Set in Edwardian London, Sharon Biggs Waller's debut A Mad Wicked Folly is a lush, addictive story of art, independence and Suffragettes.
Victoria Darling is an aspiring artist in a society where female artists aren't given opportunities or taken seriously. After she's expelled from her Parisian finishing school for posing nude in her art class, her family decide that she's had her own way for too long. Either she marries the man that her parents have picked out for her, or she is to be shipped off to live as a companion with her aunt in Norfolk. But Vicky is determined to go to the Royal College of Art to study painting, and if her parents won't support her, she'll take the independence that she thinks marriage will give her and pursue her career as an artist that way instead. But first, she has to get accepted to the college. That means replacing the sketchbook of work that her parents took from her -- including the life drawings -- and finding a graduate of the school to write her a letter of reference. And although Vicky has never thought much about politics before, her best (and only) option seems to be to impressive Suffragette artist and RCA graduate Sylvia Pankhurst, who is seeking artists for her mural for the Suffragette cause.
A Mad Wicked Folly combines the threads of art, individual freedom and the Suffragette movement in a masterful way. Vicky is both incredibly privileged and incredibly confined at the same time -- she has little space to make choices for herself, but she has a lot more stability and comfort than many of the other women around her. She is, at times, somewhat selfish and more than a little naive. But her struggle and growth throughout the book are compelling, and the way that the Suffragettes inspire her to both think about and fight for others and to also take risks and fight for herself leads to an incredibly gratifying, emotional and enjoyable novel.
One really interesting element of A Mad Wicked Folly is how it plays with the "not like other girls" trope. At the start of the novel, Victoria is convinced that most other girls are frivolous, vain, boring creatures, always gossiping and obsessed with fashion. She feels no connection to her mother and, apart from one good friend, prefers the company of male artists to the other girls at her finishing school. But as Vicky struggles to be seen as more than "just a girl" throughout the novel, she learns, rather gratifyingly, that her resentment of other girls is rather misplaced. For one, she meets many women who are even braver and bolder and more determined than she is, women willing to sacrifice almost everything to fight for their rights, women who are self-sufficient where she is still entirely dependent and a little bit spoiled. Women like her new Suffragette friend Lucy, who is brass and outspoken, but also artistic, and like her new lady's maid, Sophie, who does care about style and fashion, but who also cares about politics. And although Vicky would never want to be a woman like her mother, her journey in the novel allows her to understand her more, and see how society and expectations have shaped her mother and taken away the ambition and talent that she also once possessed.
As Vicky learns, her society's restrictions on women, and particularly upper-class women, mean that she simply can't have it all. She can't stay with her family, marry rich, lead a life of leisure and be an artist, at least not with the choices she's been given. And that, to me, is part of what makes the novel feel so real. There are no magical solutions here. No rich true love will swoop in to save and support her. She's not going to suddenly come into an independent fortune. Her traditional family will not change, and neither will her ambitions. Sharon Biggs Waller paints an Edwardian London that is lush in its accuracy and detail, and Vicky is similarly tied by reality. She may burn with ambition, and her journey in the novel is self-affirming and inspiring, but tough choices lie ahead of her too.
If you like historical fiction, if you care about the history of feminism, if you're interested in art or just want a damn good book, you should definitely give A Mad Wicked Folly a read. It may only be January, but I already know it's going to be one of my top picks for the year.