EVERY little girl dreams of being a ballerina. Toronto author Cathy Marie Buchanan’s historical novel, set in 19th-century Paris, uses this cliché with mixed results in a story that centres on the lives of three sisters who share that same dream.
Her story opens in Paris in 1878 with the sisters near destitute following the death of their father. Marie and Charlotte aspire to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet like their older sister, Antoinette, but their mother, a laundress, has a fondness for absinthe and drinks away her wages.
Buchanan draws from actual events for much of her story, not to mention her characters. If one strips away the vivid history notes, The Painted Girls is somewhat lacking in substance, almost as if Buchanan, in her attempt to get every detail right — and it seems she does — neglects to paint the sisters with anything more than the broadest brush.
Antoinette is the spunky but responsible one, Marie the romantic and dedicated middle sister, while little Charlotte is the cheeky, ambitious baby.
Antoinette is forced to take odd jobs to support the family. With her help, Marie and Charlotte are admitted to the school as "petits rats," as the youngest members of the school are called even today.
Before long, Marie catches the eye of the artist Edgar Degas and is hired as one of his models; Marie von Goethem was, in fact, the real muse for his celebrated but controversial first sculpture, Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer of Fourteen Years).
From this historical perspective, The Painted Girls is fascinating, and Buchanan cleverly mixes fact and fiction throughout. Although not much is known about the real von Goethem sisters upon whom Buchanan has based her main characters, records indicate that Antoinette was let go from the Paris Opera Ballet (for mouthing off to one of the instructors, as Buchanan tells it), and made money by taking walk-on roles in operas. Although Marie was dismissed from the opera within a few years, Charlotte went on to a 53-year career as a ballerina and a ballet instructor The basic outline of the novel — three sisters struggling to make ends meet in the theatre after losing their father — is reminiscent of another Canadian novelist’s recent work, Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows. The Painted Girls, however, draws on a more complex history, and one that Buchanan uses to great advantage. Some of this material is covered in Toronto dance writer Deirde Kelly’s 2011 ballet history, Ballerina.
Buchanan herself is the author of one other novel, 2009’s The Day the Falls Stood Still, which is set against the history of Niagara Falls.
The Painted Girls obviously ventures further from home. Besides Degas, Buchanan embeds her story with other non-fictional people, such as author Emile Zola and the convicted murderer Emile Abadie. She has him romantically embroiled with Antoinette, although there is no evidence that they actually knew each other.
Buchanan describes the sordidness of lower-class life at the time in excruciating detail, including the decidedly few and unpalatable options for women. Her title, The Painted Girls, refers foremost to the hundreds of portraits by Degas, but it may also allude to the scores of women who in 19th-century Paris, toiled by day for a pittance as laundresses, seamstresses and even dancers and worked as prostitutes by night.
Lindsay McKnight works for the professional division of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet.