Another post on The Crimson Petal and the White, simply because the television dramatisation of the book proved to be such a roaring success. And the VV must also take time to admit that her previous fears were proved to be wrong - in that the screenwriters had not cut the part of William Rackham's little daughter, Sophie. She was there after all, and wonderfully played by the child actor, Isla Watt - and the VV's only reservation was that in the final episode Sophie's future appeared to be safe and secure, whereas in the book the conclusion was far more ambiguous and, if anything, the suggestion was that Sophie might well go on to be trapped in Sugar's previous way of life - with Sugar acting the madam, just as her own mother had done before - which would have been tragic for all concerned - and which would have haunted William Rackham who, despite the VV's initial doubts was admirably played by Chris O'Dowd.

Chris O'Dowd went on to truly 'possess' William Rackham's character, leaving the viewer poised between angry contempt for his boorish and selfish vanity, and complete and utter pity for the ultimate end fate had in store when he was totally outplayed by the prostitute he might have ruined - just as he ruined his wife before when so blind to her pain and suffering.

And when that final episode was screened in Waterstone's Piccadilly last week, followed by a question and answer session with the author Michel Faber, and the actor Romola Garai (who played Sugar so brilliantly), the evening was attended by the writer and actor, Kate Mayfield, who has written the following article -

'An invisible passion ran throughout Waterstone’s event room as the last instalment of The Crimson Petal and the White was screened to over forty eager viewers. After the last image of Sugar and Sophie on the smoky train platform faded, some doors opened and Michel Faber, the author, Lucinda Coxon, the screenwriter, and Romala Garai, the actress who played Sugar, walked into the room.

Michel Faber opened the discussion with his opinion that authors have impossible expectations when their work is adapted. He was impressed and delighted with the series and had no negative experiences. When his book was first published he did not go directly to Google to gauge readers’ reactions, but after the first episode aired, he was eager to find out what people were saying.

Michel wrote the book three times. You might recall in the opening of both the novel and the series a nameless woman is run over by a cab. In the first draft Sugar met her end the same way, while Sophie stood by as a horrified witness to Sugar’s demise. The prostitute Caroline rescued Sugar’s novel only to burn it for warmth. Thankfully, Michel’s wife screamed, ‘No, you mustn’t do that to the readers, or to the characters’.

When asked how he approached the characters he said, “They were not an artificial construct. Once they were real it wasn’t difficult.”

Michel said he could easily give a forty-five minute lecture on the research for the novel. Many people thought he made things up, as in the books and pamphlets cataloguing the prostitutes. The real books of the era were even grimmer, wherein prostitutes were described as grades of hanging slaughtered meat. “One that had hung too long was a bit wiffy.” As intense as his representation of the rookery, the lives and fates of prostitutes were, he toned it down, the reality being much worse.

Michel thought there should have been six instalments instead of four. Lucinda Coxon agreed. She regretted that there was not time to include more of the characters of Henry and Mrs. Fox, an impossible task in four hours.

The project was first brought to Lucinda Coxon by an American studio, from which she immediately bowed out. She rightly thought it wouldn’t survive the process. Time passed and she was raring to go with “a fire in her belly” when the project fell into her hands again and to the BBC. Then Lucinda did something she’d never done before. She ripped the book apart into four sections so that she could travel with it on the tube, and it wasn’t surprising to hear that her biggest challenge was the compression of such a long novel. 

In speaking of adjustments and liberties taken, Lucinda couldn’t find a way to wink at the audience to relay that Agnes suffered from a brain tumour and decided to focus instead on the condition of anorexia, so prevalent in Victorian upper and middle class women whose food intake was the one thing they could control in their lives.

At the end of the novel, Cheesman, the carriage driver, demands and receives sex from Sugar before he allows her to escape. Lucinda said she couldn’t bear it, and had Sugar strike him with her walking cane, finally able to express her anger physically.

Lucinda saw Sugar as such an epic heroine that there could be nothing “domestic” about the ending. It was not important for us to know exactly what happened next. Michel was pleased with the image of the fresh, clean pieces of parchment upon which Sugar begins a new draft of her novel, a new life. We see the blank page at a point where we can no longer look up her knickers, or watch her scratch herself. She finally has her privacy.

Sugar was a role that Romala Garai fought hard to win, but like many large roles, once it was hers she was daunted. She called it “a strange piece of casting” for Sugar was unlike her in every way.

The powers that be at the BBC weren’t comfortable with the idea of a heroine having eczema. The images we’ve seen of Sugar’s eczema-tortured skin were possible thanks to Romala who fought to wear the ugly latex patches.

Romala’s biggest challenge was that she loved Sugar so much she had to continually resist the urge to make her invincible. Sugar is strong in many ways, but also incredibly vulnerable and tender. Romala loved the research, but the director pulled her away from it and asked her to focus on each moment.

All three agreed that what they had learned from the experience was related to the illusory power of women – and how not much has changed. Their opinion was that today women are offered the appearance of power, but someone else is often calling the shots.

Michel Faber ended the evening by saying the success of the book reconfirmed that readers are intelligent and still long for a good story. He was heartened by the fact that literary fiction survives as long as there are characters and story.'

Kate Mayfield

Kate Mayfield's own book is called The Undertaker's Women. You can learn more about Kate, read excerpts from her book, and watch a film trailer which she narrates at this website.

And finally, for a related post, see THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE...


  1. Fascinating to read that Lucinda Coxon could bear to let Sugar exchange sex with Cheesman for her freedom. I was frustrated by this in the original book, and seeing the change in the televised series, I felt like we readers (rather than Sugar, perhaps) were offered some redemption, a nod towards our own yearnings. Loved the book and the series.

  2. Yes - it was painful in the book - but I think it was also Faber's very deliberate way of saying, this is real life. This is what Sugar is and what she does to get what she wants.The question is, was it the last time. I have the feeling that, as far as Faber goes, the answer is no,and how horrible are all of the implications of that for little Sophia. But he gives us another of crust to hope that Sugar will be more of a mother than a madam...and that her writing and cleverness will ultimately prevail. But then, this is a gritty, dirty world where women are far from on a level footing...and I come back down on the side of a very depressing outcome.

  3. Brilliant post, Sarah, I absolutely adored this dramatisation (I didn't read the book although I am very tempted to now the series is finished). I'm still not certain which I adored more, the haunting cinematography or the compelling characterisation, it is sorely missed in our house. Great to read this excerpt.

  4. An absolutely riveting and brilliant dramatisation of a great novel. I was gripped by the laptop and the plot throughout.

  5. We haven't got the series over here yet, but I'm hoping we will. I've put the book on my TBR list, it sounds fascinating.

  6. Finally got to watch this here in the US and I liked and agree with most of your post. Where we differ is that you think Sugar might prostitute Sophia, I do not. I think Sugar would rather die than hurt that child. I felt that way when I read the novel years ago, and watching the series only confirmed my feelings on the subject.

  7. I thoroughly recommend reading The Apple - a book of short stories, all related to The Crimson Petal and the White, which was written afterwards by Faber. It sheds a certain amount of light on what happens to most characters afterwards.

  8. anyway poor spohia will be child prostitute sad