Dance A Fearful Jig

Written by Alison Huntingford
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Peterborough, 1807: Plain, middle-aged, illiterate, and introverted Rachel Alderman, a brickmaker’s daughter, has few options in life as an unmarried woman. After a period of looking after the children of her deceased elder sister, until her brother-in-law’s second marriage, a life of service beckons. Proving herself to be capable and hardworking, Rachel is ultimately promoted to housekeeper to a prebend of the cathedral. Nearby Norman Cross, probably the world’s first purpose-built gaol for prisoners of war, houses mainly Frenchmen captured in the Napoleonic wars. Though obliged to wear distinctive clothing to lessen the chance of escape, these prisoners have the opportunity to sell the objects they make in captivity at a market outside the gaol. Charles Le Boucher is accomplished in the fine carving of toys, dolls’ houses and dominoes from cattle bones.

The inevitably doomed love affair of Rachel and Charles is the heart of this story. She is shunned by her family, and he risks everything in order to continue seeing her. Both protagonists existed, Rachel being a distant relative of the author, and though their love affair is fictional, historical evidence supports the existence of liaisons like theirs.

The narrative is sometimes prone to information dump, with an omniscient narrator at times catapulting the reader back into the present with phrases like ‘girls didn’t get any lessons back then and boys only rarely,’ or ‘she was 35 now and people rarely lived past 50 in those days.’ Modern idioms like ‘life was on hold’ and ‘instant makeovers’ also have a jarring effect. Nevertheless, the love story of two lonely people is told with empathy and tenderness and offers an insight into a less-known aspect of the late Georgian period.