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  Barbara Braid 1 „Now slips the crimson petal, now the white‟ –   monster/angel dichotomy in the representation of women in Michel Faber‟s “The Crimson Petal and the White”    Barbara    Braid   Abstract In Michel Faber’s novel published in 2002, The Crimson Petal and the White ,Sugar and Agnes seem to represent the typical division in Victorian society:women can be either whores (monsters) or ladies (angels). However, theauthor of the novel presents and then subverts those binary oppositions in hisconstruction of female characters. It seems that Sugar, the prostitute and William Rackham’s mistress, is the fallen angel, whereas Agnes, his delicate and beautiful wife - the ideal angel in the house .Still, Agnes is not as angelicas she seems to be at a first glance and the demonic Sugar starts to show hermore emotional and more compassionate side. The labelling of Sugar and Agnes as angels or monsters is a result of William’s ‘male gaze, but it is not only William’s - the implied reader is seduced into the world of the novel.The female characters of the novel do not only escape William’s categorisation in terms of a Victorian female ideal, but they also break freefrom the world of the novel, and as a result, from the gaze of the reader aswell.Key Words:angel in the house  –  female monster  –  dichotomy  –  Michel Faber  –    TheCrimson Petal and the White    –  Neo-Victorian novel Michel Faber’s novel published in 2002, The Crimson Petal and theWhite , can be placed in the realm of the so-called Neo-Victorian fiction, acontemporary trend in literature which aims at a re-evaluation of theVictorian period from the postmodernist point of view. Among the favourite themes for revision is the representation of women, and Faber’s novel is no exception. Two main female characters in the novel, Sugar, a teenageprostitute, and Agnes, a young middle-class lady, seem to represent thetypical division in the Victorian society: women can be either whores(monsters) or ladies (angels). However, the novel is a postmodernist one atthe core; therefore the aim of this paper will be to examine how the author of the novel subverses those binary oppositions in his construction of femalecharacters.The representation of women as monsters and/or angels has beenforever present in the depiction of women in the history of art and literature  ‘Now slips the crimson petal, now the white’  created by men, as it has been famously discussed by Gilbert and Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic . 1 In the Victorian period such a division is even more relevant, as the woman becomes not an ‘imperfect man’, but rather ‘theOther.’ Therefore, she is located on two polarised extremes, as an idealised saint, or a repulsive freak, but always an outsider from the male norm.Thinkers such as Cixous have recognised the discourse of binary oppositionsas the most prevalent way of describing and categorising the male and thefemale (active vs. passive, culture vs. nature, head vs. heart etc). 2 Nowhere isit more visible than in Victorian culture, where the realm of the public, thescientific, the political belongs unquestioningly to man, leaving the private,the physical and the domestic as the only acceptable female space. 3 However,the representation of women in Victorian culture is far from homogeneous. A woman can be a ‘madonna’ or a ‘magdalene’ 4 , an angel or a monster, and shecan transform from one to another instantaneously.A Victorian lady is supposed to be a submissive, gentle, selfless angel in the house , as presented, among others, by Patmore 5 and Ruskin. 6 A Victorian ideal of a woman was ‘disembodied, spiritual, and above all, chaste;’ 7 through her passionlessness, she could remain morally superior andfree of carnal desires that men fell pray to. 8 This belief in the lack of sexualpassion is best expressed in this fragment of an essay by Dr William Acton(1857):The best mothers, wives, and managers of households, knowlittle or nothing of sexual indulgences (…). As a general rule, amodest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification forherself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him;and, but for the desire for matrimony would far rather berelieved from his attentions. 9 A total lack of interest in sexual activity is, however, what can easily put awoman on the monstrous spectrum of this polarised discourse. Femaleinsanity and hysteria were attributed both to sexual aggressiveness as well asa repression of female sexuality. Anything that was deviant from the norm of passionlessness in marriage  –  a norm not easy to follow, as it was more anideal than reality  –  was monstrous and unnatural. 10 For a Victorian woman,turning into a monster was easy. Monstrosity was mainly insanity andhysteria, which could be caused not only by sexual rigidity, but also by toomuch education, which could result in ‘monstrous brains and puny bodies, abnormally active cerebration and abnormally weak digestion; flowing thought and constipated bowels, lofty aspirations and neuralgic sensation,’ 11  or her own body (e.g. menstruation, pregnancy). 12 Monstrosity was also anykind of sexual desire not regulated by marriage, or an overt expression  Barbara Braid 3 female desire. It was finally any kind of unfemininity  –  sexual aggression,intellectual ambition, failure to submit to male dominance, 13 but alsorejection of the duties of a woman, that is, marriage and motherhood. 14 Therefore, behind each angelic face, figure and disposition, a rebel couldlurk: a Lilith, a Medusa, a madwoman. The issues mentioned above reverberate throughout Faber’s novel. On the surface, the division of roles is simple: Sugar, the prostitute, is thefallen angel; although she has the looks and manners of a lady, her passionand sexual prowess put her, a fallen woman, at the margins of Victoriansociety. Her disruption of a moral code would in itself render her insane, andtherefore monstrous, according to the definition by James Cowles Prichard(1837), who defines moral insanity as: (…) madness consisting in morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moraldispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkabledisorder or defect of the intellect or knowing and reasoningfaculties, and particularly without any insane illusion orhallucination. 15 Thus, if contesting a moral norm of Victorian society was a kind of madness,Sugar was definitely a madwoman. And the fact that she would combinesexual perversity with an innocent appearance makes her even more grotesque: ‘she'll do anything the most desperate alley -slut will do, but do itwith a smile of child- like innocence.’ 16 Although she pretends to be assubmissive and pure as any angel in the house , in truth she manipulates menusing her sexual talents and fulfilling their desires.A sexual act, in her fantasy, becomes a prelude to a murderous rage.She writes down these in a novel she creates in secret. Sugar sees herself as aherald of a new era for women  –  she scribbles on the margins of a scientific  journal: ‘There's a new century coming soon, and you and your kind will beDEAD!’ 17 This single-handed revolution in her novel comes through murderscommitted by a prostitute (very much like herself) who prays on her clients, and one which ends with a martyrdom of the main protagonist, as ‘the worldremains in the hands of men, and such revenge cannot be tolerated.’ 18 It’s a revenge on her own childhood abuse and poverty, and it represents her as aMan-Eater, a monster who wants vengeance on all men for the centuries of inequality and abuse. Later, the fragments of this novel read by Williamprove to him that he had admitted a madwoman and a murderess into hishome.The activity of writing is of course connected with critical thinkingso subversive in a Victorian woman. Sugar spends her every free moment  ‘Now slips the crimson petal, now the white’  reading and writing  –  she surprises William, during their first meeting, byquoting Shakespeare and conversing on Swift and Smollett. 19 When she first wants to discuss business with him, he comments: ‘it is a great deal moretransgressive than talk of cocks and cunts.’ 20 Indeed, she becomes his mock business consultant , and, under Sugar’s guidance, his unwanted perfumery inheritance becomes a thriving enterprise. Sugar’s freakishness is also visible in her appearance. When the reader first sees her through the eyes of her old friend Caroline, she isdepicted in an androgynous way, with a body which is ‘stick  -thin, flat-chested and bony like a consumptive young man, with hands almost too big for women's gloves; (…) then, with the first glimpse of this odd creature'sface, the realisation [is] that this boy is female.’ 21 In spite of this (or maybebecause of this) she is one of the most desired ladies of pleasure Carolineknows; even her dry lips and an apparent skin disease do not discourage men.However, it does put her in the realm of the grotesque and queer, and is evenunintentionally confirmed by William himself, who, during their first intercourse, notices: ‘How strange that when she had him in her mouth, it felt as if she had no teeth, whereas now, inside her vagina, the tender nub of his  prick is being nipped by unyielding tucks of flesh,’ 22 therefore symbolicallydescribing Sugar as a vagina dentata, one of the most potent myths of femalemonstrosity. 23 Another such symbolic description appears later in the novel,where during one of their illicit meetings Sugar shows William her ‘talent’, which is squirting water from her vagina: ‘Her cunt opens wide like a nestling's mouth, and with anunsteady hand she sloshes water into it, half a glassful. (…) She repositions her feet on the carpet and, crawling crabwise, sprays a thin jet of water through the air.’ 24 Sugar is compared here not only to animals (nestling, crab), but also hervagina becomes again a mouth, combing the erotic with the grotesque. Agnes, William Rackham’s wife, could not have been more different  –  she seems to be the ideal wife and lady of the house. Typically she isdelicate, blonde, sickly and possibly anorexic. When we first encounter her inthe novel, she descends the stairs with some difficulty, like an old lady or aninvalid. However, she is also described by the narrator as ‘a high - Victorian ideal; (…). She graces a thousand paintings,ten thousand old postcards, a hundred thousand tins of soap.She is a paragon of porcelain femininity, five foot two witheyes of blue, her blonde hair smooth and fine, her mouth like a tiny pink vulva, pristine.’ 25  Barbara Braid 5 Her focus is on preserving her beauty, social occasions and Catholic religion.She had received education typical for ladies of her status  –  embroidery,dancing, music, French and German. In other words, she is an emblematicrepresentative a female stereotype of the leisure class.However, Agnes is not as angelic as she seems to be at a first glance.She is, self-admittedly, lonely, and in the eyes of her husband, mad. Amadwoman in the bedroom, she is tormented by her own demons, whichseem to result from her sexual innocence and total lack of knowledge of her own body: ‘She knows nothing of her body’s interior, nothing; and there isnothing she wants to know.’ 26 Motherless, raised by a step-father and marriedat the age of seventeen, she is not aware of the phenomenon of menstruationand treats her irregular bleeding as literally a curse and an ailment. 27 Shedreams of the Convent of Health, where she can be taken care of by gentlenuns. In her fantasies she also goes back to the times of the childlikeinnocence, before her marriage to William Rackham, before her first season and her adulthood, ‘a pretty picture, like a prayer  -card depicting the girlhood of the Virgin.’ 28 This is an angel, but an angel disembodied and confused.Her rejection of adulthood and sexuality in consequence leads to therejection of motherhood. She knows nothing about pregnancy; when her servant Clara mentions that the baby’s late, Agnes notes in her diary: ‘Whose baby can this be?’ 29 Her growing belly, in her belief, is the result of a demonforce feeding her. When she finally gives birth, she describes a fantasy wherein the Convent of the Health a nurse removes the demon from her body. 30 Asa result of this traumatic experience, she refuses to admit the existence of herown child, and to visit her in the nursery. 31 Far from the maternal ideal of theVictorian era, which claimed that woman’s only sense of life is motherhood, she resembles Lilith who rejects and destroys her own offspring.In opposition, the demonic Sugar starts to show her more emotional and more compassionate side. Not knowing Sugar’s real role in her family, Agnes sees her as her guardian angel, sent by Virgin Mary to protect her. 32  Sugar does help her twice  –  once rescues her in the street after one of hercollapses; later in the novel, Sugar is responsible for Agnes’s escape before she is taken to a lunatic asylum. For Sugar, the relationship with the membersof the Rackham family results in her maturing: now she sees her novel asramblings of a hurt and angry girl. Last but not least, Sugar becomes almost a surrogate mother for Agnes’s daughter; she discovers maternal feelings in herself, and a new aim in life  –  Sophie  –  has a redeeming impact on her life.She saves the girl from a life of loneliness and emotional atrophy. Sugarbecomes an angelic, maternal figure both for Agnes and Sophie.What is even more important in this representation of opposites in the novel is that who is an angel and who is a monster depends on William’s