A Mad, Wicked Folly
by Sharon Biggs Waller
Original Publication Date: January 23, 2014
Length: 448 pages
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Obtained Via: Won
Format Read In: Advanced Reader’s Copy
View at the Traffic light:
Welcome to the world of the fabulously wealthy in London, 1909, where dresses and houses are overwhelmingly opulent, social class means everything, and women are taught to be nothing more than wives and mothers. Into this world comes seventeen-year-old Victoria Darling, who wants only to be an artist—a nearly impossible dream for a girl.
After Vicky poses nude for her illicit art class, she is expelled from her French finishing school. Shamed and scandalized, her parents try to marry her off to the wealthy Edmund Carrick-Humphrey. But Vicky has other things on her mind: her clandestine application to the Royal College of Art; her participation in the suffragette movement; and her growing attraction to a working-class boy who may be her muse—or may be the love of her life. As the world of debutante balls, corsets, and high society obligations closes in around her, Vicky must figure out: just how much is she willing to sacrifice to pursue her dreams?
A Mad, Wicked Folly quickly caught my attention as several bloggers I trust read and loved the book. Everyone seemed to love this debut novel with it’s lush historical details and it’s spunky lead who just wanted to follow her passion for art, rules of society be damned. I became enamored with the book from the synopsis, and was eager to fall in love with this book as much as all my friends did. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. As I read, I grew increasingly frustrated at Vicky and the plot of A Mad, Wicked Folly. While I loved the last seventy pages and found it redeemed in the end, I can’t shake all the issues I had with this book leading up to that point.
The opening chapter got me started off on the wrong foot with Vicky. She starts the story by making the decision to pose nude for her art class, which is a pretty standard decision, considering all the other students have done so, but then the artist go off to have lunch and Vicky makes remark about how she wants to be an artist, and not paint “what most other women” paint–things of still life and flowers, things that have no value. She’s rather snide about the whole thing.
And that’s what really got me about Vicky. For saying she supports the suffragettes in theory, and supports other women in theory, she seems to look down on other women the majority of the time. She seems convinced that she’s the only person to care about something, and behaves pure selfishly in a child-like way. I am all for a character who is passionate, but not when that comes at the expense of others. See, Vicky “gets involved” with the suffragettes, but her main reason for doing so? She thinks if she helps them with art, she can get a recommendation letter out of it to apply to the Royal College of Art. That’s it. That’s her reason. The women around her that believe in this cause are going to jail and going on hunger strike for votes. . . and Vicky’s doing it because she needs an art portfolio.
Yeah, I know. The more I think about, the more upset I get. After Vicky is utterly disgraced for posing nude, her parents set her up straight away with a marriage. She gets engaged shortly after she comes home, and her fiance seems decent enough. There’s no chemistry between them, but that’s okay, because he’s a walking checkbook. Vicky immediately jumps to the conclusion that he’ll pay for her art school, even though it’s not the kind of thing typically done my women at this time, but Vicky just assumes it will all be taken care of. As Will says at one point:
“You’re happy to cause a ruck over some things, but it seems to me not when it counts most.”
I do applaud Vicky for working towards her dream and seizing some agency wherever she can, so that part didn’t really bother me, until it became clear that Vicky doesn’t care about anything except her art. Can I just say again that there are suffragettes going to jail and be treating TERRIBLY (and Vicky knows about it), but instead she decides to use this important social movement for her own personal gain. She consistently expects other people to take care of her problems–her dad, her brother, her fiance. She’s willing to work hard on her art, but hardly anything else. And while I appreciate the points I believed A Mad, Wicked Folly was attempting to make about gender equality and feminism, they fell mostly flat for me in the hands of such a deeply unsympathetic character.
Then, there’s the issue of William Fletcher, the delightful police constable who wants to be a writer. Now, make no mistake, Fletcher is wonderful. He’s on the women’s side and does whatever he can to help. He’s nothing but kind to Vicky. They start meeting in secret so that Vicky can draw Will, and also so Vicky can sketch out illustration to go along with Will’s writing. Of course, as the synopsis says, they start developing an attraction to each other. And while I absolutely loved Will, I thought Vicky treated him terribly. Even as she’s admiring him, she keeps making judgement about him because of his class standing in an overwhelming way. I would expect someone like Vicky, due to her upbringing, to have certain prejudices, but she takes it to the extreme while using people she considers “below” her.
By far, however, one of the worst things Vicky does is string poor Will along. She never informs him of her engagement until the worst possible moment. She lets him think she’s available by inviting him into empty houses and going to his flat alone(in 1909, mind you). It’s clear that she likes Will, but at this point, she still plans on marrying Edmund. It made me furious at Vicky for letting it go so long. Will is never anything but cordial, and he certainly didn’t deserve that.
One thing I struggled with when reading A Mad, Wicked Folly is the tension I felt between Vicky’s character and how I read her in context. I realize that Vicky as an upper-class lady in 1909 might have certain prejudices and ideas I disagreed with. That is fine. I’ve read plenty of books with characters that fit that mode. The difference is, however, that those characters never did what Vicky did–string poor Will along, use the suffragette movement for her own advantage, all while trying to get other people to fix her mistakes. So after I read A Mad, Wicked Folly I asked myself if I was judging Vicky too harshly. But I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think for the reasons above, I’m really not. Even in the context of the era, Vicky behaved in terribly and selfishly.
I have written several words about Vicky because I want it to be clear where I’m coming from in this review, not because I couldn’t stand the book. While I had problems with it, I thought A Mad, Wicked Folly was wonderfully written with plenty of historical details. The writing style itself reads like a seasoned author, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for any future books Sharon Biggs Waller writes. It was entertaining, despite my problems with the main character. And as you might imagine, Vicky came around in the end. Indeed, I loved the last seventy pages of this novel! And I am all for character growth. But in Vicky’s case, it was mostly too late. Yes, she learned to finally think of someone besides herself, but the last seventy pages of a 450 page novel doesn’t exactly give much room for that to really be explored.
And despite my problems with Vicky, I was absolutely cheering on her relationship with Will by the end because she made Will happy. I also appreciated the issue of gender equality, which wasn’t address through Vicky’s eyes in a way I found pleasing, but was addressed through other characters in other parts of the novel in a profound way.
A Mad, Wicked Folly had an awesome premise and some great things to say about gender equality. Unfortunately, the story falls so, so short of everything it could be because of the main character. While Vicky comes around eventually, her character development just happened too late in the story, after I felt Vicky showed her true colors. And the way Vicky treats the suffragette movement for 75% of the novel–until she has no other choice but to do something–didn’t sit right with me at all. 2/5 cupcakes.