The Dancing Master
There’s an old saying that tells us the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But you don’t need to go to that dark destination to realize that good intentions combined with bad actions can have devastating consequences. Regency pride and false morality make this tale about the sins of the fathers and mothers being visited on the sons and daughters a complex story of what happens when we try to fix mistakes by covering them up.
The ritual is always the same. Julia Midwinter and her mother spend May Day visiting the graves of the deceased. Her uncle. Her aunt. Her grandparents. Her father. Her questions are always the same and the answers are always silence. No explanations are ever given for the depressing ritual that has replaced the May Day dance or the equally depressing atmosphere that grips their small village of Beaworthy.
But in November something unexpected happens. Each year the entire village “encircled a massive stone, some six feet by four and weighing more than a ton.” Local legend had it that the stone had fallen out of the devil’s pocket as he himself fell from heaven to hell. And every year the church bell ringers turned the great stone over to keep him away. But this year of 1816 saw something strange indeed. Even with the help of additional men the stone could not be turned. The superstitious among the crowed claimed it a portent of the devil’s return. Others argued that it simply meant changes were coming to the village. Julia sincerely hopes they are right. Any change to the plodding village with its somber ways would be a welcome one – welcome by her at any rate.
His father’s poor financial management and untimely departure forced Alec Valcourt’s family to move to Beaworthy and live upon the charity of his uncle. Alec’s mother and sister can obviously not be expected to rebuild the family fortune and so it falls to him. He hopes to do this by starting a school teaching dancing and fencing as his grandfather and father had done. He is surprised and disheartened to learn that the town’s leading family, the Midwinters, have all but made dancing illegal. The family refuses to do business with anyone involved with dance in anyway. Since the small economy depends on the largesse of the big house, the local assembly room closed down, the musicians put up their instruments and the town has become a place completely lacking in frivolity – and joy.
Alec is concerned about how he is to make a living to help his family but good fortune finds him in unlikely ways. First he encounters a family of local gentry who are not as firmly under the thumb of the Midwinters as the others. They encourage Alec to teach fencing to one of their sons. This provides pin money but he will need more for his family to become independent. Then, when all hope seems lost and it appears as though he will have to accept employment doing common labor he receives the offer of a position from the Midwinters themselves! It is not the position Alec had hoped for but it does bring him closer to the charming Julia, a girl whose lovely face holds a pair of eyes with a distinctive mischievous glint.
This novel has a slow, soft pace. The emphasis is not so much on the romance as it is upon the strange events which have driven both Alec and Julia to where they are today. Julia knows there are secrets in her family and she has reached a point where she can no longer live without knowing what they are. Alec for his part knows what his secrets are but is determined for other people not to find them out. Both mothers carry heaven burdens from the secrets and are weighed down by the effort of keeping them. When a mysterious stranger appears in town the dam that holds all the lies in place begins to break down and flood their small community with the truth.
I liked how the author built her story out of people’s efforts to do the right thing. I don’t want to give anything away but suffice it to say lies were told to spare a life, causing a fiasco for that particular family. The domino effect from that had some very serious results. In the other family the effort to hide an embarrassing act and keep it from affecting the innocent results in shame falling upon those that don’t deserve it. In both cases everyone is trying to do what is best but by deciding that deceit is what will best serve them winds up causing themselves huge problems.
The author doesn’t preach that lesson at all. She just lets us see the consequences and judge for ourselves. This really helps us in understanding who Alec and Julia are as people and what draws them to each other. Her impetuousness, refinement, sense of adventure and strong will have their roots in the need to be allowed to do something, anything, that has not been planned months in advance. His stoicism is a result of living through someone else’s impetuous actions. Julia is a bit spoilt, Alec a bit overreaching. Both need some humility to move forward. They learn from each other how to take what happened in the past and use it to make a better present.
By placing the emphasis on the hero and heroine, many romance novels leave the characters with rather isolated lives. This novel felt very real in the way it tied the characters into the lives of their families and friends and showed us how true it is that “no man is an island.” This gave the romance depth for me. I could see these two working because they were supported by their community.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being downright preachy and 1 being almost no talk of faith at all I would rate this at a 3 or 4. There were discussions about faith but they were in keeping with the time period.
If you are looking for a romance that looks deeply into the lives of the characters involved this novel will probably be precisely what you are looking for. Complex histories and compelling emotion make this an intriguing read.