February 01, 2016

Monday Review: A MAD, WICKED FOLLY by Sharon Biggs Waller

The cover even LOOKS like a Libba Bray book...
Summary: England in the Edwardian era…Besides bringing to mind a whole slew of fabulous Edward Gorey drawings, it was a time in which society was still stumbling out from under the long shadow of Queen Victoria; a time when women were still constrained both by corsets and by the strictures of a paternalistic era. But things were about to change, and big-time. Even before the terrifying upheaval of the Great War decimated a generation of young men with horrible new weapons forged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, women were starting to feel the pressure, and the class system was showing signs of withering. It was the time of steamships and locomotives, the time of suffragettes urging votes for women, and it was the time of the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Against this backdrop of extremely rapid change, our narrator Victoria Darling embodies some of these radical departures from the norm. As the story begins, we see her in her art atelier, which she attends when she isn't going to finishing school in France. That day's session, alas, is without a figure model…and, after some trepidation, Victoria decides to take her turn. The young men in the class have had to do it from time to time, after all, so why not her?

Why not indeed. Part of the reason there are so few female Impressionist painters who have made the history books is that they were usually prevented from drawing from the live model—and yet drawing from the live nude was a necessary prerequisite to being a serious artist. Painting still-lifes and domestic scenes was a mere hobby for young ladies. Women had to resort to dressing as men and sneaking into art classes, or they had to have the support of a husband or father to gain art training, and even then, it was not a "suitable" pursuit for a young lady, but rather a mad, wicked folly.

Plus, you couldn't go about on your own or consort with people of the lower classes if you were someone like Victoria. But she's determined to be a serious artist. Even when her father finds out about her scandalous disrobing and brings her home to London to be married off, Victoria plans to try to gain admission to the Royal College of Art. While implementing her plans, she meets suffragettes campaigning for the vote (getting her in further trouble), a handsome young constable (SO off limits), and continues to be dogged by scandal—and of course, at a certain point she ends up having difficult choices to make, between her family and her social position and her own goals and what she thinks is right.

Peaks: This is a great period piece for showing the incredible social and technological change that was taking place at the time, but it's also a story of a character whose moxie and determination will appeal to contemporary readers. There are multiple love interests, there's Victoria's fascination as she discovers what life might be like if women had more power, and there are very real repercussions to her actions, ranging from family disappointment to a frightening night in jail. The characters are varied and well drawn, and the contrast is made stark and clear between the older generation represented by Victoria's staid parents and the changes taking place before their very eyes. The fact of her mother's frustrated artistic inclinations makes this particularly poignant.

Valleys: Victoria does have a tendency to rush headlong into things without thinking about what might happen, and that was a bit frustrating as well as discomfiting, especially when she lands in trouble through very little fault of her own, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet, for all the times she lands in trouble, the results were hardly ever grievous. I found myself the most excited when her explorations finally result in her having to make a major change in her life (I won't give away spoilers) but this part of the story wasn't developed quite as much as the earlier portions.

Conclusion: Besides the minor pacing issues, I really enjoyed (for obvious personal reasons) this story of a young woman determined to be an artist in a world that is dead set against her…but which is in the process of changing. The fact of it being a time period of upheaval and change keeps Victoria's character from feeling anachronistic, and she meets plenty of like-minded sympathizers in her journey. Readers who enjoy stories set in the Victorian era or the early 20th century (e.g. fans of Libba Bray) will want to check this one out.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find A MAD, WICKED FOLLY by Sharon Biggs Waller at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


tanita✿davis said...

This sounds really interesting -- so weird that this is why we have the lopsided artistic renderings of SO MANY MALE NUDES - well done, detailed, etc.... and then the women, not so much, or else their bodies are oddly imaginary, as in, "no one really looks like that." So weird that this might in part be the basis for WHY we've got these artistically artificial viewpoints of the female form.

Sarah Stevenson said...

In particular, it's why we have the lopsided SO MANY MALE ARTISTS thing!