of the entrance hall is Colonel Leek seated in his wheelchair. Though he is berthed very near the foot of the stairs, he faces the front door, his back to Caroline, and she hopes that this morning he might, for once, be asleep.

'Think I'm asleep, don't you girlie?' he promptly sneers.

'No, never,' she laughs, though it's far too early in the day for her to be a convincing liar. She squeezes past the Colonel and lets him examine her for a moment, so as not to be rude, for he never forgets an insult.

Colonel Leek is the landlady's uncle, a pot-bellied stove of a man, keeping the warmth in with overcoats, scarves and blankets, stoking up on gossip, and puffing out smoke through a stunted pipe. Concealed under all the layers, Colonel Leek still wears his military uniform complete with medals, though these have a handkerchief sewn over them to prevent them catching. In the last war he went to, the Colonel accepted a bullet in the spine in exchange for a chance to take pot-shots at mutineering Indians, and his niece has cared for him ever since, installing him as her 'toll-collector' when she opened the empty rooms of her house to prostitutes.

Colonel Leek performs his job with grim efficiency, but his true passion remains war and other outbursts of violence and disaster. When he reads his daily newspaper, happy events and proud achievements fail to capture his interest, but as soon as he comes across a calamity he cannot contain himself. It often happens that Caroline, hard at work in her room, must suddenly croon more loudly in a customer's ear to cover the noise of a hoarsely shouted recitation from downstairs, such as:

'Six thousand Tartars have invaded the Amoor Province, wrested fifteen years ago from China!'

Now the Colonel fixes his bloodshot eyes on Caroline, and whispers meaningfully: 'Some of us don't sleep through disaster. Some of us knows what goes on.'

'You mean that cab this mornin'?' guesses Caroline, well accustomed to his turn of mind.

'I saw,' the Colonel leers, trying to raise himself up off his perennially festering rear. 'Death and damage.' He falls back on the cushions. 'But that was only the beginning. A small part of what's afoot. The local manifestation. But everywhere! everywhere! Disaster!'

'Do let us go, Colonel. I'll drop if I don't 'ave a bite to eat.'

The old man looks down at his blanketed lap as if it were a newspaper and, raising his forefinger periscopically, recites:

'Disastrous overturn of train at Bishop's Itchington. Gunpowder explosion on the Regent's Canal. Steamer gone down off the Bay of Biscay. Destruction by fire of the Cospatrick, half-way to New Zealand, four hundred and sixty lost, mere days ago. Think of it! These are signs. The whirlpool of disaster. And at the centre of it - what there, eh? What there?'

Caroline gives it a couple of seconds' thought, but she has no idea what there. Alone of the three women who use Mrs Leek's house as their lay and lodgings, she's oddly fond of the old man, but not enough to prefer his demented prophesies to a hearty breakfast.

'Goodbye, Colonel,' she calls as she swings open the door and sweeps out into the street, closing him in behind her.

Now prepare yourself. You have not much longer with Caroline before she introduces you to a person with slightly better prospects. Watch her bodice swell as she inhales deeply the air of a new day. Wait for her to plot her safe passage through Church Lane, as she notes where the dung is most densely congregated. Then watch your step as you follow her towards Arthur Street, walking briskly along the line of litter left in the wake of the cab: first the blood, then a trail of seat-stuffing and wood-splinters. Perhaps they'll lead all the way to The Mother's Finest tavern, where hot pies are served from dawn and no one is going to ask you if you knew the woman who died.

Copyright © Michel Faber, 2002

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents


CONTENTS

PART 1: -The Streets

PART 2: -The House of Ill Repute

PART 3: -The Private Rooms and the
Public Haunts

PART 4: -The Bosom of the Family

PART 5: -The World at Large

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First Chapter

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.

I must warn you, though, that I'm introducing you at the very bottom: the lowest of the low. The opulence of Bedford Square and the British Museum may be only a few hundred yards away, but New Oxford Street runs between there and here like a river too wide to swim, and you are on the wrong side. The Prince of Wales has never, I assure you, shaken the hand of any of the residents of this street, or even nodded in passing at anyone here, nor even, under cover of night, sampled the prostitutes. For although Church Lane has more whores living in it than almost any other street in London, they are not of the calibre suitable for gentlemen. To connoisseurs, a woman is more than a carcass after all, and you can't expect them to forgive the fact that the beds here are dirty, the décor is mean, the hearths are cold and there are no cabs waiting outside.

In short, this is another world altogether, where prosperity is an exotic dream as distant as the stars. Church Lane is the sort of street where even the cats are thin and hollow-eyed for want of meat, the sort of street where men who profess to be labourers never seem to labour and so-called washer- women rarely wash. Do-gooders can do no good here, and are sent on their way with despair in their hearts and shit on their shoes. A model lodging-house for the deserving poor, opened with great philanthropic fanfare twenty years ago, has already fallen into the hands of disreputables, and has aged terribly. The other, more antiquated houses, despite being two or even three storeys high, exude a subterranean atmosphere, as if they have been excavated from a great pit, the decomposing archaeology of a lost civilisation. Centuries-old buildings support themselves on crutches of iron piping, their wounds and infirmities poulticed with stucco, slung with clothes-lines, patched up with rotting wood. The roofs are a crazy jumble, the upper windows cracked and black as the brickwork, and the sky above seems more solid than air, a vaulted ceiling like the glass roof of a factory or a railway station: once upon a time bright and transparent, now overcast with filth.

However, since you've arrived at ten to three in the middle of a freezing November night, you're not inclined to admire the view. Your immediate concern is how to get out of the cold and the dark, so that you can become what you'd thought you could be just by laying your hand on me: an insider.

Apart from the pale gas-light of the street-lamps at the far corners, you can't see any light in Church Lane, but that's because your eyes are accustomed to stronger signs of human wakefulness than the feeble glow of two candles behind a smutty windowpane. You come from a world where darkness is swept aside at the snap of a switch, but that is not the only balance of power that life allows. Much shakier bargains are possible.

Come up with me to the room where that feeble light is shining. Let me pull you in through the back door of this house, let me lead you through a claustrophobic corridor that smells of slowly percolating carpet and soiled linen. Let me rescue you from the cold. I know the way.

Watch your step on these stairs; some of them are rotten. I know which ones; trust me. You have come this far, why not go just a little farther? Patience is a virtue, and will be amply rewarded.

Of course - didn't I mention this? - I'm about to leave you. Yes, sadly so. But I'll leave you in good hands, excellent hands. Here, in this tiny upstairs room where the feeble light is shining, you are about to make your first connection.

She's a sweet soul; you'll like her. And if you don't, it hardly matters: as soon as she's set you on the right path, you can abandon her without fuss. In the five years since she's been making her own way in the world, she has never got within shouting distance of the sorts of ladies and gentlemen among whom you'll be moving later; she works, lives and will certainly die in Church Lane, tethered securely to this rookery.

Like many common women, prostitutes especially, her name is Caroline, and you find her squatting over a large ceramic bowl filled with a tepid mixture of water, alum and sulphate of zinc. Using a plunger improvised from a wooden spoon and old bandage, she attempts to poison, suck out or otherwise destroy what was put inside her only minutes before by a man you've just missed meeting. As Caroline repeatedly saturates the plunger, the water becomes dirtier - a sure sign, she believes, that the man's seed is swirling around in it rather than in her.

Drying herself with the hem of her shift, she notes that her two candles are dimming; one of them is already a guttering stub. Will she light new ones?

Well, that depends on what time of night it is, and Caroline has no clock. Few people in Church Lane do. Few know what year it is, or even that eighteen and a half centuries are supposed to have passed since a Jewish troublemaker was hauled away to the gallows for disturbing the peace. This is a street where people go to sleep not at a specific hour but when the gin takes effect, or when exhaustion will permit no further violence. This is a street where people wake when the opium in their babies' sugar-water ceases to keep the little wretches under. This is a street where the weaker souls crawl into bed as soon as the sun sets and lie awake listening to the rats. This is a street reached only faintly, too faintly, by the bells of church and the trumpets of state.

Caroline's clock is the foul sky and its phosphorescent contents. The words 'three a.m.' may be meaningless to her, but she understands perfectly the moon's relationship with the houses across the street. Standing at her window, she tries for a moment to peer through the frozen grime on the panes, then twists the latch and pushes the window open. A loud snapping noise makes her fear momentarily that she may have broken the glass, but it's only the ice breaking. Little shards of it patter onto the street below.

The same wind that hardened the ice attacks Caroline's half-naked body too, eager to turn the sheen of perspiration on her pimpled breast into a sparkle of frost. She gathers the frayed collars of her loose shift into her fist and holds them tight against her throat, feeling one nipple harden against her forearm.

Outside it is almost completely dark, as the nearest street-lamp is half a dozen houses away. The cobbled paving of Church Lane is no longer white with snow, the sleet has left great gobs and trails of slush, like monstrous spills of semen, glowing yellowish in the gas-light. All else is black.

The outside world seems deserted to you, holding your breath as you stand behind her. But Caroline knows there are probably other girls like her awake, as well as various scavengers and sentinels and thieves, and a nearby pharmacist staying open in case anyone wants laudanum. There are still drunkards on the streets, dozed off in mid-song or dying of the cold, and yes, it's even possible there's still a lecherous man strolling around looking for a cheap girl.

Caroline considers getting dressed, putting on her shawl and going out to try her luck in the nearest streets. She's low on funds, having slept most of the day away and then passed up a willing prospect because she didn't like the look of him; he had a poxy air about him, she thought. She regrets letting him go now. She ought to have learned before today that it's no use waiting for the perfect man to come along.

Still, if she goes out again now, that would mean lighting another two candles, her last. The harsh weather must be considered, too: all that thrashing about in bed raises your temperature and then you go out in the cold and lose it all; a medical student once told her, as he was pulling on his trousers, that that was the way to catch pneumonia. Caroline has a healthy respect for pneumonia, although she confuses it with cholera and thinks gargling plenty of gin and bromide would give her a good chance of survival.

Of Jack the Ripper she need have no fear; it's almost fourteen years too early, and she'll have died from more or less natural causes by the time he comes along. He won't bother with St Giles, anyway. As I told you, I'm introducing you at the bottom.

A particularly nasty gust of wind makes Caroline shut the window, sealing herself once more into the box-like room she neither owns nor, properly speaking, rents. Not wanting to be a lazy slut, she tries her best to imagine walking around out there with an enigmatic look on her face; tries to conjure up a picture of an eligible customer stepping out of the darkness to call her beautiful. It doesn't seem likely.

Caroline rubs her face with handfuls of her hair, hair so thick and dark that even the crudest men have been known to stroke it in admiration. It has a silky texture, and is warm and pleasant against her cheeks and eyelids. But when she takes her hands away she finds that one of the candles has drowned in its puddle of fat, while the other still struggles to keep its flaming head above it. The day is over, she must admit, and the day's earnings are in.

In the corner of the otherwise empty room sags the bed, a wrinkled and half-unravelled thing like a bandaged limb that has been unwisely used for a rough, dirty chore. The time has come, at last, to use this bed for sleeping. Gingerly, Caroline inserts herself between the sheets and blankets, taking care not to tear the slimy undersheet with the heels of her boots. She'll take her boots off later, when she's warmer and can face the thought of unhooking those long rows of buttons.

The remaining candle-flame drowns before she has a chance to lean over and blow it out, and Caroline rests her head back against a pillow fragrant with alcohol and foreheads.

You can come out of hiding now. Make yourself comfortable, for the room is utterly dark, and will remain that way until sunrise. You could even risk, if you wish, lying down beside Caroline, because once she's asleep she's dead to the world, and wouldn't notice you - as long as you refrained from touching.

Yes, it's all right. She's sleeping now. Lift the blankets and ease your body in. If you are a woman, it doesn't matter: women very commonly sleep together in this day and age. If you are a man, it matters even less: there have been hundreds here before you.



A while yet before dawn, with Caroline still sleeping beside you and the room barely warmer than freezing outside the blankets, you had better get out of bed.

It's not that I don't appreciate you have a long and demanding journey ahead of you, but Caroline is about to be jolted violently awake, and it's best you aren't lying right next to her at that moment.

Take this opportunity to engrave this room on your memory: its dismal size, its moisture-buckled wooden floor and candle-blackened ceiling, its smell of wax and semen and old sweat. You will need to fix it clearly in your mind, or you'll forget it once you've graduated to other, better rooms which smell of pot-pourri, roast lamb and cigar smoke; large, high-ceilinged rooms as ornate as the patterns of their wallpaper. Listen to the faint, fidgety scufflings behind the skirting-boards, the soft, half-amused whimper of Caroline's dreams...

A monstrous shriek, of some huge thing of metal and wood coming to grief against stone, rouses Caroline from her sleep. She leaps out of bed in terror, throwing her sheets into the air like a flurry of wings. The shrieking grinds on for several more seconds, then gives way to the less fearsome din of a whinnying animal and human curses.

Caroline is at her window now, like almost every other resident of Church Lane. She's squinting into the gloom, excited and confused, trying to find evidence of disaster. There's none at her own doorstep, but farther along the street, almost at the lamp-lit corner, lies the wreck of a hansom cab still shuddering and splintering as the cabman cuts loose his terrified horse.

Her view hampered by dark and distance, Caroline would like to lean further out of the window, but gusts of icy wind drive her back into the room. She begins a fumbling search for her clothes, under the scattered bed-sheets, under the bed; wherever the last customer may have kicked them. (She really needs spectacles. She will never own any. They turn up in street markets from time to time, and she tries them on but, even allowing for the scratches, they're never right for her eyes.)

By the time she's back at her window, rugged up and fully roused, events have moved on remarkably quickly. A number of policemen are loitering around the wreck with lanterns. A large sack or maybe a human body is being bundled into a wagon. The cabbie is resisting invitations to climb aboard, and instead circles his upended vehicle, tugging at bits of it as if to test how much more it can possibly fall apart. His horse, placid now, stands sniffing the behinds of the two mares yoked to the police-wagon.

Within minutes, as the pale sun begins to rise over St Giles, whatever can be done has been done. The living and the dead have trundled away, leaving the wrecked cab in their wake. Splintered wheel-spokes and window-frame glass shards hang still as sculpture.

Peeping over Caroline's shoulder, you may think there's nothing more to see, but she remains hypnotised, elbows on the window-sill, shoulders still. She isn't looking at the wreck anymore; her attention has shifted to the house-fronts across the street.

There are faces at all the windows there. The silent faces of children, individually framed, or in small groups, like shop-soiled sweetmeats in a closed-down emporium. They stare down at the wreck, waiting. Then, all at once, as if by communal agreement on the number of seconds that must pass after the cabman's disappearance around the corner, the little white faces disappear.

At street level, a door swings open and two urchins run out, quick as rats. One is dressed only in his father's boots, a pair of ragged knickerbockers and a large shawl, the other runs barefoot, in a night-shirt and overcoat. Their hands and feet are brown and tough as dog's paws; their infant physiognomies ugly with misuse.

What they're after is the cab's skin and bone, and they're not shy in getting it: they attack the maimed vehicle with boyish enthusiasm. Their small hands wrench spokes from the splintered wheel and use them as chisels and jemmies. Metal edgings and ledges snap loose and are wrenched off in turn; lamps and knobs are beaten, tugged and twisted.

More children emerge from other filthy doorways, ready for their share. Those with sleeves roll them up, those without fall to work without delay. Despite their strong hands and wrinkled beetle-brows, none of them is older than eight or nine, for although every able-bodied inhabitant of Church Lane is wide awake now, it's only these younger children who can be spared to strip the cab. Everyone else is either drunk, or busy preparing for a long day's work and the long walk to where it may be had.

Soon the cab is aswarm with Undeserving Poor, all labouring to remove something of value. Practically everything is of value, the cab being an object designed for a caste many grades above theirs. Its body is made of such rare materials as iron, brass, good dry wood, leather, glass, felt, wire and rope. Even the stuffing in the seats can be sewn into a pillow much superior to a rolled-up potato sack. Without speaking, and each according to what he has in the way of tools and footwear, the children hammer and gouge, yank and kick, as the sound echoes drily in the harsh air and the framework of the hansom judders on the cobblestones.

They know their time is likely to be short, but it proves to be even shorter than expected. Scarcely more than fifteen minutes after the first urchins' assault on the wreck, a massive two-horse brewer's dray turns the corner and rumbles up the lane. It carries nothing except the cabman and three well-muscled companions.

Most of the children immediately run home with their splintery armfuls; the most brazen persist for another couple of seconds, until angry shouts of 'Clear off!' and 'Thief!' send them scurrying. By the time the dray draws up to the wreck, Church Lane is empty again, its house-fronts innocent and shadowy, its windows full of faces.

The four men alight and walk slowly around the cab, clockwise and counter-clockwise, flexing their massive hands, squaring their meaty shoulders. Then, at the cabman's signal, they lay hands on the four corners of the wreck and, with one groaning heave, load it onto the dray. It settles more or less upright, two of its wheels having been plundered.

No time is wasted scooping up the smaller fragments. The horse snorts jets of steam as it's whipped into motion, and the three helpers jump on, steadying themselves against the mangled cab. The cabman pauses only to shake his fist at the scavengers behind the windows and yell, 'This 'ere was my life!' and then he, too, is carted away.

His melodramatic gesture impresses nobody. To the people of Church Lane, he is a lucky man, a survivor who ought to be grateful. For, as the dray rattles off, it exposes a pattern of dark blood nestled between the cobbles, like a winding crimson weed.

From where you stand you can actually see the shiver of distaste travelling down between Caroline's shoulder-blades: she's not brave about blood, never has been. For a moment it seems likely she'll turn away from the window, but then she shudders exaggeratedly, to shake off the goose-flesh, and leans forward again.

The dray has gone, and here and there along the house-fronts doors are swinging open and figures are emerging. This time it's not children but adults - that is, those hardened souls who've passed the age of ten. The ones who have a moment to spare - the bill-poster, the scrubber, and the fellow who sells paper windmills - dawdle to examine the blood-spill; the others hurry past, wrapping shawls or scarves around their scrawny necks, swallowing hard on the last crust of breakfast. For those who work in the factories and slop-shops, lateness means instant dismissal, and for those who seek a day's 'casual' labouring, there's nothing casual about the prospect of fifty men getting turned away when the fittest have been chosen.

Caroline shudders again, this time from the chill of a distant memory. For she was one of these slaves herself once, hurrying into the grey dawn every morning, weeping with exhaustion every night. Even nowadays, every so often when she has drunk too much and sleeps too deeply, a brute vestige of habit wakes her up in time to go to the factory. Anxious, barely conscious, she'll shove her body out of bed onto the bare floor just the way she used to. Not until she has crawled to the chair where her cotton smock ought to be hanging ready, and finds no smock there, does she remember who and what she's become, and crawl back into her warm bed.

Today, however, the accident has shocked her so wide awake that there's no point trying to get more sleep just yet. She can try again in the afternoon - indeed, she'd better try again then, to reduce the risk of falling asleep next to some snoring idiot tonight. A simple fuck is one thing, but let a man sleep with you just once and he thinks he can bring his dog and his pigeons.

Responsibilities, responsibilities. To get enough sleep, to remember to comb her hair, to wash after every man: these are the sorts of things she must make sure she doesn't neglect these days. Compared to the burdens she once shared with her fellow factory slaves, they aren't too bad. As for the work, well...it's not as dirty as the factory, nor as dangerous, nor as dull. At the cost of her immortal soul, she has earned the right to lie in on a weekday morning and get up when she damn well chooses.

Caroline stands at the window, watching Nellie Griffiths and old Mrs Mulvaney trot down the street on their way to the jam factory. Poor ugly biddies: they spend their daylight hours drudging in the scalding heat for next to nothing, then come home to drunken husbands who knock them from one wall to the other. If this is what it means to be 'upright', and Caroline is supposed to be 'fallen'...! What did God make cunts for, if not to save women from donkey-work?

There is one small way, though, in which Caroline envies these women, one modest pang of nostalgia. Both Nellie and Mrs Mulvaney have children, and Caroline had a child once upon a time, and lost it, and now she'll never have another. Nor was her child an illegitimate wretch: it was born in loving wedlock, in a beautiful little village in North Yorkshire, none of which things exists in Caroline's world anymore. Maybe her blighted insides couldn't even sprout another baby, and all that flushing with alum and sulphate of zinc is as pointless as prayer.

Her child would have been eight years old now, had he lived - and indeed he might have lived, had Caroline stayed in Grassington Village. Instead, the newly widowed Caroline chose to take her son to London, because there was no dignified work in the local town of Skipton for a woman who'd not had much schooling, and she couldn't stand living on the charity of her mother-in-law.

So, Caroline and her son boarded a train to a new life together, and instead of going to Leeds or Manchester, which she had reason to suspect were bad and dangerous places, she bought tickets to the capital of the civilised world. Pinned inside her provincial little bonnet was eight pounds, a very substantial sum of money, enough for months of food and accommodation. The thought of it ought to have comforted her, but instead she was plagued by headache all the way into London, as if the massive weight of those bank-notes was bearing down hard on her neck. She wished she could spend this fortune right away, to be rid of the fear of losing it.

Within days of arriving in the metropolis she was offered help with her dilemma. A famous dress-making firm was so impressed with her manner that it commissioned her to make waistcoats and trousers in her own home. The firm would provide her with all the necessary materials, but required the sum of five pounds as a security. When Caroline ventured the opinion that five pounds seemed a great deal to ask, the man who was engaging her agreed, and assured her that the sum was not of his choosing. No doubt the manager of the firm, his own superior, had become disillusioned by the dishonest behaviour of the folk he'd taken on in more lenient times: yards and yards of the best quality cloth stolen, hawked in street markets, only to end up in tatters on the bodies of street urchins. A chastening picture for any businessman of a generous and trusting nature, did not Caroline agree?

Caroline did agree, then; she was a respectable woman, her boy was no urchin, and she considered herself a citizen of that same world her employer was trying to keep safe. So, she handed him the five pounds and began her career as a manufacturess of waistcoats and trousers.

The work proved to be tolerably easy and (it seemed to her) well-paid; in some weeks she earned six shillings or more, although from this must be deducted the cost of cotton, coals for pressing, and candles. She never skimped on candles, determined not to become one of those half-blind seamstresses squinting over their work by a window at dusk; she pitied the shirt-makers eulogised in 'The Song of the Shirt' in the same way that a respectable shop-keeper might pity a ragged costermonger. Though keenly aware of how much she'd come down in the world, she was not dissatisfied: there was enough to eat for her and her boy, their lodgings in Chitty Street were clean and neat, and Caroline, being husbandless, was free to spend her money wisely.

Then winter came and of course the child fell ill. Nursing him lost Caroline valuable time, particularly in the daylight hours, and when at last he rallied she had no choice but to engage his help.

'You must be my big brave man,' she told him, her face burning, her eyes averted towards the single candle lighting their shadowy labours. No proposal she would ever make in later years could be more shameful than this one.

And so mother and son became workmates. Propped up against Caroline's legs, the child folded and pressed the garments she had sewn. She tried to make a game of it, urging him to imagine a long line of naked, shivering gentlemen waiting for their trousers. But the work fell further and further behind and her drowsy boy fell forwards more and more often, so that in order to prevent him burning himself (or the material) with the pressing iron she had to pin the back of his shirt to her dress.

This dismal partnership didn't last very long. With dozens of waistcoats still waiting, the tugs at her skirts became so frequent it was obvious the boy was more than merely tired: he was dying.

And so Caroline went to retrieve her bond from her employer. She came away with two pounds and three shillings and a sick, impotent fury that lasted for a month.

The money lasted slightly longer than that and, with her child in marginally better health due to medical attention, Caroline found work in a sweater's den making hats, jamming squares of cloth onto steaming iron heads. All day she was handing dark, shiny, scalding hats farther along a line of women, as if passing on plates of food in an absurdly steamy kitchen. Her child (forgive this impersonality: Caroline never speaks his name anymore) spent his days locked in their squalid new lodgings with his painted ball and his Bristol toys, stewing in his sickliness and fatherless misery. He was always fractious, whimpering over small things, as if daring her to lose patience.

Then one night at the end of winter he began coughing and wheezing like a demented terrier pup. It was a night very like the one we are in now: bitter and mucky. Worried that no doctor would agree, at such an hour and in such weather, to accompany her unpaid to where she lived, Caroline conceived a plan. Oh, she'd heard of doctors who were kind and devoted to their calling, and who would march into the slums to combat their ancient foe Disease, but in all her time in London Caroline had not met any such doctor, so she thought she'd better try deception first. She dressed in her best clothes (the bodice was made of felt stolen from the factory) and dragged her boy out into the street with her.

The plan, such as it was, was to deceive the nearest physician into believing she was new to London, and hadn't a family doctor yet, and had been all evening at the theatre, and only realised her son was ill when she returned and found the nurse frantic, and had hailed a cab immediately, and was not the sort of person to discuss money.

'Doctor won't send us away?' asked the child, scoring a bull's-eye, as always, on her worst fear.

'Walk faster,' was all she could reply.

By the time they found a house with the oval lamp lit outside, the boy was wheezing so hard that Caroline was half insane, her hands trembling with the urge to rip his little throat open and give him some air. Instead she rang the doctor's bell.

After a minute or two, a man came to the door in his night-gown, looking not at all like any doctor Caroline had met before, nor smelling like one.

'Sir,' she addressed him, doing her best to keep both the desperation and the provincial burr out of her voice. 'My son needs a doctor!'

For a moment he stared her up and down, noting her outmoded monochrome dress, the frost on her cheeks, the mud on her boots. Then he motioned her to come in, smiling and laying his broad hand on her boy's shivering shoulder as he said:

'Well now, this is a happy coincidence. I need a woman.'

Five years later, moving sleepily through her bedroom, Caroline stubs her toes on the ceramic basin and is provoked to clean up her bedroom. She transfers the stagnant contraceptive bouillon carefully into the chamber pot, watching, as she pours, the germs of another man's offspring combine with piss. She heaves the full pot onto her window-sill, and pushes the window open. There's no crack of ice this time, and the air is still. She'd like to toss the liquid into the air, but the Sanitary Inspector has been sniffing around lately, reminding everyone that this is the nineteenth century, not the eighteenth. Threats of eviction have been made. Church Lane is infested with Irish Catholics, spiteful gossips the lot of them, and Caroline doesn't want them accusing her of soliciting cholera on top of everything else.

So, she tips the chamber-pot slowly forwards and lets the mixture trickle discreetly down the brickwork. For a while the building will look as though God relieved Himself against it, but then the problem will get solved one way or another, before the neighbours wake up - either the sun will dry it or fresh snow will rinse it.

Caroline is hungry now, a sharp belly-hunger, despite the fact that she doesn't normally wake until much, much later. She's noticed that before: if you wake up too early, you're famished, but if you wake later, you're all right again, and then later still you're famished again. Needs and desires must rise and fall during sleep, clamouring for satisfaction at the door of consciousness, then slinking away for a while. A deep thinker, that's what her husband used to call her. Too much education might have done her more harm than good.

Caroline's guts make a noise like a piglet. She laughs, and decides to give Eppie a surprise by paying an early-morning visit to The Mother's Finest. Put a smile on his ugly face and a pie in her belly.

In the cold light of day, the clothes she hastily threw on in order to see the wrecked cab don't pass muster. Rough hands have wrinkled the fabric, dirty shoes have stepped on the hems, there are even speckles of blood from the scabby shins of old Leo the dyer. Caroline strips off and starts afresh with a voluminous blue and grey striped dress and tight black bodice straight out of her wardrobe.

Getting dressed is much easier for Caroline than it is for most of the women you will meet later in this story. She has made small, cunning alterations to all her clothing. Fastenings have been shifted, in defiance of fashion, to where her hands can reach them, and each layer hides short-cuts in the layer beneath. (See? - her seamstressing skills did come in useful in the end!)

To her face and hair Caroline affords a little more attention, scrutinising the particulars in a small hand-mirror tacked upside-down to the wall. She's in fair repair for twenty-nine. A few pale scars on her forehead and chin. One black tooth that doesn't hurt a bit and is best left alone. Eyes a little bloodshot, but big and sympathetic, like those of a dog that's had a good master. Decent lips. Eyebrows as good as anyone's. And, of course, her splendid nest of hair. With a wire brush she untangles the fringe and fluffs it out over her forehead, squaring it just above the eyes with the back of her hand. Too impatient and hungry to comb the rest, she winds it up into a pile on top o meet later in this story. She has made small, cunning alterations to all her clothing. Fastenings have been shifted, in defiance of fashion, to where her hands can reach them, and each layer hides short-cuts in the layer beneath. (See? - her seamstressing skills did come in useful in the end!)

To her face and hair Caroline affords a little more attention, scrutinising the particulars in a small hand-mirror tacked upside-down to the wall. She's in fair repair for twenty-nine. A few pale scars on her forehead and chin. One black tooth that doesn't hurt a bit and is best left alone. Eyes a little bloodshot, but big and sympathetic, like those of a dog that's had a good master. Decent lips. Eyebrows as good as anyone's. And, of course, her splendid nest of hair. With a wire brush she untangles the fringe and fluffs it out over her forehead, squaring it just above the eyes with the back of her hand. Too impatient and hungry to comb the rest, she winds it up into a pile on top of her head and pins it fast, then covers it up with an indigo hat. Her face she powders and pinks, not to conceal that she's old, ugly or corrupt in flesh, for she isn't any of these yet, but rather to brighten the pallor of her sunless existence - this for her own sake rather than for her customers.

Arranging her shawl now, smoothing down the front of her dress, she resembles a respectably well-to-do woman in a way she never could have managed when she slaved in the steam of the hat factory, suffering for her virtue. Not that an authentic lady could so much as fasten a garter in less than five minutes, let alone dress completely without a maid's assistance. Caroline knows very well she's a cheap imitation, but fancies herself a cheekily good one, especially considering how little effort she puts into it.

She slips out of her room, like a pretty moth emerging from a husk of dried slime. Follow discreetly after her. But you are not going anywhere very exciting yet: be patient a while longer.

On the landing and the stairs, all of last night's candles have burnt out. No new ones will be lit until the girls start bringing the men home in the afternoon, so there's not much light to see Caroline downstairs. The landing receives a lick of sunshine from her room, which she's left open to distribute the smell more evenly around the house, but the stairs, corkscrewed as they are inside a windowless stairwell, are suffocatingly gloomy. Caroline has often thought that this claustrophobic spiral is really no different from a chimney. Maybe one day the bottom-most steps will catch fire while she's on her way down and the stairwell will suck up the flames just like a chimney, the rest of the house remaining undisturbed while she and the spiral of dark stairs shoot out of the roof in a gush of smoke and cinders! Good riddance, some might say.

The first thing Caroline sees when she emerges into the light of the entrance hall is Colonel Leek seated in his wheelchair. Though he is berthed very near the foot of the stairs, he faces the front door, his back to Caroline, and she hopes that this morning he might, for once, be asleep.

'Think I'm asleep, don't you girlie?' he promptly sneers.

'No, never,' she laughs, though it's far too early in the day for her to be a convincing liar. She squeezes past the Colonel and lets him examine her for a moment, so as not to be rude, for he never forgets an insult.

Colonel Leek is the landlady's uncle, a pot-bellied stove of a man, keeping the warmth in with overcoats, scarves and blankets, stoking up on gossip, and puffing out smoke through a stunted pipe. Concealed under all the layers, Colonel Leek still wears his military uniform complete with medals, though these have a handkerchief sewn over them to prevent them catching. In the last war he went to, the Colonel accepted a bullet in the spine in exchange for a chance to take pot-shots at mutineering Indians, and his niece has cared for him ever since, installing him as her 'toll-collector' when she opened the empty rooms of her house to prostitutes.

Colonel Leek performs his job with grim efficiency, but his true passion remains war and other outbursts of violence and disaster. When he reads his daily newspaper, happy events and proud achievements fail to capture his interest, but as soon as he comes across a calamity he cannot contain himself. It often happens that Caroline, hard at work in her room, must suddenly croon more loudly in a customer's ear to cover the noise of a hoarsely shouted recitation from downstairs, such as:

'Six thousand Tartars have invaded the Amoor Province, wrested fifteen years ago from China!'

Now the Colonel fixes his bloodshot eyes on Caroline, and whispers meaningfully: 'Some of us don't sleep through disaster. Some of us knows what goes on.'

'You mean that cab this mornin'?' guesses Caroline, well accustomed to his turn of mind.

'I saw,' the Colonel leers, trying to raise himself up off his perennially festering rear. 'Death and damage.' He falls back on the cushions. 'But that was only the beginning. A small part of what's afoot. The local manifestation. But everywhere! everywhere! Disaster!'

'Do let us go, Colonel. I'll drop if I don't 'ave a bite to eat.'

The old man looks down at his blanketed lap as if it were a newspaper and, raising his forefinger periscopically, recites:

'Disastrous overturn of train at Bishop's Itchington. Gunpowder explosion on the Regent's Canal. Steamer gone down off the Bay of Biscay. Destruction by fire of the Cospatrick, half-way to New Zealand, four hundred and sixty lost, mere days ago. Think of it! These are signs. The whirlpool of disaster. And at the centre of it - what there, eh? What there?'

Caroline gives it a couple of seconds' thought, but she has no idea what there. Alone of the three women who use Mrs Leek's house as their lay and lodgings, she's oddly fond of the old man, but not enough to prefer his demented prophesies to a hearty breakfast.

'Goodbye, Colonel,' she calls as she swings open the door and sweeps out into the street, closing him in behind her.

Now prepare yourself. You have not much longer with Caroline before she introduces you to a person with slightly better prospects. Watch her bodice swell as she inhales deeply the air of a new day. Wait for her to plot her safe passage through Church Lane, as she notes where the dung is most densely congregated. Then watch your step as you follow her towards Arthur Street, walking briskly along the line of litter left in the wake of the cab: first the blood, then a trail of seat-stuffing and wood-splinters. Perhaps they'll lead all the way to The Mother's Finest tavern, where hot pies are served from dawn and no one is going to ask you if you knew the woman who died.

Copyright © Michel Faber, 2002

All rights reserved.
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Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Michel Faber's epic-scale saga of rich and poor is a historical novel -- in the sense that it is set with pitch-perfect accuracy in the world of Victorian London, amid its prostitutes and its preachers, industrialists and thieves, burgeoning wealth and crushing poverty. But its relevance is not primarily to the world of yesterday: The Crimson Petal and the White is concerned with themes that transcend any moment of history: self-delusion, obsession, rage, and love.

Although the obvious point of comparison is with Charles Dickens, reading groups will be captivated by the sly, seductive narrator, who invites the audience into the lives of the characters with an artfulness that lends an edge of tension to the story that unfolds. As the two Rackham brothers -- pious Henry and dilettante William -- pursue their separate passions, it becomes clear that this is a look at the Victorian world from a distinctly modern perspective, with an uncensored view of the relationships between husbands and wives, as well as the darkly parallel relationship between the world of prostitutes and the upper-class men who seek them out. The novel invites discussions of the way attitudes toward sexuality were a vital, if hidden, element of this outwardly staid society.

The novel's most fascinating character is a much-sought-after young prostitute who becomes the obsession of William Rackham. "Sugar," as she is known, is the inspiration for William's decision to follow in his father's footsteps and become a successful businessman. As it turns out, Sugar is much more than merely a fascinating muse; self-educated and deeply intelligent, she recognizes in William an opportunity to leave behind a life that she despises. Ultimately, the novel centers around her struggle to make a new life, and reinvent herself entirely. Reading groups will find in Sugar a focal point for discussion, as her wit, cunning, and rage draw a portrait that is dazzling in its complexity and originality. It is matched by the rendering of figures such as William's wife, Agnes, whose illness causes her to live as a parody of a delicate gentlewoman, and his brother, Henry, a religious soul who is consumed by his own unexpressed desires.

Sugar's attempt to transform herself by attaching to William means that she must commit to an existence of perpetual deception, since her lover must believe that she is devoted to him. It is a grand-scale version of the false love she has previously bestowed on individual clients -- yet the irony in Faber's tale is that this wholesale deception brings Sugar into a relationship with William's daughter, a chance for her to experience real love. Readers of The Crimson Petal and the White will find the book strewn with such paradoxes, as the author investigates how it is possible for many of us to build a life -- almost an entire world -- out of an illusion so carefully maintained that it is easily mistaken for reality. This tour de force of a novel will have reading groups talking about Faber's characters, and their destinies, for many beguiling hours. Bill Tipper

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. The novel's title implies the distinction between virtue and immorality. In your opinion, who are the sinister characters in the book? Who are the heroes and heroines?

2. What makes the late nineteenth century such an appropriate time period for this narrative? How might the storyline have played out in the twenty-first century?

3. Temptation and cravings fuel much of the novel's plot. By your own standards, are the characters shockingly lacking in self-control? Or do you feel they cope well in the circumstances?

4. Do you detect any common denominator among the novel's female characters (especially Sugar, Agnes, Mrs. Fox, and Mrs. Castaway) in spite of their seemingly disparate motivations?

5. William receives nearly constant assistance from various hired women. In what way is Sugar's subservience different from that of the other servants, both before and after she becomes Sophie's governess?

6. The Crimson Petal and the White contains dozens of religious references, including Sugar's being mistaken for an angel, Agnes's superstitious hunger for Catholicism, The Rescue Society's moral mission, the radical proposals in The Efficacy of Prayer, and debates about creationism. Is religion harmful or beneficial to the characters in this novel?

7. The theme of cleanliness versus filth pervades the novel, with William's products nearly comprising an additional character. Considering the fact that even the upper-crust residents of Notting Hill had to do without indoor plumbing, what is the effect of these details about ablutions?

8. Critics have compared Michel Faber to many literary lions, ranging from Charles Dickens to Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen. In what ways does literature appear to have evolved over the past two centuries?

9. How does Michel Faber keep the reader hooked and entertained throughout a lengthy epic? Did the devices work for you?

10. Does any authentic love occur in the novel? Are Sugar and William in love?

11. William's pious brother is the extreme opposite of Ashwell and Bodley. Do these minor male characters in any way reflect aspects of William's persona? Do you believe that Ashwell and Bodley were merely included for comic relief? Discuss the irony of Henry's death.

12. The characters in The Crimson Petal and the White live under the shroud of considerable misinformation, including Doctor Curlew's inability to diagnose Agnes's brain tumor and Sugar's rudimentary birth-control methods. Would modern medicine have kept their lives trouble-free?

13. Discuss Sugar's transformation from no-nonsense prostitute to maternal romantic. What role did the ironically named Priory Close location play in this transformation? What choices would you have made had you been born into Sugar's circumstances?

14. For all its Victorian trappings, The Crimson Petal and the White also showcases some expert postmodern features, such as a narrator who frequently reminds us that we are reading a novel-his novel-and that he will decide which point of view we receive in each scene. In what way does this narrator act as a kind of literary seducer, luring us to follow him to the very end? How do the novels within the novel (Sugar's sadistic bodice-ripper, and Agnes's imaginative diaries) affect your reading experience?

15. The novel ends by posing a terrific "what if." Speculate about the futures of Sophie and Sugar. Why do you suppose the author chose to give the closing line to Caroline? What might this suggest about William's fate?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 220 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 220 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2008

    What happened?

    I couldn't put this book down -- it captivated me from the beginning through all 833 pages. The descriptions of Victorian London were mesmerizing, and the descriptions of the characters beautifully drawn. I grew to love some of the people, dislike some of the others, and really care what happened to them. Then suddenly -- poof! It's over, and I feel like I've been cheated. I have no idea what happened to anyone. There really was no ending.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2004

    Crimson Petal: Blood Red

    This book can be described in one word `disappointing`. The beginning starts with a promise to show the reader exuberant characters and believeable settings and generally in the first few chapters (1-3) it does, however after this beginning, what one actually gets is a flimsy plot with a non-ending. So many questions are left unanswered what happeded to Agnes, Sugar and Sophie. The only characters i found remotely interesting were Bodley and Ashwell the drunken college buddies who turn up every so often for some laughter and drunken debauchery. Also Henry Rackham jr, who had so much comic potential with his inability to actually talk to Mrs Fox and Caroline. However he was disposed of so quickly it left me in a complete confusion as to why he was there in the first place. Im afraid this book with its 20 years of research was completely pointless. But after reading so many good books a person must have a bad one to keep the appreciation alive.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2010

    I hated it. Long, boring, and no resolution at the end

    I read this book a long time ago, so I can't remember everything about it, but I do remember disliking the book and feeling like it was a huge waste of my time. Some of the historical details were interesting, and it seemed very well researched. One of the critical reviews I read said it was one of the most erotic books of the year. I didn't think it was erotic at all; in fact, I was left wondering if the reviewer had read the same book I did. Long passages of it were boring, and I was frustrated that the ending was so open and didn't give me a resolution to the characters after I had invested 900+ pages.

    I usually like to reread books, but this is one on which I will pass on ever reading again.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2007

    A reviewer

    I was completely intrigued by the beginning--after all, the novel was written in second person and seemed to invite me into the story. After the first few scenes, however, the author failed on this promise. I was ignored as Faber launched into what I would consider a nightmarish middle. Halfway through the book, I still didn't know what the point was! I was waiting to move on to some other characters (the opening promised I would meet numerous other characters, and I thought the story would continue to progress through the ranks of society). Let me sum up the five hundred pages of the middle-- 'Oh my gosh there's a whore with crusty skin and yet somehow I'm strangely attracted to her' (rackham) 'I don't want William to leave me, so I'm going to follow him to a million places and watch his every move so he won't leave me!!!! Waaaaaaaaaaaa!!!' (sugar) 'I want to follow the rules of society but I'm insane! I don't want anybody to know I'm insane, but I vomit all over the place (numerous times) so I guess the cat's out of the bag. But my guardian angel will help me!' (agnes). There, I've summed up the novel. So don't read it if you don't want pointless melodrama.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2006

    Bleh

    I really like long, Victorian books but this one was a disappointment. All the characters do is, well, eachother, describe endlessly, and have dull, sporadic conversations about religion or prostitution. Not my cup of tea. The novel really dragged, and I confess I skipped a lot of pages. Even when the 'action' began, it left me blinking stupidly at the pages. This was supposed to be the climax? Years from now, if someone asks me if I read it, it will take me a moment to remember it. It left no lasting impression.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2006

    Don't Buy It

    I was thoroughly engrossed in the story, and completely disgusted at the end. Don't waste your time. The author didn't.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2003

    a dissapointing end

    the book started out very interesting, but i got bogged down after 400 pages. i kept reading simply because i wanted to find out whether Sugar published her book or not. the plot became sketchy midway thru. the begining was great as he presents the story written in the 3rd party. this book all goes to show ,I could have written and been on the bestseller list.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2003

    A disillusion

    This book is like some of those movies over-glamorized that turns out to be an inflated nothing. Interesting Details of Victorian life, o.k., but when the two protagonists seems interesting enough, and the reader has begun to relate to them, the story lags, drags, centers on the 'angelic' visions of the disturbed wife of the protagonist, the brother of the protagonist who would be a parson but feels unworthy cause the carnal desires he feels for a social worker, Emmeline Fox. Those three characters are the most colossal bores in modern literature. The books wanders, wawers, and in the end part is introduced the daughter of the male protagonist, completely ignored for the previous three quarter of the book. The ending leaves the reader completely disappointed, the non-plot ends abruptly in mid-air. What a waste of a book! There will be a sequel? Who cares! We have learned enough about hygienic conditions in down and out Victorian streets to last us a lifetime!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2003

    The Crimson Petal and the White

    This is one of the very worst books I have ever read. It has pretensions to be a literary work yet is devoid of any merit. The writing is poor. The characterisation feeble. The story preposterous... William Rackham turns from idler to man of commerce overnight. His father hands him the business and disappears from view. A life-long prostitute, with no external assistance, has the skills to pass herself off as a governess. Yeah, right.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2003

    Keeps going and going... and then???

    This book is 830 pages long. It is full of impressive language and descriptions, which give the author potential to be classic. I don't believe that Mr. Faber is as good writer as he thinks himself to be, or as well as reviewers believe him to be. I've never read Charles Dickens, but Faber has been compared to Dickens in several reviews, and I can safely say that if I tried to read Dickens, would be agony if he really is anything like Faber. The language pumps the reader up with anticipation for an extraordinary story, but fails miserably to deliver anything but disappointment and the feeling of being cheated when the last page is read. Cheated out of time, and possibly money if the reader purchased the book. The characters are deep, though at times extremely peculiar human beings. Faber did a good job in developing the characters, I can say that much in his defense, but he certainly didn't set up a very good story to correspond with the deep characters and their development(s). It seems to me that Faber did a lot of research and paid great attention to detail in the process of writing this colossal book (colossal in size and effort only), but unfortunately couldn't create a story to make its size necessary. The least he could've done was give the reader the satisfaction of an ending; even if it was an open-ended one. He is definitely unique in that he believes an ending is unnecessary for stories. If you have hours and weeks to spare of your time, read this book, for the language is impressive as I mentioned before, and the characters are worth knowing. But if it's plot and the satisfaction of an ending you're looking for... move onto the next book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2014

    Ignore the sex -

    The writing is masterful. Truly.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 12, 2011

    Excellent

    I loved this book. I would read it again.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2009

    Loved, Loved, Loved this book

    There are books in your library that you love to come back to once in a while - this is one of my favorites!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2009

    Brilliant and moving story.

    I read many books in my life; however, this one surpassed all my expectations. It is touching, moving, stimulating, and methodically brought to life. After reading the last line I wanted to throw the book against the wall--for all the reasons of great literature. For women, as well as for men, this is a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 23, 2008

    Don't Miss This Book

    This is a beautifully written, unique and intriguing story. I read it over five years ago, and haven't been affected as strongly by anything that I have read since. Don't miss this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2005

    Great Period Piece, BUT.....

    The ending left me just gaping at the book. 'That's it?' I said to myself. It just....ended! No closure. No explanations! Nada! I was disappointed :(

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2003

    Lukewarm read

    This opus is set in Victorian England and is awash with a sundry of dramatic elements which make a book of this caliber a very interesting read. However, Faber's drawn out albeit vivid description is overwhelming--leaving the reader to be inundated by a sea of carelessly strewn adjectives. The ending also leaves something to be desired, it ends abruptly leaving the reader to wonder at the fate of the characters Faber has taken so long to create. In summation, Faber's book is nothing short of compelling in the way which he intricately weaves the lives of his vivid characters. However, for those who wish to see a plot unravel at a more quickened place, alas, this novel is not for you! In short, A worthy effort by a modern day Charles Dickens.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2003

    unanswered questions

    I have mixed feelings about this book. Although I looked forward to taking time away from everyday life to read this book and thought about it a lot after reading it, it left me with so many unanswered questions... What happened to Agnes? I was waiting to hear what Sugar told her to do and the author kept teasing me that she may still be alive. Where can a prostitue turned governess, who has no references and is at large, hide in Victorian London with the privliged little girl she abducted? Is she planning to raise her by herself with the leftover money she aquired from Mr. Rackham? Why the need to have such detailed descripions of Henry Rackham Jr.(who rather bored me) when his character, I found, was not very important to the story? Even though the end disappointed me (I was almost angry by it), I still enjoyed the book. Maybe the person penning the movie will think up of a more creative ending.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2003

    ...ending...

    I enjoyed how Michael Farber crafted each page, I completely enjoyed the story and I have recommended this book; the ending needs to be reworked, his editor blew it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2003

    Good Book but not for everyone

    It took a while to get into this book, but after the first 100 pages or so the characters started becoming real to me. It is astonishing how women were treated back then. I read a lot and recommend books to my friends but this one is not a simple read. Almost 900 pages and it took a week to finish but I was determined. The ending could have been a lot better, but you come to your own conclusion as to how everyone ends up.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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