Shirley and I have danced since the day we were cold-called by a local dancing school in 1984 and accepted the offer of a free lesson. The tuition proved anything but free (see How to be a Charlatan). Still the ability to dance brought us closer together, and nearly thirty years on we go dancing at every possible opportunity. The English Lady Murderers’ Society is autobiographical to the extent that, when on holiday, we search out dances in the market squares of the small towns and villages of south-west France throughout the summer, and have fun waltzing jauntily by starlight.
I don’t suppose The English Lady Murderers’ Society is in fact unique in this respect, but I can’t recall any novels that use dancing as a motif to develop or illustrate elements of plot, characterisation or theme. At all events it seems to be rare, though I use it also in The Argentinian Virgin. I can only guess why this is so, but suspect it’s because the effective use of the dance motif requires a feel for dancing based on personal experience, which is probably uncommon among writers, especially men.
In the present book, dancing first figures in helping the reader understand the relationship between Janet and her dead husband, David. When thinking of him she remembers the times they spent dancing, whether in French villages or Reeds Hotel in Madeira. When she has to decide on the subject of the lessons she will give to the women’s group, she chooses the tango because it’s the dance that she and David loved the most, even if they danced it badly. She tells Léon (if a little disingenuously) that, when she dances with him, it’s David that she’s thinking of. These recollections show us by example that the marriage of Janet and David was marked by affection, shared interests, and physical and emotional intimacy, without the need to say so in terms. They engage the reader’s sympathy for her loss. And they deepen the mystery, because they pose the question: How could this woman have murdered her husband? Did she do it? Why would she?
The tango lessons given by Janet also help the reader grasp the character of Carol. Janet quickly realises that she has bitten off more than she can chew, and Carol steps in to help her. In the course of this we discover how Carol learned to dance the tango during her youthful expedition to Buenos Aires with Leatherhead Dave, and how she was rescued by the bandoneon player, Pedro Something Italian. This little story explains what Carol means when she refers briefly to her”rackety life”, and again the trick is pulled off by presenting an example instead of simply saying so.
The third instance of dancing also occurs during one of Janet’s teaching sessions. Léon and Ravi interrupt the women and execute a furious tango in front of them. A trick that a writer has to master is to inroduce his characters to the reader in ways that tell the reader: this person is important and interesting – pay attention! This incident of two young men inexplicably dancing together fulfils that function: compelling the reader to ask who they are and what they are going to do next, and also suggesting that there’s a whiff of danger about them.
The main function of the dance motif, however, is to provide a stage for the developing relationship between Janet and a man who is thirty years her junior, Léon. It is marked by four stages.
It begins on the evening when the women make an expedition to the fete at Péyrat. They see Ravi and Léon there, and the latter invites Janet to dance the foxtrot. The approach is unexpected and unexplained, and there is something tentative because Léon breaks off the dance, leaving Janet to wonder if she had offended him in some way. In plotting terms this first true encounter between the two presents the reader with a mystery: what lies behind a request by a young man to dance with a much older woman who is a stranger? It suggests too that the explanation isn’t simple.
The second encounter is the most important. Léon asks Janet to have a meal and go dancing with him at the local village hop. Again his motive is unexplained, and Janet accepts almost without thinking so that she’s left afterwards wondering why she accepted and whether she will go through with this crazy date. In the event she does and she has a wonderful time. When I wrote this passage I was testing out my thoughts about two things. The first is the experience of grief and – importantly – recovery from grief. Whether she recognises it or not, Janet’s decision to go dancing with another man is a step on the rebuilding of her life after David’s death: a recognition that grief is finite, or can be. Secondly, Léon’s youth and apparent attraction to her revive her awareness of her own sexuality even at the age of sixty, and, by extension, her interest in life, and force her to recognise that she still has the capacity for feelings as intense as when she was young. As with the other examples, my use of the dance motif in this case follows the principle of”show don’t tell”: the reader sees two characters interact in a setting and draws her own conclusions from interpreting the facts.
Janet next goes dancing with Léon at Bellesta. The scene is quite short, but it represents a step forward in her life and her recovery from grief, because she is able to think consciously: ‘I may be a widow, but I’m capable of happiness and I intend to be happy.’ Dance is used to symbolise happiness.
Finally the pair go to a fete at Montbel. At this point in the novel there is a sense of the various storylines winding down and the tone is darker. There is doubt that they will find an opportunity to dance and, in the end, they dance alone in darkness by the lakeside. The reader is reminded that:”This… this whatever-it-was must end. It wasn’t a matter of choice but of inevitability.” Here I make use of the fact that a dance is by its nature finite: the music stops and the dance ends. In effect Janet begins to recognise that her life has changed and she must move on.
There are no further encounters at dances, but the matter comes up one more time in the final chapter, when Janet has seen through Léon’s subterfuge but decides to be generous and to consider helping him to found a dance school in his home town. However – and this is important – Janet demands a price: Léon must agree to take her dancing at country hops for the rest of the summer, which he willingly agrees to in recognition that she has beaten him. Here dance has become the mark of Janet’s triumph. Its role in her life has changed completely. At the beginning of the novel dancing is merely a memory, an anchor to a past whose sadness she is trying to shake off. But by the end it has become vibrant and living again: something Janet actually does, and that gives her control over her life.
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