If you’re looking for an addicting summer read, you can’t go wrong with Sarah MacLean’s Wicked and the Wallflower, the first book in her Bareknuckle Bastards series. The story follows the electric romance between Lady Felicity Faircloth, who is trying to recover from a recent scandal, and Devil, who hopes to use Felicity to get revenge on his brother. This is one of our top romance picks of the season, so we were delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with MacLean to talk about this exciting new series. Here MacLean shares how James Joyce inspired the book’s theme of consent, and her plans for smuggling booze into 19th-century London.
Bookish: Lady Felicity Faircloth appeared in The Day of the Duchess. Did you know when you first wrote her that she’d one day have a novel of her own?
Sarah MacLean: No—I never really know how I’m going to transition from one series to the next. In this new series, I conceived of the family, the Bastards themselves, first. Felicity was never intended to be more than a side character, but as I was writing Day of the Duchess, I realized Felicity became a person to me in that book. I thought, she’s sort of strange and cool and maybe she would make a great match in this other world. Between finishing the draft of Duchess and completing the book, I decided that Felicity would be the heroine of Wicked and the Wallflower.
Bookish: The chemistry between Devil and Felicity is electric from the start. As a writer, what do you think is necessary in a scene where you’re creating chemistry between two characters?
SM: Sometimes characters just have to talk to each other. Devil and Felicity like to talk to one another, and that’s sort of magnificent when you’re writing a book. You can relax into it and not think too hard about how to make the story move forward or how to make the characters sing. For me, the chemistry is always in the dialogue. It’s about figuring out how to put two characters on the page and let them burn together. That’s very much what’s happening here. Devil and Felicity are both such odd characters, and they’re odd in the perfect way for each other.
Bookish: One aspect of this book that I really loved is that Felicity is described as plain throughout the novel. Devil himself originally sees her this way, and yet as he falls more and more in love with her, his attraction grows. What was behind your decision to write their attraction this way?
SM: Because most people are plain, or rather, none of us are plain but we all feel plain at some point in our lives. What is magnificent is when you meet somebody who discovers you’re not plain and then you start to see yourself through their eyes. I think that’s the greatest moment of partnership, romantic or platonic. The best partners show you who you are through their experience of you. I’ve always really liked plain characters. Felicity is not my first plain heroine, and she won’t be my last.
Bookish: Privilege is a central theme in this book, specifically the privilege of being a member of a certain class and the privilege of being born a certain gender. What drew you to these themes and will we see them continue throughout the series?
SM: The whole series is written about a family that has been dealing with these layers of privilege: class, money, name, power. What’s really amazing about writing about the 19th century is that these spheres are so clearly articulated in society, and you can’t easily move between them at all. I feel as though we still live that in 2018 America. The locks that are on all the doors for us now are really no different, they’re just less public and less obvious—and more insidious actually.
I’ve always been interested in how people move between these spheres, and there is an uptown girl/downtown boy feel to this romance. Felicity and Devil move between Mayfair and Covent Garden, between money beyond imagining and a world that’s very dark, impoverished, and unfair. The unfairness of society is very much a part of this world, and it’s a big part of why Devil is certain he can’t have Felicity, and maybe why he wants her so badly too.
In book two, you’ll see issues of privilege in a different way with Whit. When we get to the third book, the issue is very much about name and identity.
Bookish: How did you come up with the name “Bareknuckle Bastards”?
SM: I first came up with the idea that four children were born at the same time—three brothers born to different women but sharing a father, and one daughter born to a fourth woman by a different man. I knew the bastard piece would be part of the story, and I knew I wanted to write a story set in Covent Garden. “Bareknuckle” felt rough, and Whit’s a fighter and Grace is the fighter in the family. There’s a great historical novel, The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, about girls’ fighting rings in the 1700s in London. I read that and I knew I wanted to write a girl fighter, so that was in my head as well. Plus, Bareknuckle Bastards is nicely alliterative.
Bookish: What drew you to Covent Garden as a setting?
SM: Covent Garden is magnificent, and it’s one of my favorite places in London. It’s so curious and interesting. When you step into Covent Garden Market if feels as if you’re walking back in time. Now it’s super posh: It costs a fortune to live there, and everybody who lives there is very fancy. But in the 19th century it was riddled with crime. There was a lot of drinking, the higher-end brothels were there, the rookeries of Seven Dials were there.
I really wanted to get away from Mayfair, and what’s amazing when you write about London or any major city is that it doesn’t take that much time to go from incredible privilege to none at all. That’s what I was interested in writing about, so Covent Garden made sense.
I also met a guy at a bar a couple of years ago in London in Covent Market, and he told me a story about his great grandfather who sold ice in Covent Garden Market—like lemon ices and raspberry ices. It got me really interested in ice in general, which is also part of the story. Covet Garden was destined to be.
Bookish: When writing your last book, The Day of the Duchess, you had a revelation about the alpha male hero that you wrote about in The Washington Post. You realized he represented toxic masculinity and you decided to rewrite him completely so that he started the book as a feminist, rather than finding his feminism along the way. How did that experience impact how you wrote Devil?
SM: I think this book is very much about the time we live in now. It’s about consent, partnership, equality, and the evolution of women in the world and how they struggle. Certainly all of my books are about the way women navigate the world.
When I gave this book’s draft to my editor, she said it was clear that I was thinking about James Joyce when I wrote it. It wasn’t intentional, but the moment she said that I realized that I had been thinking about him and specifically the end of Ulysses where it’s clear that Leopold and Molly are having sex. The last line is, “yes I said yes I will Yes.” The final yes of the book is capitalized. It’s not its own sentence; it’s just a capitalized word. I have spent a lot of time in the wake of the #metoo movement saying you want enthusiastic consent, you want Molly Bloom consent.
“Yes” is an echo in Wicked and the Wallflower. Every time the heroine consents and says yes, the hero is more and more consumed by her. While writing this book I read over the letters Joyce sent to his wife, and I think he would’ve loved this book. He would’ve said it was dirty, but it’s not nearly as dirty as his own letters. James Joyce was incredibly filthy; he would’ve written a terrifying version of a romance novel.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the world and especially in the romance community about consent. Some people say, “If we’re going to make consent so central to everything aren’t we just basically ruining sex for everyone?” But sex for Molly Bloom was pretty amazing, and her consent is very overt.
People criticize romance for its handling of consent, often because in the early days rape was present on the page. Many people don’t understand that it was written as social commentary. Rape was something happening to real women, and it was also happening to heroines. In those books, it was perpetuated by the heroes, and the heroines pushed back. Heroines said the word rape, writers wrote the word rape, and it wasn’t an easy transition from hero as aggressor to hero as a hero. Consent was on the page, even when nonconsent was being represented. I think that’s what makes the genre so powerful: Women understand that in the world consent isn’t always asked for, and it isn’t always valued. Romance was able to say that from the beginning, from the very first book. It’s not new, not even a little. Some writers are being more overt about it, but it’s not new.
Bookish: Something I’ve always really loved about your book covers is that they belong to the heroine. She’s front and center, and usually boldly staring out at the reader. Is this something you’ve had a say in along the way?
SM: I didn’t to begin with, but now it’s the Sarah MacLean brand: the really present heroine in a delicious dress looking out and sort of owning the world. I am so lucky because the Harper Collins art department is so talented. For this book, we knew we were going darker and edgier. That’s the direction we took with the font and the background. I love it because it feels like the book to me. If you like the cover of this book, I feel like you will like what’s inside it. You can judge this book by its cover.
Bookish: In the book, Felicity uses her hairpins to pick locks. I saw on Instagram that your research into her talents paid off because it allowed you to pick your way into a locked safe. Is that true?
SM: It is! It was the greatest moment of my life. I knew Felicity was a lockpick, and I spent all of this time doing procrastinatory research watching lockpicking videos on YouTube or reading articles about how to pick locks.
My mom had a lockbox safe she needed to get into, but she had lost the key. She was beside herself. She thought she needed to find a locksmith, and I said, “You don’t. I’ve read all about lockpicking.” I was prepared. I was never so prepared in my life. I put on my lockpicking gear, manipulated a paperclip, and it took me about three minutes to pop the safe.
I was drunk with power. I called my husband and told him I was going to turn to a life of crime, that no room was safe. I said I was going to get a stethoscope like Charlize Theron in The Italian Job. It was amazing. But what was really so cool about it was that I realized how Felicity felt when she picked locks. I went back and I rewrote all of her lockpicking moment because I now understood the rush of excitement and possibility and the feeling of infinite power.
Bookish: I know that readers love to dream-cast their favorite books. Do you have any actors or actresses who personify these characters for you?
SM: I’m terrible at this. Tom Hardy is always everybody in all of my books, but he’s really more Whit than Devil. Where Whit is the muscle, Devil is whipcord lean. There’s nothing about Devil that’s hugely attractive. Everything that’s compelling about Devil is within him. He’s probably like Tom Hiddleston or Benedict Cumberbatch—a tall, lanky Englishman with a cane.
Bookish: You play with a lot of romantic tropes in your writing—sometimes subverting them completely, other times putting a new spin on them. Here, we see a hero attempting to ruin a heroine—a twist on the usual hero saving the heroine from ruinination. What is your favorite romantic trope and what is your least favorite?
SM: It will come as absolutely no surprise that my favorite romantic trope is enemies to lovers. It’s delicious. It forces two people together who have electric chemistry by virtue of the fact that they fully hate each other. The tumble into love usually requires a massive grovel, which is my favorite thing ever.
I’m not wild about friends to lovers, for the reasons I just articulated. I also have real trouble with secret babies. It’s often couched in the idea that the baby makes the relationship work, and it’s very difficult for me to suspend disbelief in that. Having a baby does not save a marriage or make two people love each other.
Bookish: If you were a smuggler, what would you trade in?
SM: Booze, for sure. I suppose there’s no reason to smuggle booze in 2018, so let’s pretend I’m a smuggler in the 1830s. I’m actually very proud of the ice-smuggling concept in the book. I never found any evidence of it, but I think it’s a smart way to get goods into the country and surely people were doing it. I’m very interested in the ice trade, which my husband thinks may be because of Frozen—which is entirely possible because I have a four and a half year old and we watch a lot of Frozen.
I have this vision that didn’t fit into the book, of alcohol being smuggled into the country in multiple ways. I have a whole map of how it’s moved into London and where it goes from there. I’ve sorted it all out. If I travel back in time to London, I’m ready. I’m a lockpick, and I have a whole business plan for crime. I would be a noble scoundrel; I would have a code like a pirate. I feel as though in my head I am a noble scoundrel.
A life-long romance reader, Sarah MacLean wrote her first romance novel on a dare, and never looked back. She is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical romances, and the author of a monthly column at The Washington Post celebrating the best of the romance genre. She lives in New York City with her husband, daughter, dog and a ridiculously large collection of romance novels. She loves to hear from readers.