Little Dancer by Melanie Lechallas – Paris of the 1870s – a girl struggles to survive, model for Degas and forward a fight for change

Little Dancer by Melanie Leschallas

This is a vivid book of a harsh life in Paris in the 1870s. This is the city of the Commune in 1871, when hundreds of Communards were killed at the barricades. Well into Les Miserables territory, it is a tale of a young girl in a city where the rich flaunt their wealth and idleness, and women and children suffer and die for want of bread. Marie lost her father in a traumatic incident, a man well known for his revolutionary ideas about progress, the opportunities for girls like his daughters, and the need for social reform. Bewildered by events when she was a small child which deprived her of her beloved Papa, Marie  in 1878 wants to continue his battle, but watching her mother Gigi descend from a successful laundry owner to scratching a living is heartbreaking. Marie’s older sister Antoinette seems to care little for the cause, but is determined to survive by any means. Marie must find a way to survive, fight for her socialist principles, and discover what she can of the mysterious artist Edgar Degas.

This book is a powerful story of a young woman who keeps her eyes open in a city which encompasses such squalour and splendour. Her job as a Little Rat, or dancer for the theatre, allows her to earn a little for food, but is physically punishing in so many ways for a girl always hungry, wearing the discarded clothes of others.When she is chosen as a model by Degas she is taken aback; she knows herself to be too skinny and hungry to be attractive, yet the driven man seems determined to make a sculpture of her in a new way, painstaking and honest. Even his studio is bewildering, with a huge painting of a strange woman. As the work progresses, Marie encounters Degas’ associates, his angry brother, his determined friend Mary, and she becomes more confused by Degas’ true motive for choosing to immortalise her in a confusion of materials. Always there is the urge to remember her father and to continue his fight for the people. What can one underfed girl do against a system in which women have little choice but to sell themselves if they are not blessed with wealth?

This is a fascinating book which I found really powerful on so many levels. Marie becomes a symbol of the women and girls forced into desperate acts, yet what stops this becomes a distressing portrait of a system which could easily grind her down is her determination to act for the greater good. Her relationship with the mysterious Degas is a curiosity, an explanation for a brilliantly realised and much copied figure. This is a story which speaks volumes of the physical cost of dancing, the blisters and the sore joints, the bruises and the knocks. The author was a professional dancer, and this shows in so many ways. It expresses the hopelessness of the plight of many girls and women who have to use what they can to survive,and it is honest, if sometimes brutal. The relationship between Marie and Degas is the strange one of artist and muse and is so well described. The author has obviously done a lot of research into the sights, sounds and smells of the poor part of Paris, but it never interferes with the atmosphere or narrative. 

This is a rich and satisfying read with many threads, observations and issues woven in. The characters, from Marie to the smallest participant are so well written as to be memorable. This is a brilliant and enthralling read which I recommend to those who enjoy historical fiction in which women play a major, realistic part. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel of art, life and the fight to change an unequal society.