I won’t be giving away too much of the plot by saying that the book is about a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian London. Unusually for young women of that time, she reads books and thinks and intends to get a decent life. She gets started on that route through the owner of a perfume business who falls in love with her.

While she is the heroine, somehow the world of the book revolves more around him. The key persons are his wife, slowly going mad from an undiagnosed brain tumour, his brother, his friends from student days. I’m not sure if this is intentional, but it seems suitable, given how it reflects the order of Victorian society.

The book is based on very thorough knowledge of Victorian England – half of the reviews on the web kept reminding me how 20 years of research have gone into this book. The result is a story full of vivid and believable detail about the lives of low-class prostitutes, the household of a well-to-do businessman, street life, dirt and sounds and smells.

There was dramatic tension enough to keep me gripped all the way through the book. I found some turns of plot a bit hard to believe, especially in the context of a Victorian society, but was willing to overlook them (and a few other technical weaknesses, such as the rather annoying first-person “dear reader” sections) in an otherwise well-told story. And yet somehow something was missing.

There is no purpose to all this wealth of detail and drama. I got no real insight into the characters, and they remained curiously distant. Neither did I really get any deeper insight into the society or times they lived in. And yet there is so much that could have been explored. Class prejudice, to begin with. Or Victorian sexual repression, which makes women into either prostitutes, or ladies who even as grown-ups don’t know where children come from, and are outraged by any hint of body shapes showing through the dress. Or the faint beginnings of a new era, when women are taking a more active role in society, and the importance of aristocracy wanes in favour of businessmen. All of these themes are occasionally hinted at, but never given any real attention.

This reminds me of a curious feature of the book, or rather, its characters. They also lack depth in their thinking, and are all surprisingly shallow. They don’t look further than the surface in others or themselves, and never attempt to understand or explain their behaviour. Judgements are based almost exlusively on prejudice and conventions: men’s prejudices about women’s ability to think, everybody’s prejudices about prostitutes’ weak morals and characters, etc. Life decisions just happen, without much thought of any kind. Admittedly this was a time before the birth of psychology, so I wouldn’t expect the amount of analysis that a modern person would naturally undertake. But surely people of above-average intelligence in any time period would exhibit some independent thought, some attempts to question, to understand?

The most disappointing part was the ending. The story is simply cut off, rather than brought to a conclusion. The author even felt it necessary to add another one of those “dear reader” bits to say that this is the end – otherwise I guess the reader would be wondering if perhaps some pages were missing from their copy of the book. Loose threads are left loose; the main characters’ lives are either destroyed or left in limbo. Nothing is resolved. Nobody grows or develops, nobody is left with a hope for a better life. Even the characters who hadn’t had much misfortune happen to them in the book, were sent off with hints of how they will suffer in the future. Such a bleak and heartless ending was truly depressing, and almost made me wish I hadn’t read the book. In a way the book does have a theme, I guess: “bad things happen to good people”, or “life isn’t fair”.

Reviews tend to describe this book as one of two things: a “Victorian epic” in the tradition of Dickens (of which it falls far short) or as a “bawdy, bold, and lusty romp” (which I find a more accurate description, if you disregard the end). It’s a period piece that never rises above its story. It could have been a really great book, given the effort and knowledge and skilful writing that have gone into it. It’s a bit sad to see that promise unfulfilled. Knowledge and dramatic skills may make a bestseller, but not a great work of literature.

Best review of “The Crimson Petal and the White”: in Salon.