Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller

Today is International Women's Day and this wonderful novel by Sharon Biggs Waller provides young women with the opportunity to reflect on how far women have come  in their struggle for equality over the past one hundred years. Set in London, in 1909, Waller combines the interesting elements of the suffragettes and the art world to create a dynamic, fascinating novel.

Over a century ago, the struggle by women's movement in Britain to obtain the right to vote was in full swing. Women were specifically excluded from voting by the Great Reform Act which passed in 1832. The act used the word "male" instead of "people", thus excluding women from having a say in their national government.  The right to vote movement began shortly after this but seventy years on, in 1903, little had been accomplished.

In October of 1903, the Womens Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed and it was decided that stronger measures were necessary. At the center of the struggle for women's rights was the Pankhurst family; first Richard Pankhurst and then Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst.

Members of the WSPU began demonstrations in front of Parliament, chained themselves to the iron fence outside of Buckingham Palace, and committed arson. Many women were jailed but even in prison they continued to fight on by going on hunger strikes. The movement became increasingly violent and was only interrupted by the advent of World War I. The war effort which saw many women take over jobs formerly done by men, eventually resulted in women achieving the right to vote. (The above was taken from the BBC web, The History of the Suffragettes)

The novel opens in March 1909 and introduces readers to seventeen year old Victoria Darling who is living in Trouville, France, attending Madame Edith's Finishing School For Girls. Victoria has been sneaking out of her boarding school with the help of her friend Lily Northbrook, to work alongside other artists in Monsieur Tondreau's atelier. At Tondreau's atelier, the artists study the nude, referred to as the undraped figure by artists. In Edwardian society such a thing is considered highly scandalous. No self-respectable woman from the upper class would behave in such a way. When the model for the class doesn't show one day, Victoria feels pressured to volunteer so she will be taken as a serious student of art. This decision will life altering consequences for Victoria.

When her posing nude is discovered by a classmate, Victoria is expelled from the finishing school and sent back home to England. She is met by her brother Freddy who has only recently come back into favour with their father, after refusing to be a part of the family business, Darling and Son Sanitary Company. The repercussions for Victoria are just beginning. Her mother informs Victoria that a lady's maid has been hired for her, and that she will make her debut into society shortly. This causes Victoria distress because she knows that the only reason for a debut is marriage. However Victoria's mother hopes that she will still receive an invitation to be presented to the King, as this will be an indication that Victoria's father who supplies plumbing fittings and fixtures will receive a Royal warrant to supply the same to King Edward. Victoria's escapade in Trouville has jeopardized her father's chances at such a warrant.

Victoria also learns that she is to be married off to Sir Henry Carrick-Humphrey's younger son, Edmund. Victoria tries to explain to her mother that she wants to study art, but her mother tells her this is not realistic for a young woman of her class. She tells her that women in polite society do not work and that Victoria is not talented enough to earn a living.

Stunned by her mother's revelations, and determined to discover what she needs to do to apply to the Royal College of Art, Victoria sneaks out of the house and takes a cab to the RCA. There she meets Mr. Earnshaw who tells her that she must submit a sketchbook by the end of April, and as she already suspects, that very few women are admitted.

Christabel Pankhurst
Bouyed by this Victoria decides she will draw the suffragettes who are demonstrating in front of the Parliament buildings. She especially wants to draw Christabel Pankhurst, the beautiful leader of the women's rights movement in Great Britain. During the demonstration the police show up and arrest Victoria along with the suffragettes including Victoria who loses her sketchbook. Distraught over the loss of her sketchbook, she begs a police man named William Fletcher who seems sympathetic to the suffragettes to save her book.  Fletcher helps Victoria get released from jail and he escorts her to the home of her brother, Freddy.

Freddy tells Victoria that Edmund is more forward thinking than his father. He tells her that once she's married to Edmund, she will have her own money and be able to attend college to study art. Victoria decides that she will marry Edmund by the end of the summer so she can attend attend the RCA in the fall. All she needs is to apply by the end of April, write the exam and be accepted in August.

The next day Victoria is lectured by her father to focus on marriage and becoming a wife and mother. He tells her that her duty in life is "to be pretty and entertaining" to her husband. However, when the Carrick-Humphreys come for dinner, disaster strikes as Edmund gets Victoria drunk and she argues with Sir Henry. This is the final straw for Victoria's father and he has her art supplies removed.

Furious, Victoria vows to live her life on her own terms. She becomes involved in the WSPU working on Sylvia Pankhurst's mural for the Women's Exhibition, and more importantly, she enlists Will Fletcher to pose for her an artist's model in return she will illustrate his short novels. In an unexpected turn of events, Victoria's new lady's maid turns out to be the youthful and very capable Miss Sophie Cumberbunch. Victoria finds Sophie to be both an aide and a sympathizer, who will help her complete her application for the RCA despite her parents objections. In Will she finds a muse and true love.  As her love for Will grows, Victoria becomes more distraught over her forthcoming marriage to Edmund who seems less suitable with each passing day.

When Sir Henry threatens to destroy everything Victoria has worked, for she must make a decision to either accept her fate marrying Edmund and live life as a society lady and lose forever her dream of being an artist, or stand up for herself and her dreams.

This beautifully crafted novel truly captures the essence of early 20th century society when industrialization was leading rapidly to modernization and a changing society. Waller weaves an intricate tapestry of domestic and public life in the early 1900's throughout the novel. Readers see life as it was for the very wealthy through the Darlings and the Carrick-Humphreys,  as well as the ordinary workers such as Will Fletcher's family. Women of privilege looked down on the lower classes, refusing any contact with them.

But society was changing. Many women were no longer content to remain in the home, relatively uneducated or uninvolved in the life of the nation and society. They were demanding a voice in society through the vote.

The world was fresh out of the Victorian age in which many contradictions existed. For example, in the novel, Victoria remarks that great works of art portraying the nude, such as Waterhouse's Mermaid, are admired and displayed, yet the process of creating those works is considered "unspeakable".

Waller has created a strong heroine in Victoria Darling. Victoria is resourceful and determined,  and has an almost mercenary approach to achieving her dream of someday become an exhibiting artist. She's willing to marry a man she doesn't love which might make her seem like she is using Edmund - and to an extent she is just as his family is using Victoria to settle Edmund in his way. This shows how marriage in Edwardian times was rarely for love and often for arranged for other reasons such as wealthy and social status. Victoria also considers that she has a social responsibility to the women who will come after her. While staying with her brother Freddy and his wife Rose, while watching her little niece sleeping, Victoria decides that she does not want her niece to face the same limited choices for her life. This is when Victoria knows she has to take a stand, so that future generations of women will be able to live their lives as they choose.

Waller also sets up a wonderful contrast between the two men Victoria must chose between. William Fletcher is everything Edmund Carrick-Humphreys is not. Will and Edmund are at opposite ends of the social spectrum, their lives as different as could be imagined. Will is frugal and hard-working, saving his money to purchase a gift for Victoria that was well above what he could afford. In contrast, Edmund has a gambling problem, lives in luxury that he doesn't have to pay for. Will deeply cares for Victoria's well being and understands her passion for art because it is similar to his passion for writing. Edmund's indifference to Victoria's desire to attend art school and his reluctance to stand up for her to his father, finally make Victoria understand who he really is. 

Although this is a long novel, it is well paced, packed with historical detail and has a suspenseful but satisfying ending. Sharon Biggs Waller has done her research and it shows. A Mad, Wicked Folly, whose title is a reference to Queen Victoria's remarks about the women's movement,  is chock full of many interesting themes including identity, the role of women in early 20th century, women's emancipation, the effect of industrialization on society and women artists.

For an interesting blog post in which Sharon Biggs Waller writes about the research process for this novel check out this entry over at Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks.

Christabel Pankhurst image taken from

Book Details:
A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller
New York: Viking     2014
431 pp.

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