February 27, 2014

Review: A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller
Published: 2014, Viking Juvenile
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Source: Library
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“This is why we all fight so hard. Not just for the vote, but for an equal opportunity in the world. A vote is a voice. I think you underestimate yourself, Queenie. This is your fight, same as it is mine.”

I confess that A Mad, Wicked Folly disappointed me. Once again, I fear that it was the hype that did me in. I mean, it sounded like such a perfect book for me: art, suffragettes, an Edwardian heroine unwilling to allow her gender determine her place in society, who strives to be better than her male peers. But ultimately it’s not as much of a “me” book as I had hoped.

As the daughter of an upper middle class family, Vicky Darling’s life is more or less set out for her. And as far as her parents are concerned, Vicky is in France to attend a finishing school. When they learn otherwise - that Vicky has not only been secretly taking art classes, but that she agreed to pose nude for her fellow artists - she is immediately sent home. The only way they see Vicky’s name (and their own) back in good graces once more is to focus on Vicky’s societal debut and arrange for her marriage.

Unsurprisingly, Vicky is not consulted. But Vicky is about as far-removed from the passive, submissive exemplar of a girl of quality as is possible. She dreams of becoming a renowned artist, societal expectations be damned. It is this dream that got her in trouble in France, and it is this dream that continues to get her in trouble back home in England, as she advocates for a quick marriage (the easier to be emancipated from her conventional parents), befriends a police constable (who becomes her artist’s muse), and slowly ingratiates herself with the suffragette movement (for who truly understands her plight better than other women advocating for gender equality). Vicky is determined to attend the Royal College of Art (RCA) and is willing to do just about anything to make that dream come true.

It quickly became clear that A Mad, Wicked Folly is the product of a substantial amount of research. From the focus on high society dress, food, and customs to the art culture of the time to the burgeoning suffragette movement, readers are transported back to Edwardian England. The time period is not one I’m very familiar with, so I found it fascinating to read about this society on the brink, edging away from more stuffy Victorian sentiments but only hesitantly coming to accept the changes that come with a more modern culture.

Art is a major component of the novel, as it is effectively Vicky’s raison d'ĂȘtre. Learning about the life of artists and their place in society was interesting enough, as was the novel’s focus on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but I found all the art to be a bit difficult to fully understand. I could not help feeling as though the specific artists, artistic movements, and paintings were something that needed to be experienced visually in order to fully appreciate them. Some I did look up later, but alas the lack of visuals are one of the failings of texts.

My favorite part of the novel was its focus on the early portion of the suffragette movement in England. As someone born and raised in the United States of America, I’m somewhat familiar with the American suffrage movement. I had no real knowledge of the movement as it occurred in England, however. Reading about the mental, emotional, and physical abuse that the women in England endured simply for the chance to be seen as equals was quite powerful. As with any major rights movement, it’s one thing to read about it in a dry textbook concerned with little more than facts, and quite another thing to experience a more emotionally-driven telling through books and films. 

Obviously they’ll never compare to actually being there as these events occurred, but they’re better than nothing. Two of my favorite characters from this book - Lucy, the American living abroad, and Sophie, the ladies’ maid who secretly campaigns for women’s rights - are part of the suffragette movement. Waller even presents depictions of the historical Pankhurst family members, who were incredibly influential to the movement.

By viewing A Mad, Wicked Folly as a work of historical fiction, I found a lot to admire. Unfortunately, however, these historical aspects serve mainly to supplement protagonist Vicky’s coming of age story. While Vicky’s aspirations in life are admirable and I fully support characters who, like her, are willing to defy conventions in order to pursue the things they love, she’s just not a likable character. In her pursuit of art, Vicky lies and uses others with reckless abandon. At times I wondered whether she even possessed a sense of morality, because her actions certainly don’t indicate that she does.

I can cut Vicky a little slack for lying to her parents and others of her rank. Although I think it would have made a powerful message to have many well-off girls find solidarity in each other and the suffragette movement, I am fine with the fact that Vicky is nonetheless able to find support outside of her social sphere. Her parents’ complete and utter lack of understanding of Vicky’s own wants and needs is not right, especially when contrasted with how they treat her brother. Her brother defied expectations by going off to create his own company rather than staying with Darling and Son Sanitary Company. Although he’s punished at first, he is later begrudgingly brought back into the family’s good graces. Vicky has enough self-awareness to know that she can never expect the same sort of gradual acceptance if she disregards all social norms.

What I cannot excuse, however, is her blatant disregard for the emotions and concerns of others. Her sole motivation for agreeing to marry Edmund Carrick-Humphrey is that as his wife she’ll have plenty of money to pay her tuition for RCA. Her mercenary relationship with Edmund would be more easily excusable if art really is Vicky’s only obsession, her only desire - but that’s not quite true. While Vicky is engaged to Edmund, she becomes acquainted with William Fletcher, a police constable. He’s lower class and so obviously unsuitable for a relationship, but Vicky finds him suitable enough to become her muse. A romance develops between Vicky and Will (in part because she fails to inform him that she is, in fact, engaged) and the fact that Vicky continues to lead him on made me lose respect for her.

At one point, Vicky learns that her mother was once a talented artist, but has given up art for more sensible creative endeavors such as interior decorating, presumably because she realized that being an artist would be at odds with the life she was expected to lead. This revelation leads Vicky to better emphasize with her mother and also fuels her determination to do whatever it takes to become an artist. I feel as though this revelation had the potential to lead to some particularly moving confessions between mother and daughter, but unfortunately they never really panned out.

Honestly, to me it felt like Vicky suffers from the worst lack of empathy possible. Her actions are continually guided by what others can do for her. Her utter selfishness coupled with her naivetĂ© make for one unlikable character. I also found it strangely confusing that Vicky, who claims to be willing to do whatever it takes to become an artist, flouts so many rules that simply don’t need to be flouted. It’s almost like she’s unable to focus on one type of rebellion at a time, but by breaking rules that don’t actually further her goals, she ends up putting her dreams at greater risk of exposure.

In and of themselves, I do not necessarily have a problem with unlikable characters, as long as I think they’re drawn out to the degree where I can really understand why they act the way they do. And it’s nice when I can see hints of them starting to change and mature as the story continues.
As I mentioned earlier, this story does detail Vicky’s coming of age in many ways, and so she does begin the slow process towards becoming a better, more empathetic person. I could see myself eventually liking the person that Vicky is by the end of the novel, and there’s every indication that she’ll continue along that path. For me, however, Vicky stays unlikable for too much of the book for me to be satisfied with the growth her character does undergo.

For the interesting tidbits about history and art, A Mad, Wicked Folly may still be worth a read. Perhaps other readers will be more sympathetic of Vicky than I was. This is a decent book, but Vicky’s character prevents me from viewing it as anything better than that.

Rating: 2 stars
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I can see where you're coming from, in regards to Vicky's personality. Aspects of it grated on me as well, particularly the fact that she didn't think nude modeling was a big deal (it still is in today's day and age for a girl that young!) and that she was quick to judge others, as you mentioned. But, I think the historical elements won out and made me really enjoy this, despite the flaws. Still, this is a very thoughtful, contemplative review, Amanda - great job!

    1. Vicky's decision to model nude is not even something I picked up on, honestly. I just took it for granted as a delicate issue, and the first of many ways that Vicky goes about trying to accomplish her dreams in the wrong sort of way. But I see your point.
      I'm glad you can understand my perspective here, even if you found more to enjoy out of this story than I did. Thank you, Keertana!


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