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.