As a child, there was no activity I hated more than my dancing lessons. Ballet, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Highland…I loathed all those classes I was forced to take when I was too small for my preferences to matter. My mother tried – goodness knows she tried – to instill in me a love of ballet, taking me to as many performances as she could, but though I enjoyed watching others performed I never understood why anyone would want to be a dancer. I never understood, that is, until I was eleven and read A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson for the first time.
Set in 1912, A Company of Swans is the tale of Harriet Morton, the sheltered and bookish daughter of a Cambridge professor. Withdrawn from school after showing alarming bluestocking tendencies, Harriet lives under the control of her strict father and humourless aunt. Facing the prospect of marriage to an ambitious but terribly dull young zoologist, Edward Finch-Dutton, and with no friends to confide in, Harriet is quite miserable. Reading alleviates her loneliness somewhat but it is no substitute for human interaction:
Loneliness had taught Harriet that there was always someone who understood – it was just that so very often they were dead, and in a book.
Her only joy comes from her dancing lessons, where she excels. When the opportunity comes for her to join a touring ballet company, she does just that, running away from her joyless home and setting off with the company for South America. In the Amazonian capital of Manaus, where its culture-starved citizens built a truly extraordinary opera house and where they enjoy nothing better than going there to see touring ballet, opera, and theatre companies from Europe and America, Harriet blossoms, enchanted by her exotic surroundings and warmed by her new friendships with other members of the company. She also falls in love for the first time, with Romain Verney, an Englishman who has made his fortune in Brazil. But Harriet’s father is determined to track down his runaway daughter and has sent Edward Finch-Dutton after her…
Like all of Ibbotson’s adult/young-adult novels, this is a romantic fairy tale and to my mind there are few people who can write such stories as well as she. The exotic setting, the tantalizing glimpse into the outwardly glamourous world of ballet, the aristocratic love interest…she does all this perfectly and no matter how many times I read this book (and I have been reading it frequently for fifteen years now) it never fails to captivate me. I love her descriptions of the Amazon – its sounds, its smells, its sights – and could so easily relate to the Europeans who fell in love with it, even as they longed for the refinements of home. Ibbotson does the little details well and her description of the ballet’s opening night and the feelings of those about to attend is perfect: the young English wife who will, at least for a few hours, be able to forget her grief over the son who has recently been sent to boarding school; the Russian balletomane count, longing to see at least a little bit of home in Swan Lake; the Prefect of Police, who can gaze on the beautiful dancers before returning home with his sour wife; or the German doctor and his wife, who come out of the lonely wilderness to enjoy the gossip and company as much as the performance. These aren’t characters who are important to the plot of the book but including them makes the story so much richer; even though we never see most of them again, we know they are there, some of them very happy, some of them not.
Ibbotson also acknowledges that not all the dangers in the Amazon came from nature, describing the mistreatment of native workers by European masters, which sicken Verney when he comes across them:
He had believed that he knew of all the cruelties which men had inflicted on the Indians in their insane greed for rubber […] Workers flayed into insensibility with tapir-hide whips for bring in less cahuchu than their master craved; hirelings with Winchesters dragging into slavery every able-bodied man in a village […] He himself had been offered – by a drunken overseer on the Madeira – one of the man’s native concubines, a girl just nine years old…
I find the story of Harriet’s affair with Verney quite satisfying, even more so now that I am an adult and can appreciate that not every author who writes such good and wholesome heroines can also allow them to go quite naturally to bed with a lover, but it is Harriet’s experiences in the ballet company that truly fascinate me. She takes her dancing very seriously and all the rigour and pain that entails is recorded here. But Ibbotson also manages to capture the beauty of dance and the joy that it brings to performers. I hadn’t noticed on previous readings the references to War and Peace but now having read the book myself, I can see why other characters compare Harriet to Natasha. Harriet’s improvised performance in front of a room full of rowdy men –charming them when they had come to be titillated – has all the enchantment of Natasha’s unexpected peasant dance:
She danced naturally and with a perfect innocence, making no attempt whatever to match the gestures of Marie-Claude, but to the men watching her she purveyed an extraordinary sense of happiness, of fun. It was the delight of a young girl allowed to stay up for a party that Harriet shared with her audience – the excitement, the wonder of being awake in this glittering grown-up world – and the leader of the orchestra, getting her measure, quietened his players so that the showy, exuberant music revealed its charm and tenderness.
But it is really through the supporting characters that we come to understand the world of the ballet. Ibbotson was always good at writing superb secondary characters and I think she was at her best in A Company of Swans. I adore Marie-Claude, a dazzlingly beautiful French dancer with a hard head for business, who is Harriet’s closest friend in the company. She is what ballet-mad men dream of when they think of ballet dancers, the kind of girl they would like to pick from the corps as their next mistress. Marie-Claude knows this and exploits it but remains devoted to her fiancé back in France, protecting her virtue with a combination of cleverness and a long, sharp hat-pin. She is the perfect companion for Harriet: worldly and confident, she gives her friend all the encouragement she needs.
The heart of the ballet company, though, lies with Dubrov, the ballet master, and Simonova, the aging prima ballerina whom he has loved for years. Simonova is emotional and demanding, not to mention jealous of her understudy, but her fragility always touches me. After so many years at the peak of her profession, her body is in constant pain and though she may threaten to retire to an alpine village to grow vegetables (a plan that has Dubrov shuddering, knowing how ill-prepared the champagne and cavier-fed Simonova is for rural life), as long as she can still move she will continue to dance. No matter how much it hurts, it is her life. Dubrov, who has been devoted to her since she was just a dancer in the corps, has focused his whole life around her; when she exiled herself to Europe after a fight with her company in Russia, he sold his business interests there and followed, setting up a new ballet company for her. It is a tumultuous but tender relationship and one that always brings tears to my eyes, especially when – feeling tired and defeated – Simonova whispers her fondest memories of St Petersburg, still denying – but not convincingly – that she has no desire to return to Russia.
A Company of Swans is not my favourite of Ibbotson’s adult novels, but that means nothing. I may prefer The Morning Gift or Madensky Square but I love all of these books, whether they be sent in Austria, England or Brazil. Ibbotson is romantic and humourous, and has a sensibility that is an intriguing combination of nostalgic and modern. There is no one quite like her and when I am in need of a comfort read, she is the first author I turn to.