Translated from French by Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a work of non-fiction that delves into the life of Marie van Goethem, the young model for Degas’ famous sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen). In it, Camille Laurens takes us back to Paris in the Belle Époque, but exposes a sordid underbelly beneath the glittering façade.
Though the Palais Garnier opera house evokes opulence, elegance, and sumptuous fin-de-siècle decadence, Laurens takes us quietly and carefully through the reality behind the curtains. The petits rats, young girls who were sold to the ballet and earned a pittance, were put through physically demanding training routines while barely having enough to eat; if they were expelled because of absence, insolence or lack of progress then they were still yoked to the opera, compelled to pay for the years of “education” and remaining in a contract that was close to slavery. Many were sold in other ways too: Laurens notes that “as soon as the girls reached adolescence they acquired a blank gaze and a look of resignation, entering a life of prostitution without ever having been children.”
In 1880, Marie Van Goethem was one of the Opera’s petits rats, sold with her sisters to the opera house, a lonely girl whose fate concerned no-one. She supplemented her pitiful income by posing for painters and sculptors – including Edgar Degas, “her frail body now turned to bronze” by the artist His immortalisation of her did not, however, give her a voice or an identity, but rather ensured that “she would die less completely than the other girls”, seen across the world and through the generations but never known or understood. Tied in with Marie’s modelling for Degas is a topic that influenced much French literature of the period: physiognomy. This new “science” was believed to enable the educated or “initiated” to distinguish certain characteristics about people from their physical appearance – essentially, proponents believed that they were able to designate a person criminal or lacking in morals because of features such as a prominent forehead or high cheekbones. The luminaries of the day needed scant licence to exaggerate this, condemning people from the lower classes because of their appearance and supporting their prejudice with a “science” that amounted to little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder that they clung to theories that ‘proved’ the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women … Social hierarchy was justified by nature itself, with rich white men at the apex and other races, women, and the poor in the lower depths.” Though we may have moved beyond physiognomy, some of Laurens’s depictions of its uses are strikingly and terrifyingly contemporary.
Throughout the reconstructions in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen we gain intimate insights into Degas’ life and artistic process. In particular, Laurens lingers on his commitment to eschewing superficially glamorous representations of ballet in his paintings and focus instead on the rehearsal space, the physical hardship to which the dancers were submitted, showing “not the mythical dancer but the humdrum worker.” However, Laurens resolutely refuses to shine a purely flattering light on the artist’s intentions. She openly refers to his own prejudices – which were backed up by advances in studies of physiognomy – detailing how his exaggerated courtroom drawings of suspected criminals were designed to “reflect theories of social delinquency that he subscribed to.” On the basis of this, Laurens suggests that he did the same to Marie, coarsening her features between his initial sketches and the finished sculpture and changing her face “to give it the hallmarks of a savage, quasi-Neanderthal primitivism, a precocious degeneracy.” This alarming representation of women, and in particular a young woman with no rights, no voice and no agency of her own, may have been intended to unsettle and question, as Laurens suggests, but it also perpetuates the social hierarchies mentioned above, and makes this attempt to give Marie back a place in history all the more historically and socially important.
Towards the start of the book there were a few examples of syntax that stood out to me as awkward, but aside from this the translation by Willard Wood rapidly developed into a careful non-fiction narrative, understated and yet lexically rich, a piece that evokes the Belle Époque while simultaneously remaining contemporary. Overall, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a particularly interesting kind of non-fiction. It blends an almost academic research (in the acknowledgements Laurens does note that the book is an offshoot of her doctoral thesis) with references that bring us back into the now – and the result is a piece that raises more questions than it answers, but in doing so shows how very contemporary the concerns of the work still are: the classism, prejudice, poverty and exploitation of women over a hundred years ago are uncannily close to our modern experience.
As for Marie van Goethem, frustratingly little about her actually comes to light, for the information is simply not there to uncover. She has disappeared in history, an insignificant and impecunious petit rat who is remembered only the way Degas presented her, offered up for the interpretation of art lovers the world over. If Laurens does not manage to reinstate Marie, or to give her a story or a voice (I was glad that she consciously refrained from inventing these in their absence) she does nonetheless succeed in questioning the place and period that condemned her to this disappearance. Though at times Little Dancer Aged Fourteen seemed more about the artist than the muse, by shining a light on Marie’s absence even as her likeness is tangibly present throughout the decades, Laurens pays the only kind of homage possible to a young girl without a future: though Laurens attempts to discern Marie’s inner emotions as she posed for Degas, to understand her thoughts and her inner world rather than simply the artist’s intentions, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is all the more poignant for the author’s acknowledgement that “what is missing is her soul.”