As a teenager, I believed in God, but I didn't know what he wanted from me. I attended Bible study, befriended the evangelical kids from my school and listened to the Christian rap group dcTalk. I read the Bible and books about staying pure. I wondered if the weird, queasy feeling around my molars was God speaking to me.
But at the same time, I struggled with a battery of overly simplistic religious interpretations of gender and sex that came from the denominations and texts I bumped into during my adolescence. I felt like my faith and my budding feminism were wrestling each other. I read about Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony. I also secreted away books with erotic scenes — Flowers in the Attic, a smattering of Danielle Steel novels. I learned about suffrage and sexism and felt desire and went to church and wondered if everyone felt as confused as I did.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my great-uncle passed away. My mother wanted to attend his funeral and insisted I come with her for company. I had never met him and didn't want to go, so she promised to buy me some books for the car trip from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin.
At the local Borders, I drifted over to the shelf of new releases. Among them was a thick book — almost 900 pages — with a lurid red-and-gold cover and a title that fell off my tongue like a swear: The Crimson Petal and the White. It was everything I wanted: something huge to occupy me for the duration of the trip, but also promisingly illicit. I chose some other, tamer titles to buy alongside it, and tucked Crimson beneath them.
We drove, and as the states fell away beneath us, I read. Crimson begins with a nameless narrator physically leading you, the reader, through vomit-coated cobblestone in turn-of-the-century London, to the doorways of some of the novel's protagonists. Eventually, this voice falls away, and you rotate between the points of view of a large, Dickensian cast of characters, including: William, a feckless, layabout heir to a perfume fortune; his fragile and childlike wife Agnes; his young daughter, Sophie; his deeply religious brother, Henry and Henry's devout friend Emmeline Fox.
And at the center of the story is Sugar, a hypnotically compelling teenage prostitute with sharp wits and an even sharper intellect. She walks into William's radar and becomes the center of his and the reader's obsession; the entire novel warps and bends around her. As she transforms from being William's evening entertainment to kept woman to lover and beyond, she writes a pulpy novel about a woman attaining bloody revenge against the men who have wronged her.
The Crimson Petal and the White was, as I had imagined it would be, sexy. The pages are littered with pornographic scenes, erotic tableaus and bodily fluids of every — every — type. But as I read, I realized something else was going on. On its surface, Crimson seems like a novel that hinges on its own sensational content. But beneath the compelling sexual subject matter, the wildly entertaining theatrics and rich historical detail, The Crimson Petal and the White is ultimately — subtly — a book about feminism.
The male characters recede into the background, and each woman — a sex worker, a religious zealot, a naive wife, a young girl — shuffles off her respective yoke: well-intentioned men, not-so-well-intentioned men, religious literalism, class repression, gender expectations. Their storylines don't all end happily — but there is a sense of possibility, of motion. It is feminism that doesn't announce itself, and explores all of its own complexities and complications.
Feminism, I realized, has many faces, and I could make my faith and my sexuality and gender what I needed it to be to survive.
Carmen Maria Machado has written for the New Yorker, the Paris Review and AGNI, among other publications.