The Woman Who Loved To Dance
‘Dance me to your beauty with your burning violin…’
|16th C VeniceOn Amazon|
As the writer of historical novels I am no stranger to the delights and disciplines of research which leads to viscerally inhabiting another time and another place and getting into the skin of individuals who live there and then. Consider the recent work of Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker to see the great practitioners of this complex process.
This came to my mind this Bank Holiday when my personal treat was to sit in my sunny window and read Anne Ousby’s novel The Woman Who Loved to Dance.
In this novel Anne Ousby transports us to 16th century Venice which we see through the eyes of Veronica Bertame, daughter of a famous courtesan. Veronica grows up on the sometimes sordid and dilapidated fringes of Venetian society. She emerges as a great beauty and a mesmeric dancer who has a rich inner life informed by an acute observation of the world around her. She becomes the wife of a gifted chemist. The financial ruin that succeeds this sadly short lived marriage is a strong thread in the story.
She remains the loving friend of the vulnerable women in the stews of Venice she grows up. Their children are her friends and comrades. She is also is befriended by Alfonso – as gondolier and ferryman he is a familiar part of the tapestry of we know of Venice. Alfonso – also a musician - suffers abuse in this colourful city, being called a ‘blackamoor’ among other things.
Veronica is a great survivor; through her eyes we learn not just of her own life but of injustices endured by the poor amid the self-indulgent and self-interested dominance of the ruling class of patricians and nobles.
Anne Ousby gives Veronica a wonderful voice – earnest, informed and sometimes lyrical. She is well aware of the powerful, stratified and cruel society around her. ‘Did I not say? Mama is a famous courtesan and her lovers are among the greatest nobles and patricians of the Republic.’
In the midst of all this we know Veronica as she dances her elaborate dances and we share with her the rituals and processes of dance in that complex 16th century society. We learn how this love of music and dance is used – sometimes cruelly – to bridge the deep for fissures in this complex society.
Anne Ousby brings this world and these various characters to life and keeps us glued to the page through a roller-coaster of poverty and affluence, music and beauty. An underlying all this - lighting up the whole novel – is the deep affection that Veronica feels for the vulnerable people around her.
This novel is a great read – highly recommended.
On a personal note I particularly love the quotation which opens this novel – an extract from my favourite Leonard Cohen’s song.
‘Dance me to your beauty with your burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m safely gathered in…’