Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

A Mad, Wicked Folly

A Mad, Wicked Folly

Sharon Biggs Waller
Fiction
For ages 13 and up
Penguin, 2014   ISBN: 978-0670014682

It is 1909 and Victoria is attending Madam Edith’s Finishing School for girls in Trouville, France. Her parents hope that Madame Edith will be able to tame their wayward daughter who speaks too freely and who stubbornly refuses to be interested in the things that girls of her age and station are supposed to be interested in.  She is obsessed with creating art and dreams of attending the Royal Academy in London when she should be paying attention to her debut and marriage prospects.

   When she should be taking dancing classes Victoria attends an art atelier, learning how to draw figures. Most days a girl called Bernadette comes and poses for the students who are studying at the atelier, but every so often Bernadette doesn’t show up and one of the students poses. All the young men have taken a turn posing and no one has asked Victoria to take a turn. Young women of quality do not pose in the nude for artists, but when Bernadette once again fails to turn up, Victoria decides that she should offer to pose as the other students have done. Unfortunately, another girl who attends the finishing school sees Victoria posing and tells Madame Edith. Victoria is expelled from the school and is sent home in disgrace.

   When she gets home, Victoria’s parents make it clear that they are furious and disappointed with her. They expect Victoria to work hard to repair her damaged reputation, which means that they want her to behave with absolute decorum and humility. She will go do charity work, attend teas, and show London Society that she is not a lost cause. They will not even talk about letting Victoria attend the Royal Academy. Girls do not attend college. They get married, keep house, have children, and serve as a living ornament in their husband’s home.

   Creating art is all that Victoria cares about so she does not give up on her dream. She needs people to draw so she goes to draw the suffragettes who are demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament. By sheer ill luck she ends up getting arrested and accused of attacking a policeman. In the ensuing confusion Victoria drops her precious drawing book and she is taken away by the police before she can retrieve it.

   Thankfully, a sympathetic policeman called Will returns Victoria’s sketchbook to her and Victoria makes a radical decision. Her parents are clearly not going to support her efforts to become an artist, and she cannot achieve her goal on her own. Therefore, she will marry the young man her parents want her to marry. According to her brother, Edmund Carrick-Humphreys is a decent enough fellow who will let her do what she wants. If she marries him she will have the means and freedom to go to the Royal Academy and to create as much artwork as she wishes.

   Secretly Victoria begins to create drawings that she can submit to the Royal Academy acceptance panel. If she is accepted she can sit the exam in July and hopefully become a student. By then she will be married and will be able to attend the Royal Academy without having to worry about getting approval from anyone.

   Victoria needs a model for her life studies and ends up asking Will the policeman if he would be willing to model for her. She will create illustrations for his stories and he will pose for her so she can have some good samples to submit to the Royal Academy.

   Victoria’s plan seems perfect, and when she is accepted by the panel she allows herself to hope that her life is going to unfold as she planned. The only problem is that Edmund, though he is nice, does not really know her, nor does he understand what drives her and how important art is to her. The only person who does understand her is Will, the policeman.

   Many young women today are able to choose the path that they wish to follow in life. They can get an education if they wish, have a career, and marry someone they have chosen. This was not the case in Victoria’s England. Women did not yet have the vote, and the women who fought to get it were treated very badly by the public and by the government. Upper class girls like Victoria went from being their father’s responsibility to being their husband’s possession. They had very little control over what happened to them.

   As the story unfolds it is interesting to see how Victoria fights to attain her dream, and how she learns that overtly breaking the rules often does not work. Instead, one has to be creative, and bend the rules just enough. Her adventures provide readers with a fascinating picture of what it was like to live in turn-of-the-century England, and they will come to appreciate that the freedom to be oneself is truly priceless. 

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