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Swellboy on… the ‘sensation’ novel

Why ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is such a sensational series

Swellboy on… the ‘sensation’ novel

April 28 2011
Nick Foulkes

As well as catering to prurient preconceptions that the 19th-century gentleman was, ipso facto, a hypocritical nymphomaniac who preached stern morality but practised vice (while keeping his mad wife locked in the attic or sedated in the bedroom), and reinforcing the stereotypical ideal of alabaster-skinned feminine beauty, the recent television series The Crimson Petal and the White has reawakened my interest in the 19th-century sensation novel.

Chief among practitioners of this genre of literature was Wilkie Collins, who, true to the double standards of the time, maintained two separate domestic establishments; which, given that Collins was shrewd when it came to business, was probably as much of a career move as anything (after all, his mentor Dickens managed to maintain his position as the great literary panjandrum and juggle a wife and mistress).

To the modern reader, these books are perhaps not as a satisfactory as the canonical works of Dickens. Nevertheless they do have entertainment value: a plot, rendered ludicrous by the passage of a century and a half, that twists, turns and writhes with outrageous implausibility and some marvellous stock characters, chief among whom is the minor villain or confidence trickster.

Take, for instance, Captain Wragge of Collins’s No Name, a man whose cheerful amorality is signalled by particoloured eyes: one green, the other brown. He describes himself as a “moral agriculturist” and he peregrinates around the country practising what, since watching The Grifters, I have learnt to call short cons. At the end of the book he is rewarded with transformation into a patent-pill plutocrat, proprietor of an enterprise promising the ultimate panacea yet delivering a placebo.

There is a pleasing mirror-like symmetry in real life in the fact that William Henry Cole, a 19th-century quinine magnate, was the grandfather of the splendidly named Horace de Vere Cole, who perpetrated the great dreadnought hoax of 1910, fooling the Admiralty into rolling out the most carmine of crimson carpets for a bunch of oriental princes who were nothing of the sort (one of them was Virginia Woolf). In the light of this stunning practical joke, the barmy and implausible plots of Wilkie Collins begin to seem rather mundane.

But, double standards notwithstanding, I suppose this is what I tend to like about the morality of the mid-Victorians. There is a sort of scale of rascality that ranges from the mild irresponsibility of Messrs Skimpole and Micawber of Bleak House and David Copperfield respectively, through such small-time charlatans as the brown and green-eyed Captain, to the big fish such as Trollope’s Melmotte. And, unlike the modern financial world, there is a point around the level of the wonderful Montague Tigg of Martin Chuzzlewit where graduating from mere sponging and conning into wholesale fraud costs the miscreant in question his life, either at his own hand or that of another malefactor.

It is these characters, with their distorted and exaggerated ways, who make such a memorable impression, and dutifully following its 19th-century forebears, The Crimson Petal and the White delivers a wonderfully creepy doctor played to the hilt and beyond by Richard E Grant. When the time comes, as I sincerely hope it will, for a TV adaptation of No Name, Grant is a shoo-in for the role of the seedily seductive Captain Wragge, not to mention the role of Horace de Vere Cole when his biopic is made.