Edgar Degas’s Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen) was the only sculpture he ever exhibited during his lifetime. I had never heard of it, although I have enjoyed his paintings of dancers, until I read Carolyn Meyer’s historical fiction novel about the life of the model for the sculpture, a dancer named Marie van Goethem.
In Meyer’s story Marie’s family is made up of herself, her older sister Antoinette, her younger sister Charlotte, and her mother, a laundress with dreams of stardom for her three daughters. The world of ballet is harsh, especially when the family lives in poverty with hardly enough money to pay the rent and buy food. The little money Marie is paid for modelling for Monsieur Degas helps to buy food and clothing for the girls —and unfortunately, sometimes it goes to feed Maman’s addiction to absinthe. As Marie sees, in Degas’s studio and later in the Paris apartment of American artist Mary Cassatt, a new world of luxuries she hardly knew existed, the little ballet dancer is tempted to follow the example of her older sister and accept the favors and gifts of the men who come backstage to woo the ballet dancers and to gain their “favors” in return. Marie’s final fate is not what I expected, but it does seem realistic, rather than a forced happily-ever-after ending.
I think the artists and the dancers and the dreamers will enjoy this look into the the story behind a great work of art. It’s most appropriate for high school age young people since one of the main dilemmas in the novel is whether or not Marie will become a lorette (kept woman) as her sister and many of the other dancers do. I thought the subject was handled frankly, but also tastefully. Marie must also choose between the attentions of a young coachman, Jean-Pierre, and a young nobleman, Lucian Daudet. Lucien gives Marie jewels and fine meals, but Jean-Pierre has her heart until the day he asks her to give more than she can give.
Carolyn Meyer is one of Brown Bear Daughter’s favorite authors. She especially enjoys Meyer’s novels of Tudor England, including Mary, Bloody Mary and Doomed Queen Anne. I read one of Ms. Meyer’s early novels, Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a long time ago, and I remember thinking it quite a good read.
By the way Ms. Meyer’s birthday was yesterday. According to her website, she’s still writing, and her latest project is called Dear Charley Darwin. She also has a book coming out this month called Duchessina: A Novel of Catherine de’ Medici.
Happy 72nd Birthday, Ms. Meyer.