Research Surprises and A MAD, WICKED FOLLY

This week’s assignment is to write about surprises unearthed during the research process.  When I started writing A MAD, WICKED FOLLY several years ago I realized that I wanted my protagonist to be an artist and I wanted the story to be set against the women’s British suffrage movement.  But I was stumped on how to stitch the story together using art and the women’s movement. It was a problem that plagued and frustrated me for a long time, and in early drafts the story felt clunky and the plotlines unrelated.   When I went back to England in 2009 I met with the curator of the Museum of London and she let me go through the museum’s massive collection of suffrage ephemera.  In it I found a lot of illustrations, and the curator told me that art was important for the suffragettes, it was how they got their message across.  After that it was like following a breadcrumb trail.  I purchased a few books in the museum gift shop on suffrage and, with highlighter and notebook in hand, started reading.

In Sylvia Pankhurst’s biography, A MAVERICK LIFE by Shirley Harrison, I found out that Sylvia was a very fine artist and considered the WSPU’s artist in residence.  Her greatest achievement was painting a huge mural for the Women’s Exhibition in 1909.  There were even pictures of her beautiful work.  Sadly, police burned the canvases after a raid.  I knew that Vicky loved the Pre-Raphaelites, but I read in the biography that Pankhurst did too, finding inspiration for the murals from the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhoods’ work.

Sylvia Pankhurst's murals at the Women's Exhibition in 1909

Sylvia Pankhurst’s murals at the Women’s Exhibition in 1909

Sylvia's Pre-Raphaelite inspired murals for the Women's Exhibition 1909

Sylvia’s Pre-Raphaelite inspired murals for the Women’s Exhibition 1909

The exhibition also happened during my story’s timeline and other artists had helped Sylvia, so it was plausible for Vicky to help, too. The book included the address, and I found out that it still exists and is still an art studio.

The Avenue Studios in Fulham, where Sylvia Pankhurst worked.

The Avenue Studios in Fulham where Sylvia Pankhurst worked.

One by one the details were starting to click into place.  And then, at the curator’s suggestion, I purchased what is considered the compendium of British suffrage: THE WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT: A REFERENCE GUIDE (1866-1928) by Elizabeth Crawford.  In it I found a passage about the Suffrage Atelier, founded in February 1909 (a month before my story begins), which strove to “encourage artists to forward the Woman’s movement, and particularly the enfranchisement of women by means of pictorial publications.” The Atelier had an educational element; classes were given in life drawing and printing and work was submitted for criticism.  But what jumped out at me were the two words life drawing.  Life drawing classes are almost always done from a nude model.  I had known all along that Vicky wanted to draw from the nude figure, and I worried that it wouldn’t be plausible for a young Edwardian woman to do so, but seeing those two words in print gave me the confidence to forge ahead.  And I’m so glad I did!

About Sharon Biggs Waller

I'm the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY (Viking, Penguin Jan 2014) and THE ORIGINAL HORSE BIBLE (i5 Publishing). Visit me at www.sharonbiggswaller.com.

2 thoughts on “Research Surprises and A MAD, WICKED FOLLY

  1. Love this post–having read and loved A Mad, Wicked Folly reading insider info like this is something I always enjoy.. Awesome images as well:) Nice job, Sharon:)

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