Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean
Rating: ★★★☆ ☆
When Wicked Comes Calling…
When a mysterious stranger finds his way into her bedchamber and offers his help in landing a duke, Lady Felicity Faircloth agrees—on one condition. She’s seen enough of the world to believe in passion, and won’t accept a marriage without it.
The Wallflower Makes a Dangerous Bargain…
Bastard son of a duke and king of London’s dark streets, Devil has spent a lifetime wielding power and seizing opportunity, and the spinster wallflower is everything he needs to exact a revenge years in the making. All he must do is turn the plain little mouse into an irresistible temptress, set his trap, and destroy his enemy.
For the Promise of Passion…
But there’s nothing plain about Felicity Faircloth, who quickly decides she’d rather have Devil than another. Soon, Devil’s carefully laid plans are in chaos, and he must choose between everything he’s ever wanted…and the only thing he’s ever desired.
This book is memorable. It’s rare that I find a 3 star book so engaging. Even though I fantasized about the hero dying from a heart attack, Maclean always managed to keep me on the edge of my seat. I needed a historical romance without all the pretty privileged whiteness. I needed people to say fuck and I needed girls not to care about the values of the privileged world that birthed them. I needed to see and feel the lives of the average person. You know, NOT A DUKE.
Yet I got problems. Like Leia stuck in space problems.
This book looks towards a fucked up trope: the heroine as an instrument for revenge. Right next to the father who gambled away his daughter, this trope remains one of the reasons I can’t read old-school romances. In some ways, this book is genius. In other ways I think the heroine would be happier if she ran off with a bunch of pirate ladies. Still waiting for feminist pirate historical romances to be a thing.
Sarah Maclean is a romance writer acknowledging the problems of the genre and thankfully she is not just another white lady writing an entire series based around dukes. She’s not just critiquing a misogynistic trope but a misogynistic fairytale. She transforms patriarchal ideas into feminist values, where men have absolutely no say over a woman’s body.
Felicity Faircloth is ostracized by the privileged shits of English society. Why you ask? Good question. Well…. she’s a woman. Women barely had to do anything to be “ruined”, what with the 500 rules women had to (also currently) follow. In a genre famous for being fantasy for women, where we don’t have to see ourselves killed, raped, or robbed of agency, Maclean turns the idea of a fairytale on its head.
Fairytales do not stay the same. They transform and are retold by future generations. They are told with historical and political messages in mind. The fairytales of the past, told to upper class white folks, became lessons of virtues, warning ladies of making deals with the Devil. But in Maclean’s tale she revises a centuries old fairytale and fits it to the genre’s ever-developing feminist ideals, one breaking the glass ballroom floors of the white privileged English ton.
Devil is not the villain but the hero. He’s the bastard son of a Duke and he’s vowed revenge on his bastard brother. The bastard children of the Duke of Marwick made a deal to ensure the end of their father’s line. Their father played games with his children to test which would inherit the dukedom, albeit illegally. Their brother Ewan, the current Duke, decides to renege on that deal. Devil’s source of revenge becomes the most wonderfully relatable heroine I’ve read in a long time: Felicity Faircloth.
Rumplestiltskin, a fairytale absent of romance, becomes the thread bringing the HEA into reality. From a fairytale that villainizes the Other and objectifies women, Maclean writes love and HEAs into a world where poverty and injustices exist. Even when terrible things happen, people still fall in love. That is an act of resistance.
Maclean chooses love as another reality not exclusive to the rich and titled English society. In her books, women have agency and that agency allows women to choose. Instead of telling the story of a girl ‘winning’ the heart of the rich handsome duke, Maclean tells us one where she abandons her privileged life for one where values are not tied to inheritance. Maclean is using a fairytale to make an argument about how we view love in romance novels. Instead of being locked in the tower to spin gold, Felicity picks locks to doors, suggesting she locks herself out of patriarchy’s locked doors. Felicity refuses to let her father to sell her off, as so many other father’s did during the time. Much like the father in Rumpstiltskin, Felicity’s father believes women should allow their fate to be decided by the men in their lives. As this is a romance, we know that does not happen.
And thank the romance gods, the heroine doesn’t become a reward for the hero’s redemption.
Rumplestiltskin is rewritten from his villainized place in fairytales and transformed into a real person. Rumplestiltskin is a villain from a fairytale that, not surprisingly, had traits matching marginalized peoples (working class and Jewish people). All those traits were offensive towards those groups. Both Rumplestiltskin and Devil hide their true names, both promise women wealth and marriage to titled men and both believe the worst in people.
Romance novelists should not continue to aspire to the notion that only the titled get an HEA. Maclean argues love should not be exclusive to the privileged ton. The working class also deserve an HEA. Not because they deserve a prize but because there is something inherently sinister about Romance’s dependence on the flawless hero, which inevitably hurts marginalized representations in romance. The titled privileges made it so those people had easier lives than people of a different race, class, etc. Making historical romance exclusive to the titled HEA also makes it difficult for POC authors to be welcomed instead of deterred from writing historical romance.
Romance encourages values but sometimes we must question how values are impacted when that someone is marginalized in their society.
It should be noted that Devil is more privileged than others. He asks Felicity to acknowledge her own privilege (something she does acknowledge). Yet when it comes to his own VERY WHITE privilege, he falls short. His father never gave him anything but I mean… he’s white so there’s definitely a large amount of power he benefits from.
In the 1830s and ‘40s white English superiority impacted the racist beliefs of the working class. White English people believed in scientific racism, as did many other Western nations. It proposed that black Britons were intellectually inferior. They believed black people had robbed the jobs of white people.
It made me smile to see black people had a place in Maclean’s book. I hate that it’s such a little moment and that I’m so content with only that. I would have liked a larger part to feature black people in this book. That tiny bit of representation makes me happy and I’m absolutely disgusted because it means this sub-genre has so much work to do. While black people did not remain unseen and invisible, unlike so many other white writers with their claims of ‘historical accuracy’, I just wish they had a bigger role to play. I hope Maclean does so in the future. I don’t feel satisfied with one little moment where a black person showed up and talked about his newborn son.
My problems with this book really comes down to the short amount of time given to healing. It’s not that people can’t be forgiven. But I refuse to accept a romance where so little time is given to allow the trust of the heroine to heal. I would even say it could encourage a healthy learning process for readers to understand that men should not take their partner’s trust for granted. In m/f relationships women do all the emotional work. This should no longer be the norm in romance.
Whether or not Maclean twists this misogynistic trope into a feminist thesis on female agency, the hero STILL intends to ruin the heroine for revenge. For a supposedly WOKE hero, he is ignorant of his male privileges. True, Maclean critiques the hero’s assumption that women don’t decide whether or not they want to be seduced. But a relationship based on the hero treating the heroine like a sex object tells women they must bear the brunt of the work in the relationship. We are supposed to teach men how to love and heal from their trauma. We are the target for their words, lies, and betrayals. Their relationship is based on his using her for revenge, relying on her to do all the emotional work.
This book perpetuates patriarchal assumptions I don’t like while also breaking down walls. Maclean is shattering glass and I will continue to watch as she does so. But…women should not be an object until she teaches her partner she’s human. There’s a difference between earning love and healing. No one has to earn love. Or they shouldn’t. As someone who grew up an abusive home where love had to be earned, it’s not an idea I’m particularly fond of. There should be an emphasis on allowing the partner to heal from hurt done by the one they love. I did not see that happen in this book.
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