The Crimson Petal and the White and seeing Victorian London

London 1874, keep your wits about you, this city is vast and intricate, and you do not know your way around. You imagined from other stories you read that you know it well, but those stories flattered you: you are an alien from another time and place altogether. You don’t even know what hour it is, nor do most where you’re going.

Sugar, Episode One.                                                                                                       

Victorian London has returned to British screens with the dramatization of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White, yet in much darker shades than the period dramas that have preceded it. The original novel, set amongst the back streets of St Giles and the loftier areas of respectable London in 1874, is a complex tale of love, madness, suspicion and revenge revolving around the central character, a prostitute and writer known only as Sugar. In adapting it to the screen the BBC challenged the director, Marc Munden, to create something which was, in the words of producer David Thompson, ‘really different’. As Munden writes on a BBC production blog that was the ‘first challenge…trying to create a world that was credibly Victorian but…unrecognisable from any cosy historical world we had seen on TV before’. Yet Munden and the BBC are not the only ones recasting the image of the streets of Victorian London in the public eye; with two new exhibits at the Museum of London spanning the street life of London from the 17th century to the present, the real and the imagined of the Imperial Metropolis, and the steps in between, deserve re-investigation.  

‘This city is vast and intricate…’

‘I was afraid’, Munden recalls, to portray St Giles, as anything less than the ‘hellish place’ that is depicted in the novel – ‘dangerous, unsanitary, desperate’. The production team settled on the courtyard of Manchester Town Hall, a Gothic monument to the civic pride of the Victorian age, and using a horde of props and ‘tons of mud, built slums and open sewers within it’. It was the re-creation of a feel of authenticity, rather than historical accuracy per se, that Munden and his film crew were aiming for in adapting The Crimson Petal and the White.

The novel’s author, Michel Faber, is himself cagy about quite how much of his image of Victorian London is grounded in fact. In his postscript he mentions research in passing, claiming he consulted far too many to mention here. A videoed interview with the author, part of a web publicity drive by the publishers, goes further, and Faber emphasises how important the feel of reality was for his novel. ‘I really just cherry picked the Victorian era for the bits that I found inspirational’, he admits, but having read a series of manuscripts by American authors sent by his publishers, filled with incongruous ‘clangers’, Faber delved much deeper and consulted a series of experts to arrive at something that he felt was ‘unusually accurate’ for a neo-Victorian portrayal of late nineteenth-century society.

It was this quest for an image of street life that felt accurate that governed the depictions of street dwellers in contemporary print. The Street Cries exhibition charts a changing attitude to the poor of the metropolis the introductory text claims, as although a few of the engravers and artists experimented with a more realistic style of image ‘the demand…was small’, and the prints which proved increasingly popular into the nineteenth century were those depicting the street traders as stereotypes or ‘comic grotesques’.

Street Cries

Title display for the Street Cries exhibition showing some of the caricatures featured in the exhibit.

This determined imagination of poor urban dwellers in a particular way had clearly been going on before the Victorian era; Ben Wilson, in Decency and Disorder, paints a convincing picture of Georgian society as one obsessed with the imagined scandals of feasts of beggar-kings grown rich off their supposed earnings and of rambunctious night-time revels with women of ill-repute epitomised in Pierce Egan’s 1820s Tom and Jerry stories. Yet it was the Victorian period that saw a much more complex negotiation between the fictional and the real as the vast metropolis of nineteenth-century London served as inspiration for a growing series of novels, periodicals and penny-dreadfuls, but also as a laboratory for early sociological studies of the poor.

‘You imagined from other stories you read that you know it well…’

The population of London swelled during the nineteenth century from just over one million in 1800 to around six and a half million at the end of Victoria’s reign. The overcrowding and squalor are stereotypes as familiar to Victorian observers as their modern contemporaries given the vivid descriptions of contemporary authors and the subsequent adaptations on stage and screen these have received. This image of the dark and crowded Victorian city had a powerful hold over the production team; Munden references the engravings of Gustave Doré ‘where the light barely makes it to the ground through the narrow chasm of terraces’ as a source of reference, providing a link for readers to a copy of Over London – by Rail from Doré’s 1872 London: A Pilgrimage.



 Yet some of the viewers commenting on the BBC website were less than impressed by the depiction of Victorian London. ‘Why is London always filmed in Northern cities or in Ireland?’ asked one, frustrated by the decision to redress part of Victorian Manchester as St Giles for the filming. ‘London has brick buildings’ she observed, and  ‘St Giles and the “Rookeries” would have been crumbling narrow 17th and 18th brick built tenement slums with weatherboard outbuildings…and not stone built wide streets’. Not all viewers were so concerned, one commentator speaking for many when he labelled ‘comments about historical relevance sadly tiresome’.

Quibbles about building materials aside, however, the both the temporary London Street Photography 1860-2010 and the permanent Charles Booth map-room at the Museum of London offer new perspectives on how the respectable classes of Victorian society understood what they saw on the streets of London. Charles Booth and his research team, whose social investigation into Life and Labour of the people in London stretched across the 1880s and 1890s, literally walked every street of the city in the company of a local police officer. Walking the streets of St Giles in 1898, twenty-four years after Faber’s novel is set, shows that although the area had improved from the real slums populated by the fictional cast, some of the reputation still lingered. Whilst the surrounding streets were coloured reds and pinks, denoting working people earning a comfortable income in respectable occupations on Booth’s map, Trinity Court was a spot of black, labelling its inhabitants ‘vicious and semi-criminal’. This was not a brothel, PC Tait insisted to Booth’s observer, but beds there were let out 6d a night to ‘women of low repute’. Parts of St Giles were still clearly associated with the area’s shadier past, which, according to Sugar, saw beds too dirty, hearths too cold and décor too shabby to attract richer clients. Whilst Sugar herself is a work of fiction, assumptions and prejudices such as hers can be seen in the interviews with policemen, charity workers and other professionals carried out by Booth and his associates, as they proceeded to label Victorian London according to their observations. They were of course, unlike Sugar, outsiders – determining what residents felt about areas such as St. Giles is much harder.


Part of the computerised Booth map demonstrating the observational comments upon which much of the colour-coding was based.

The early street photographs featured in the temporary exhibition offer the viewer tantalizing glimpses of the street-life of Victorian London. Some of the most fascinating are those by Paul Martin, one of the first to pioneer the type of candid street photograph that we know today. Disguising his camera as a parcel to catch people unawares, Martin’s pictures have an almost tangible quality; an old woman sells magazines near Ludgate Circus in one, whilst in another a Billingsgate Market porter is caught mid-step, a large basket perched nonchalantly on his head. Other older, and by necessity more staged, pictures by Arthur Epson and John Thompson allow the viewer to step into a world of working-class London from which there are few if any first-hand accounts. Yet a closer look at these photographs suggests something more posed and arranged than merely the requirements of exposure time for nineteenth-century cameras. Thompson’s ‘Hookey Alf’ of Whitechapel and its corresponding text paints a vivid picture of a hook-handed man whose story, Thompson assured his readers, ‘is a simple illustration of the accidents that may bring a man to into the streets’ through sickness, injury and sheer bad luck. In many ways ‘Hookey Alf’ was exactly the sort of compelling story that Thompson’s well-healed readers expected to find in a book depicting life on the streets of the capital.

 ‘You are an alien from another time and place…’

In his online interview Faber remained pragmatic about the historical accuracy of his work. ‘Obviously there’s still going to be some errors in it’ he admitted, his task was to avoid the aforementioned ‘clangers’ and produce something which felt right. Historians and literary critics have, in the past few years, turned their attention to Victorian attempts to make their own portrayals of cotemporary London feel right. Seth Koven has explored the world that Dr Barnardo, the great children’s philanthropist, created with his pen and his camera, often dressing recently-arrived children in clothes far more ragged than their actual garments to elicit more sympathy from potential charitable donors. For Barnardo, as with the street photographers and engravers depicted in these exhibitions, it was an exercise in image management – he was giving charitable visitors exactly what they expected to see. Likewise the historian Alan Mayne argues that the slums of the Victorian era were social constructs, created by prejudice and assumption in the newspapers of the day, stereotypes which had a powerful impact over the slum clearance projects that followed the Victorian age. What these works do not address, of course, is how the actual residents of Victorian St Giles understood their home, yet these exhibitions have opened up the world of nineteenth-century London along one fascinating theme taken from The Crimson Petal and the White – that supposition and imagination fed into Victorian cultural understandings of London just as much as the physical city around them. The two were completely intertwined. 

Further Reading:                                                                                                                  Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.                                                                         

Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in late Victorian London, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.                                  

Rosemary O’Day and David Englander, Mr Charles Booth’s Enquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London Reconsidered, Hambledon Press: London, 1993. 

Link to the Charles Booth papers online:

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