Last night, Encore began airing the miniseries adaptation of The Crimson Petal and The White, Michel Faber’s novel about Sugar (Romola Garai), an enterprising Victorian prostitute, William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd), the industrialist who becomes infatuated with her, Agnes (Amanda Hale), William’s anorexic wife who becomes convinced Sugar is her guardian angel, and Sophie (Isla Watt), William and Agnes’s daughter, who bonds with Sophie. The series, which continues tonight at 8 PM, weaves a rich tapestry out of the contradictions of Victorian sexuality, the ways in which the rigidity of gender roles damaged both men and women, and the importance of writing for people who were constrained from speaking freely to each other by social mores. As Sugar is drawn deeper into William’s life after he first buys the right to be her sole customer and then moves her into her home, she learns both the limits of the man she believed could rescue her from a life in London’s worst quarters, and the value of her mother, Mrs. Castaway’s (an astonishing Gillian Anderson) bitter perspective on life, even as she summons the courage to truly make a life for herself.
I spoke with The Crimson Petal and The White‘s writer Lucinda Coxon about the challenges of adapting Faber’s extremely dense novel, the meaning of writing for her characters, and the medical abuse of women in Victorian England. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This is very much a miniseries about writers. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the characters’ relationship to their writing. That scene where William, who dreams of being a famous novelist instead of working for his father’s business, is just awful to his mentally ill wife Agnes about her intentions to write as a novel struck me as really one of the saddest scenes in the series.
Agnes, it’s something we develop slightly more than in the book, is that Agnes will write on anything. She’s writing on the windows in the steam of her own breath. I think it’s fantastic that these characters who are incapable of actually speaking to each other and confiding in one another and expressing themselves in any way to one another are all busy desperately committing their passions to paper and imagining that somehow that means they told somebody something, or they’re fulfilled in some way.
I think it is a story about stories, in a sense. It seems to me it’s about whether you can write your own story, whether you can escape the hand you’ve been dealt by writing your way out. And Sugar is, in a sense, writing her way out. She brackets the whole film in a sense. That voiceover is in a sense part of her writing…She’s taught herself to read as kind of a survival mechanism. It’s how she bonds with William in the first place. It’s how she seduces him. She realizes he fancies himself as a writer and that’s what she deploys.
One thing I wanted to ask about was the minior characters around the edges, the Sapphists, a group of lesbian prostitutes, and Sugar’s mother, Mrs. Castaway. You seem to have an enormous amount of fun writing them as a little bit more cartoonish than the core characters. Was it a chance to leave aside realism for a minute?
Well, it’s very pumped-up realism in any case. Mrs. Castaway, I think, is just the most fantastic character, she’s a fantastic character in the novel. Unfortunately, there were bits of her that we had to cut. It was just agony for me that there wasn’t more of her. And Gillian Anderson’s unrecognizable and terrifying. As bad mothers go, I think she really takes the biscuit. But I think that, one of the things I suppose, that strikes you about Sugar in the beginning is one thing the Book of Hate is about is her determination to keep herself full of hate, and to protect herself, and to maintain that kind of carapace. The challenge for her later on is when she becomes vulnerable. She has so much to lose. She has her sense of self to lose. But with Mrs. Castaway, those kinds of ghastly quips, when she says “Elizabeth’s dead,” and Mrs. Castaway says “Gone to a better place,” or “Said she would, didn’t she?” it’s absolutely who she’s become, it’s all she’s got now. That incredible cynicism about the world, that brutal, brutal cynicism is a reminder that the world is a place that means to do you harm and doesn’t care about you, and no one will ever help you. And that has been Sugar’s experience.
Did you narrow down the scope of the novel by focusing on characters that you felt that you really wanted to keep, or just scenes that you wanted to keep?
Actually it was all about the characters all the time. In some ways it was terrifying tackling the book, partly because I really admired it, and I knew it had taken Michele twenty years to write it. You think “I’ll fuck it up.” It’s so terrible. He didn’t want anything to do with the process, so we had no contact with him at all. I felt this enormous kind of burden of responsibility of delivering to him something that he would at least not be completely furious and broken-hearted about. Fortunately that all went very well…
Obviously, William and Sugar, Sugar carries the big arc and William with her. But Agnes is just an astonishing character. The relationship between Sugar and Agnes is I think unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen anywhere. That awful moment where Agnes misidentifies her husband’s prostitute as her guardian angel, and the moment when Sugar realizes that actually she’s going to have to follow through on it. And that she’s going to have to save Agnes. Those are extraordinary moments, I think.
One of the things I thought was fascinating about Agnes, who I love, is the way communication literally makes her ill. You have her vomiting at the opera, you have her breakdown at the breakfast table. Sugar is very kind to her and to a certain extent, that’s about self-preservation. But I think the manifestation of Agnes’ illness spoke to the difficulty of people having anything like an honest conversation. When you do, it’s this heady thing that makes you ill again. There’s no way for her to speak that doesn’t make her sick.
And certainly not to William. I think she’s sort of fine when she’s with Clara, her maid…But with men, it’s impossible…One of the appeals of the story generally is that it feels quite contemporary, I actually think it feels quite modern…There’s Agnes, who’s a dope fiend. Women in that period were using a great deal of opium. It was par for the course. Godfrey’s Elixir was basically an opiate. Chemists were knocking it out by the gallon. And she’s also incredibly eating disordered. The term anorexia nervosa was coined about four years after this novel begins…That was, there was a sort of epidemic of eating disorders among Victorian women of the upper classes who, I suppose, had nothing else they could really control. It was a way of exercising some control over something. Also, Victorian women, to be a proper Victorian wife, you were not supposed to have appetites. Prostitutes had appetites. You weren’t supposed to want sex. And you weren’t supposed to want anything, any pleasures of the flesh. You were supposed to be saintly. And that meant denying yourself these things. So the less you eat, the better you get. There were lots of epidemics of fainting because people were simply so weak.
When I looked into it, I thought, this all feels a bit modern. We’re making a bit of a point here. I was worried about it feeling anachronistic. Of course, when I did the research, it was very, very common.
I think that’s one of the things that’s amazing about period pieces, how we assume that the past is much further away than it is.
And that our problems are all new when they’re simply not.
The sort of secondary plot, tied together by the medical abuse of women, the doctor who is sexually abusing Agnes, delivering what he thinks is treatment. I was also struck by how he didn’t talk to Sugar when he noticed her pregnancy, but felt totally comfortable informing her employer. There’s that sense that the doctor knows what’s good for everyone, and William kind of feels guilty but also comforted when he comes around to the idea that the doctor’s right and he has to put his wife away. It was very striking and disturbing.
There’s that really terrible moment when the doctor says I struggled coming to the decision about whether I should tell you this. And you think, yes, I bet you’ve been sitting home loving that for a long time now. You can imagine the glee of being presented with this grim dilemma about whether to tell. I think in the beginning, he doesn’t tell him and he doesn’t mention it to Sugar because he sort of understands. He doesn’t assume that William is the father, necessarily, but he understands that she will lose her job if they find out she is pregnant. And then, in the end, like William, he just can’t quite be enough of a human to let it go.
I wanted to ask you about writing the abortion sequence, which frankly is striking. American television almost never has characters have abortions. American television women have more miscarriages than anyone else. That is the absolute standard for American television. If women get pregnant, they consider abortions and have conveniently-timed miscarriages all the time. This will be one of the rare abortions to air on American television in years.
Wow. That’s interesting. It’s very harrowing. It’s very harrowing. And you think how hard it is to do, how it doesn’t just work, and she has to try so many different things, and also, the difference is we know this is a child that is actually wanted. There’s a point where she imagines that William might be thrilled. And so she thinks she might be able to keep it, and that is an extraordinary idea. When she realizes it absolutely has to go, that it’s her or it, it’s a survival moment, getting rid of it, and getting rid of every part of herself that ever imagined, the fury, and the revenge of that, trying to erase that from the page, is terrible. And I think that recollection of her mother’s attempts to abort Sugar, her saying “I tried so many ways to get rid of you, but you stuck.” I think it’s very distressing.
I find those scenes, the only scenes I find hard to watch are that and Agnes’s first examination by [the doctor who treats both her and Sugar], I can’t bear, really…I think it’s very significant that when she fully manages to have the abortion at the factory, she has to, for the first time ever, ask for help. And she has to ask Sophie for help. I think it’s the first time she’s ever asked for help.
One thing that’s so striking about the sequence is, thank God for abortion being a medical procedure you can have in an afternoon. The idea that this takes days and days to fully come to fruition is horrifying.
A lot of those chemicals that they used, things like Pennyroyal, that they used to bring about abortions, they’re actually full-system toxins. And one of the side effects of completely toxifying your system is that you have an abortion. But you have to go through all the other effects of the toxification as well. It’s not a kind of specific abortive agent. It just almost kills you and as a consequence.
I wanted to back to what you said about William, who is always so close to getting it…How do you write someone who is that sort of emotionally cut off and un-self-aware and make him sympathetic?
To a degree, one feels sorry for William. He’s had a difficult time, in some respects. His father is obviously a bully. And you see his brother. He’s not the only casualty of the way they’ve been raised. And they’ve been abandoned by their mother. Obviously, as a woman writing a man like that, and writing a man who uses prostitutes casually and constantly, you’ve got to find a way in to understanding that. It was very simple when I thought about it. He’s been abandoned by his mother, he’s afraid of his father, his wife won’t let him touch he at all. He lives in a house surrounded by women, surrounded by servants, his daughter is shut away in the attic, he doesn’t have anything to do with her. He’s full of women and no one ever touches him, literally, no one ever lays a hand on him. I think it’s incredibly powerful, the thing that Sugar recognizes beyond all that preening, faux-literary vanity, is that what he wants is for someone to be kind to him and someone to mother him.
You’re writing a London that really is monstrous. As much as it’s a modern story, there are elements of a pre-modern mindset, that there’s damnation and hell in the center of the city, that there’s this angel who has arrived. Agnes’s committment to her ideas is total and moving in a way.
That era was also an era of cults and all kind of crazy new faith systems. Spiritualism is only just around the corner. I think there’s that James Thompson poem that Sugar recites by the fireside in the very beginning about the world revolving like a mill and grinding out life and death and good and ill. The world just turns. There is no meaning to it. There is no conscience. There is no God. That’s her universe. And that’s the universe that William clings to as well, he’s liberated by it, because of course he’s been oppressed by a belief system. I think that, there are people for whom there being no God is incredibly liberating and joyous. But there is no one in the story who isn’t trying to find a way to make meaning…William, with his writing, that’s what that’s about. He’s not particularly good at it but he imagines it will mean something in some way. He’ll be shaping the world. And I think it is people just desperately grasping, after rejecting God, grasping after a replacement. There’s this kind of constant reference to people trying to save each other, to rescue each other, and the extent to which that’s possible. Humanism is the answer, but God, it’s complicated to get there.