Sharon Biggs Waller lives in the modern world, but she can relate to the past.
In her debut novel, historical fiction work A Mad, Wicked Folly, she tells the story of a budding suffragette in the tumultuous era of Edwardian London.
“I’ve always loved stories about girls that embrace their uniqueness and have the courage to step out on their own, regardless of societal constraints,” she says. “I’ve been fascinated by suffragettes ever since I saw the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon Sufferin’ ‘Till Suffrage in the 70s.”
Though Sharon’s life is far removed from the suffragettes in London in the early 20th century—she lives on an organic farm in LaPorte County with her husband—she has done a lot of thinking about the era, especially while living in London.
“When I lived in England I used to walk by the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, the mother of suffrage in England, and I’d think about what life was like for women and teenage girls during the suffrage movement,” she says.
“What you if you wanted to be something other than a wife and then be told you couldn’t because you were a girl? What if you went ahead and did it anyway? What would the challenges be?
“And then Victoria Darling’s story started to take shape.”
Protagonist Victoria Darling’s greatest dream is to become an artist. Despite disapproval of her parents and her peers, she will stop at nothing to practice and improve on her talents for drawing. After being expelled from finishing school for posing nude for an illicit art class, she returns to London where her parents have arranged a marriage for her. Needless to say, Vicky isn’t too impressed with the idea.
“Vicky’s parents really cling to old values, as many upper middle class people did,” Sharon says. “They worked hard to climb the social ladder and they weren’t about to let things change. The middle and lower classes were actually more progressive in their thinking, and when Vicky starts moving in a different world, she sees new opportunities and a new way of life.”
So she joins up with a group of militant suffragettes, campaigning for women’s right to vote. She becomes a famous propaganda artist promoting the issue of women’s rights, and eventually is arrested, when she meets a handsome and enigmatic police officer whom she can’t wait to draw.
Although the Edwardian era is very popular for entertainment in 2014 – television shows such as Downton Abbey and the revival of Upstairs Downstairs come to mind – Sharon’s book was written before the surge of attention was given to the time period.
“It’s such a buttoned-up world, but yet so many things were changing,” she says. “There was so much drama in the Edwardian era, because people aren’t meant to stay rigid and unchanging. People will always push against restraints and dare to dream, that’s just human nature. And it’s fun to watch it all unfold in those gorgeous costumes!”
Sharon sees a part of herself in Vicky’s exploits, she says.
“I wanted a horse so badly, but my parents could only afford to send me to horse camp once a year and pay for a few lessons. So one summer when I was 14, I started calling people who had horses for sale. I figured if they were selling their horses then they probably didn’t have enough time to work with them. I ended up finding a farm in Chesterton and I helped the owner with her horses for a few years.
“So like Vicky, I didn’t let obstacles get in my way. It also took me 17 years to find an agent for my novels. I promised myself I wouldn’t give up when I first started writing, and I think Vicky is similar in that regard. I can’t see her ever giving up.”
And what about the romance aspect? Vicky’s suitors are twofold—handsome police officer Will, and arranged prospective husband Edmund.
“Vicky and Will’s relationship was the easiest part to write, actually. I like writing characters that seem to have nothing in common in the beginning but are really well-matched because of what’s in their heart,” she says.
But Edmund isn’t your typical romance novel “bad boyfriend.”
“I think we all get into relationships that are convenient and comfortable but that aren’t good for us…I wanted to show that kind of relationship without making Edmund seem like a cad. He’s more this frat boy out to have some fun, and Vicky is so earnest.”
Although many historical fiction stories leave much to be desired in the historical accuracy department, A Mad, Wicked Folly gives the reader an authentic glimpse into life at the turn of the century.
“I think just about every paragraph in the book had some research behind it,” Sharon says. “There’s so much to know, from how people talked, traveled, dressed, ate. And then there was the suffrage movement and the art. I worked with the curator of Women’s suffrage at the Museum of London and I interviewed several experts on suffrage and on art. I purchased over 30 books pertaining to women’s suffrage, art, drawing, food, fashion, and daily life of the Edwardian era.”