Today on Feminist Fiction, we're hosting Sharon Biggs Waller, author of A Mad Wicked Folly (officially on bookstore shelves on January 23rd). I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of the novel, and I am absolutely in love with it. It's about art, freedom and Suffragettes in Edwardian London, and it's a gorgeous, compelling, wonderful book. Definitely the best historical YA I've ever read, and one of my favorite YA novels, period. I'll be putting up a full review on Friday, but in the meantime, here's Sharon Biggs Waller to talk about the history of women in art, writing the Suffragettes, and her inspiration for combining the two. First of all, could you give us a quick summary of A Mad, Wicked Folly?
The story is about Victoria Darling, an upper class Edwardian teen who longs to become a fine artist but is restricted by society. When she’s caught posing nude for an illicit art class, she’s expelled from her French finishing school and sent home in disgrace. Her humiliated parents try to tame her by taking away her art and arranging a marriage to a wealthy young man. Unwilling to give up her dream, Vicky tries to get into the Royal College of Art, despite the obstacles. When she falls in with a group of suffragettes and meets a handsome young police constable who becomes her muse, and maybe the love of her life, Vicky has to decide whether to remain in a world where she feels safe or to step out into an unknown world where her voice is heard and her opinions matter.
A Mad Wicked Folly combines the fight for women’s suffrage with an individual’s great passion for forbidden art. What inspired you to combine these two elements in the novel?
I knew my character wanted to be something outside the usual feminine pursuits, something that was forbidden. Vicky wanted to be an artist who drew the nude figure, which was something easily attainable for a boy but certainly not for a girl. It was really challenging for me at first because I couldn’t work out how I was going to set Vicky’s story against the backdrop of women’s suffrage, but then I discovered how important art was to the suffrage cause—it was the way they got their message out. They created cartoons, illustrations, posters, banners, and postcards. When I discovered the suffrage art workshop and Sylvia Pankhurst’s massive mural for the Women’s Exhibition, both of which were during the time of my story, I knew how I could connect the two elements. This is what I love about research; it’s like excavating a story sometimes.
The novel features several real women involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Was it difficult to represent such well-known figures in the novel?
It wasn’t difficult, but I was careful to be respectful about how I portrayed them, not just because I wanted to be accurate but also because the Pankhursts still have family living. Of course I had to fictionalize the dialogue between Sylvia and Victoria but I made sure that what Sylvia was saying was truly how she had felt. Some of what she said to Vicky is in her own words, in particular how torn she felt about spending time creating art when people were not free.
I don’t think I’ve seen a book before that explores the barriers women faced if they wished to be artists. How did you go about researching this, considering that there aren’t many famous female artists? Did you uncover anything interesting that you couldn’t include in the book?
Women were allowed to be artists but they were encouraged to stick with decorative work. Few women were allowed to draw from the nude because that would be considered scandalous behavior. When I first started researching women in art, I remembered reading an article in England about the fig leaf that had been attached to a cast of the statue of David so that Queen Victoria wouldn’t be offended, and tin fig leaves had been used to cover other statues’ male anatomy. I found evidence of female drawing classes held in the V&A museum, most had to use the fig leaves, but a few chose not to. Although the Royal College of Art admitted women, they were still very biased toward men. Sylvia Pankhurst had protested against the lack of scholarships granted to women at the RCA. She was branded a troublemaker for doing so.
Unfortunately, women are still pushed to the side in the art world. There’s an organization of American female artists called the Guerilla Girls, and they strive to expose sexual and racial discrimination in the art world. One of their posters says less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 85% of the nudes are female. That’s very telling.
Vicky has an interesting relationship with her mother. At first, her mother seems entirely at odds with her, but as the book goes on, Vicky discovers more similarities between them than she originally thought. Could you tell us a little about how you developed this relationship in the novel?
All characters on the page should be unique, no matter how important they are or how much they say or do—even the smallest walk-on character. One reason is that the real world isn’t full of faceless characters, so you should never people your fictional world with cutout characters or clichéd characters. They shouldn’t upstage your protagonist, but they should have their own individuality so that your story has color and life. For another reason, if a character is in your story, he or she needs to be there for a reason. That character has to either help or obstruct your protagonist. The best characters have their own arc, developing in the story alongside the protagonist. So I needed to know who Mrs. Darling was and why she behaved toward her daughter as she did, what her own hopes and dreams were and why she had abandoned them. Vicky grew to understand that things were different in mother’s time. There weren’t role models helping point the way, like Vicky had, and I think, at least I hope, Vicky’s understanding of her mother made her less self-absorbed and able to see someone else’s struggles.
Finally, what are you working on next?
I’m working on two things. I’m revising a story set in Scotland during the 18th century and the second is set in England in the early part of Victorian era. Both have very interesting backdrops but I can’t say anything more or my agent will kill me! : )
Sharon Biggs Waller grew up around artists and developed a passion for Edwardian history and the Pre-Raphaelites when she moved to England in 2000. She did extensive research on the British suffragettes for her novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY when she wasn’t working as a riding instructor at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace and as a freelance magazine writer. She also writes non-fiction books about horses under her maiden name, Sharon Biggs. She is a dressage rider and trainer and lives on a 10-acre sustainable farm in Northwest Indiana with her British husband, Mark.