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Image of the book cover of Danse de la Folie by Sherwood SmithLovers of Austen novels will find much delight in Sherwood Smith’s Danse de la Folie. With more wit than romance, this novel introduces two couples, mapping their relationships onto the quadrille. Smith’s attention to historical details, family dynamics, and rich characters create an engaging story.

Using the four dancers of the quadrille, Sherwood Smith overtly indicates our heroes and heroines. The first heroine on the page is the Honourable Miss Clarissa Harlowe. Described as plain in comparison with her younger stepsisters, Clarissa is warm, observant, and conscientious—especially kind to her servants. And unlike the witty heroines of most Austen books, Clarissa will inherit a large fortune when she comes of age.

Clarissa’s Hampshire household combines all the best domestic elements of Austen novels—benevolent parents, garrulous sisters, and wealth. Smith writes Lord and Lady Chadwick, their bevy of young daughters, and the widowed Aunt Sophia without any of the financial anxieties of the Bennets or Dashwoods. Aunt Sophia is Smith’s nod to Mrs. Norris, but the reader will not see Clarissa treated like Fanny Price. Though Clarissa is a child of Lord Chadwick’s first marriage, her glamorous stepmother, the present Lady Chadwick, treats her kindly.

As an heiress, Clarissa has lost her taste for romance. She has endured suitors only interested in her fortune, so she is reticent to be swept away by the popular tales of languishing love. She tells her friend Lady Kitty, “I do not see the appeal in hopelessness.”

Catherine Decourcey (Lady Kitty) lives for romance, gothic tropes, and wild narratives. Where Clarissa is wealthy, unassuming, and practical, our second heroine is beautiful, imaginative, and in desperate need of financial help. After Clarissa survives a shipwreck, she and Kitty become fast friends while she recovers at Kitty’s family home, Tarval Hall. The friendship shows both women at their best: Clarissa, wise and generous, and Kitty, earnest and sensitive. If you’ve ever wanted to refashion Elinor and Marianne Dashwood with contemporary depth, you can thank Shewood Smith for Clarissa Harlowe and Catherine Decourcey.

Though Clarissa has no desire to marry, a persistent suitor awaits her return to Hampshire: the ponderous Lord Wilburfolde. Well-born, respectable, and dull, Lord Wilburfolde prefaces every comment with, “My mother says.” With no suitors of her own, Lady Kitty accompanies Clarissa and her family to Hampshire and then to London for the Season, determined to publish her novel and marry well so she can ease her family’s financial burdens.

While the dancing romance of the novel only favors two couples, Miss Lucretia Boulderston angles for a chance to play the heroine. A neighbor to Lady Kitty, and quietly engaged to Kitty’s brother Carlisle, Lucretia uses every opportunity to gain social advantages. After her first meeting with Clarissa, Sherwood Smith writes, “Miss Boulderston curtseyed and departed, leaving behind a pleasant trace of French scent, and a general sense of constraint.” Lucretia is a calculating presence in the novel, snubbing her family and friends by turns, plying gentlemen with wine, and planning a picnic just to get caught in the rain. Her betrothal to Carlisle is privately announced early on, and inserted into the newspaper much later—without Carlisle’s consent.

Though Carlisle is not secretly engaged like Edward Ferrars, the arrangement is equally burdensome. For much of the novel, Carlisle cannot pursue the woman he loves—all because Lucretia engineered a kiss in the garden years ago. Quiet and well-read, Carlisle Decourcey inherited his father’s title as the Marquess of St. Tarval, but not his reputation as a spendthrift and rake. Our hero wants to keep his family home in good repair, spend a quiet life in the country, and introduce his sister into society. He struggles to find the means.

The final hero is Philip Devereaux, a sharp, fashionable gentleman, and the object of Lucretia’s most determined machinations. Like his cousin Clarissa, Philip is pursued for his wealth. Lucretia dreams of becoming his wife—“only two deaths away from being a duchess”—and making London society sick with envy.

The four dancers come together in the London Season, meeting at the weekly Almack’s balls, occasional soirees, rides in the park, and even a duchess’s masquerade. Smith’s writing sparkles with the historically appropriate details that contemporary readers crave—observations on fashion, etiquette, and social luminaries like Beau Brummell. While Lady Chadwick copies gown patterns from the Duchess of Devonshire, the younger Miss Boulderston has a suitor known in town for the height of his shirt-points.

Despite her fortune, Clarissa’s position in the novel is another poignant historical circumstance. As an unmarried woman, she fears being a burden to her brother James when he sets up his own household. She accepts Lord Wilburfolde’s suit so she won’t become another Aunt Sophia, living on her brother’s goodwill. But with encouragement from her formidable grandmother, she manages to create a better future for herself.

Though Smith identifies the four dancers clearly, the eventual pairings don’t ring false or shallow at the end of the novel. With a wide cast of characters, Danse de la Folie reads more like a miniseries. Aunt Sophia and Lucretia Boulderston compete for most exaggerated theatrical gestures while Lord and Lady Chadwick are the most benevolent and disinterested parents a reader could wish for. To solve her problems, Lady Kitty declares, “One must be the heroine,” but she never adopts Lucretia’s rehearsed gestures, a running joke throughout the book. Lady Kitty steps into the heroine’s position with her charming artlessness, catching the eye of Mr. Devereaux and proving that warmth and sincerity will defeat strategy and malice.

Image of author Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith

About the author: Sherwood Smith has loved Jane Austen all her life, which led to her getting a degree in European history. She lives in Southern California with her spouse, two kids, and two dogs.

  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Book View Cafe (September 25, 2018)
  • ISBN-10: 9781611387407
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611387407

 

About the reviewer: Emily K. Michael is a poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. She is the poetry editor for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature at Syracuse University, and she curates the Blind Academy blog. Her first book Neoteny: Poems is available from Finishing Line Press (click here to enter the site). Blind and print-disabled users can also find it on Bookshare.

Read more of her work at her website:

  • “On the Blink: How My Light is Spent.” Click on this link.
  • Watch her TEDx FSCJ talk entitled The Confluence of Disability and Imagination (Dec 6, 2016) at this link.

 

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