The Painted Girls is set in Paris of the 1870’s and is based on the lives of the van Goethem sisters, Antoinette and Marie who are trying to save themselves and their little sister from a life of poverty and degradation. It is a time of intensive and lively artistic activity as the Impressionist painters have begun to exhibit their work and writers such as Emile Zola are introducing novels and plays that are sensational for the times as they are based on the lives of the poor and the working class. At the beginning of the novel the girls’ father has died and their mother is trying but failing to support the family by working as a laundress. The life of a laundress is one of is pure drudgery and does not provide the family more than a subsistence existence. The girls’ mother escapes this misery by drifting into a life of drug addiction. The three sisters see the Ballet of the Paris Opera as their way out of poverty and the slum they live in. However, the oldest, nineteen year old Antoinette is her own worst enemy. She could not hold her tongue or be reigned in by the discipline of the dance and so she looses her place in the ballet’s training program by being rebellious toward her teachers and being late for class or worse, by failing to attend. It falls on the second sister Marie to pursue a career in the ballet. She starts out at the bottom rung of the ballet ladder as one of those students called the little rats. This is not a pretty world for these children but Marie has talent and musicality and hope of working her way up to become a prima ballerina. However, there are pitfalls as one of the accepted ways the poorest of these children are helped to succeed is to endure the sponsorship of wealthy men who exploit their helplessness and poverty for the privilege of abusing them.
To earn extra money outside her ballet class Marie agrees to model for the impressionist artist Edgar Degas. Here the author tells the story based on a historically correct experience, as the real Marie van Goetham was the model for his very famous sculpture entitled “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years”. In the meantime the author places Antoinette in another historically correct montage as she finds employment as an extra in a play called the, “Assommoir,” based on a novel of the same title by the writer Emile Zola. Working as an extra she meets and falls in love with a brutish, criminally inclined young man who seduces her into spiritual self-immolation, that is like a moth to a flame. The reader takes in all these events with horror as the van Goetham family ambles down the road to their destruction. So this is not a cheerful novel but it has some very interesting elements that demonstrate what goes into the creation of good fiction.
The story is told in the voice of the first person singular back and forth between Antoinette and Marie. Antoinette’s voice is angry and determined but shows a tender loving concern for her two younger sisters. She is the one trying to keep the family together and prevent their being evicted into the streets. She has no time for her mother who languishes at the bottom of an Absinthe bottle wasting what little money she earns. She is young, nineteen but has had no chance to enjoy her youth. Little wonder she falls into the arms of a murderous thug who pays attention to her and admires her natural beauty. Antoinette’s voice sounds less educated than that of Marie as she quit school at a very early age. Marie comes across as the more disciplined and ambitious of the two sisters. She would hide food from her sisters, not out of meanness but in order to provide herself with the energy needed for the rigorous training endured by a dancer.
This book is more clever than readable. It is not for example for someone looking for the romance of the classical French ballet. There is however, a great deal of atmosphere because the author introduces the sounds and the smells of the slums, the prisons, and the brothels as well as the magnificence of the Paris Opera and the residences of the wealthy and the privileged. Many of the tableaux in this book are taken from the works of Degas (which is clever indeed). Straight away the obvious reference for the reader would be Degas’s famous paintings of ballet dancers stretching and warming up for their classes or dancing on stage under that subdued lighting that existed in theatres before the introduction of electricity. There is also the painting entitled the Absinthe Drinker with a woman sitting in a café before a glass of green liquid staring vacantly into space and The Rape which depicts the interior of a brothel and many entitled the Laundress showing the harsh working conditions women endured working in a laundry workhouse.
Cathy Marie Buchanan has also introduced another interesting element into this novel; the pseudo science of Physiognomy, that is the belief that one’s facial features reveal one’s character. This was a very popular notion of the nineteenth century and becomes an important subject on two fronts. The first, is because Antoinette’s boyfriend is condemned to a penal colony, not so much because of the evidence against him but because of his loutish appearance. On another occasion and a key to the heart of the novel is when Marie’s spirit is destroyed by public outrage when the statue Degas created from her image is decried as that of an animal. This is because her facial features were not conventionally pretty according to the aesthetics of the times although when I look at photos of the “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years”, I see a delicate, fay-like child who is quite caught up in the music I imagine she is hearing.
This story is sad but interesting and evokes the atmosphere of the era. I liked it more for the way it is plotted and the very great ease with which the author moved from the point of view Antoinette to that of Marie. The Paris of the 1870s is revealed to the reader from it’s dark insides: it’s hole in the wall café’s and bars, it’s dingy hovels, and its back alley’s. Even the glorious Paris Opera House is shown from its darkly lit practice rooms and the stifling waiting areas backstage when the sparkling and be- jewelled, wealthy audience would appear as but a black wall to the dancers on stage.
This is a well-written novel but its pictures are not pretty.