In "The Painted Girls," a carefully researched, deeply imagined historical novel by Canadian writer Cathy Marie Buchanan, the Belle Époque comes to vibrant, often aching life. It follows two real-life destitute sisters, Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, who are forced to turn to the then-none-too-reputable ballet training program at the Paris Opera to scratch out a meager living in the 1870s and '80s. Antoinette, older and prettier but less artistically gifted, becomes involved with a rough-hewn teenager destined for a life of crime.
Marie, less beautiful but blessed with a supple body and an artistic soul, catches the eye of the great Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, who immortalizes her — for good or ill — in his famous sculpture "Little Dancer Aged 14," which critics greeted as the portrait of a girl whose facial features marked her as predisposed toward a life of moral turpitude.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Printers Row Journal caught up with Buchanan, a former ballet dancer, by phone from her home in Toronto. Here's an edited transcript.
Q: What was the origin of "The Painted Girls"?
A: I saw a television documentary in 2007 or so called "The Private Life of a Masterpiece," which focused exclusively on Degas's "Little Dancer Aged 14." I knew the work but nothing about its history. For example, the documentary went into the reception the sculptor got when it was exhibited, the girl who had modeled for the piece, the culture of the ballet at the time. I was absolutely fascinated that when it was exhibited, the viewers didn't see a young girl in her ballet clothes. They saw a whore. The reaction was very much that she was "a flower of the gutter," and that you could see the precocious depravity in her face, that it was imprinted with "the detestable promise of every vice." This was underpinned by a long history of often less than noble liaisons between the female dancers and the wealthy male patrons of the ballet, season ticket holders. This was all quite a shock to me. I'd grown up dancing, and the studio that I took ballet classes in actually had Degas ballet girl prints tacked to the walls. I felt a kinship with those girls. Often, Degas was just capturing them stretching at the barre, same as I was, and I think to see this documentary and hear about the seedier side of the ballet and the privation of the girls who modeled for the works sort of flew in the face of notions about ballet that I'd grown up with.
Q: Today, those notions about vice and licentiousness and so forth among ballet girls are a thing of the past. In fact it's quite the opposite.
A: Yes. Ballet is a privileged child's pursuit these days, and ballet itself is considered by and large to be quite a high-minded art. The seedier side of things is very much gone, and I think one of the fascinating things about "Little Dancer" is that the meaning of that artwork has changed so dramatically over time from that "flower of the gutter" idea. I was at the Met in the spring, and they have one of the bronze castings there. A group of schoolgirls came in, and they were all going, "Oh, she's so pretty," and they all lined up and took their photos with her, standing in fourth position. This little dancer was something they aspired to be.
Q: An important factor in this is the pseudoscience of the time, in which physiognomy — facial characteristics, chins, foreheads and so on — was supposed to reveal a person's genetic predisposition toward vice and/or crime.
A: Yes, and it was actually
Q: It's often been argued about what Degas' project really was. What was he getting at? He seems to have had a certain naturalism in mind, similar to that of (Émile) Zola, who is also in your book.
A: I do think he wanted the gallery-goers to see the artworks as depictions of the depravity of the subjects. He definitely bought into this notion of innate criminality as shown in facial features. There are also art history books in which you can see his sketches for the pieces, in which the indication of criminality becomes exaggerated over time.
Q: He also depicted prostitutes, of course, in ways that (Henri de) Toulouse-Lautrec and others took up in a similar time frame. It was a period in which there was an interesting gap between public morality, as reflected in the newspapers, and the actual behavior of people in the demimonde of Montmartre.
A: Yes. It was very accepted to have a mistress. And they did have at the Paris Opera, the Palais Garnier, a room called the Foyer de la Danse, which was a bit of a gentleman's club. Only the wealthy male subscribers could go there; their wives could not. It was where the men met with the ballerinas pre-performance and during intermissions. The girls would be warming up at the barre while the men sat around and watched, drinking champagne.
Q: We should probably acknowledge that warming up at the barre puts the girls in certain revealing positions, let's say.
A: Yes. And they're wearing, you know, stockings, showing their calves and doing all kinds of things that women on the street wouldn't be doing. Charles Garnier himself was quite explicit about saying that this room was about facilitating encounters between the wealthy men and the dancers. It wasn't under the cover at all. Of course, it wasn't the men who took the blame in the eyes of society. It was the girls, who after all were only trying to put food on the table. It was a terrible double standard.
Q: The parts about dance in the book would have been very difficult to write, I'm thinking, had it not been for your own background as a dancer.
A: Sure. My fascination with the documentary was obviously underpinned by my background as a dancer. I'd always known about ballet, but as it existed when I was student 30 years ago, not 130 years ago when Marie was modeling for Degas. Growing up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I took classes as a young girl and became very serious about ballet, and also performed with a local company, although it wasn't a professional company.
Q: Did you think at any point that the ballet might become your career?
A: Well, I have to say that my parents didn't encourage it. That's not to blame them, because where I grew up, there wasn't much of a tradition of people making a living as artists of any kind. It's true that at one point I had a scholarship to go and study at a higher level, and they told me that I couldn't accept it because I needed to work and earn money for college. If I'd really put my foot down, I probably could have had my way, but I didn't. I guess I didn't want it enough.
Q: Maybe writing the book was, for you, a way of vicariously having an experience that you missed in real life.
A: Yes, I think so, and the sense of kinship was always very strong. At one point I went to Paris to do research for the book. I went to the building where Marie lived, I went to the building where Degas had his studio. I also was able to attend a class for 14-year-olds at the Paris Opera, which was a great privilege because so few people get that opportunity, and was struck by the fact what they were doing — the positions, the corrections, the general atmosphere of the place — was so similar to what I experienced as a young dancer. So we really did have a lot in common.
Q: Why historical fiction, by the way? Why not write about contemporary life — especially when, in some quarters, historical fiction is viewed as a second-tier genre?
A: I'm aware of that prejudice, but it doesn't bother me. I love doing research, for one thing. I love bringing a sense of reality to a faraway time and place; my third novel, which I'm working on now, is set during the Iron Age. And I think we can learn a lot about the present from the past. The plight of the young girls of the Paris Opera in 1880 is not so different, in some ways, from the young girls in pop music and other fields in 2013 who are being objectified and "painted" as sexpots.
Q: Of course, in many cases, many of those young women are participating in their own objectification.
A: True, but she's also a product of the culture. It's hard not to imagine that many of her handlers didn't always have her best interests at heart.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the
"The Painted Girls"
By Cathy Marie Buchanan, Riverhead Books, 349 pages, $27.95