Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
This absorbing, heartfelt work uncovers the story of the real dancer behind Degas’s now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century Parisian life.
She is famous throughout the world, but how many know her name? You can admire her figure in Washington, Paris, London, New York, Dresden, or Copenhagen, but where is her grave? We know only her age, fourteen, and the work that she did—because it was already gruelling work, at an age when children today are sent to school. In the 1880s, she danced as a “little rat” at the Paris Opera, and what is often a dream for young girls now wasn’t a dream for her. She was fired after several years of intense labor; the director had had enough of her repeated absences. She had been working another job, even two, because the few pennies the Opera paid weren’t enough to keep her and her family fed. She was a model, posing for painters or sculptors—among them Edgar Degas.
Drawing on a wealth of historical material as well as her own love of ballet and personal experiences of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world she inhabited that shows the importance of those who have traditionally been overlooked in the study of art.
Praise for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
‘Sensitive, human, and profound.’ — Catherine Hewitt, author of Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon
‘”Which counts for more, the painting or the model, art or nature?” Society has no interest in the living subject represented; to pose for a sculpture is to submit oneself entirely to the artist’s gaze (…) The book adeptly evokes the “canvas of suffering” endured by Marie and her ilk in a world dominated by the male gaze.’ — iNews
‘Laurens’ project is not simply a matter of adding another voice to the myriad artistic critiques of Degas’ work.(…) Under the pen of an author intent on uncovering all there is to be known of Marie’s life, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen develops into a curious form of investigative literature, exposing the unspoken moral failings of nineteenth-century culture in its search for Marie. The criticism throughout, if implicit, is certain.(…) Its status as a passion project, though, takes nothing away from the achievement of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Reverting to the author’s own life in its closing moments, this book wills its reader to look beyond the surface, to discover the writer behind the writing, and the girl behind the sculpture.’ — The Arts Desk
‘The virtue of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is this accumulation of uncertainties as a moral prerequisite to looking. It is curious to me how we talk so much about ‘engagement’ in criticism when moralising tends so quickly to the opposite: to condemn the Little Dancer on feminist grounds, or to defend it with reference to the creation’s autonomy vis-à-vis the creator are all ways, not of engaging, but of being done with the work of art itself. Laurens presents the evidence such judgments would rely on without confining herself to a definitive verdict, because her question is how we dwell with a work of art, how we must at once approach and step back from it to permit it to remain a permanent object of curiosity and wonder. In this way, she touches on one of the most significant problems for fiction: the imperative of understanding others while honouring that inner secrecy they always possess and we never will be able to grasp’ — Adrian Nathan West, Review 31
‘Laurens has long been moved by the Little Dancer as a person, not just as a statue. We may not be given all the answers, but this book allows readers to be moved by her too.’ — Rachel Andrews, The Irish Times