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Excerpt from Renoir's Dancer by Catherine Hewitt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Renoir's Dancer

The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

by Catherine Hewitt

Renoir's Dancer by Catherine Hewitt X
Renoir's Dancer by Catherine Hewitt
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    Feb 2018, 480 pages


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C H A P T E R 1

Ne pura pu, bravo novio, rizio dounc!
Faras pa maû sechâ to grimaço, rizio dounc
(Do not cry, sweet young bride, laugh;
You would not be unwise to dry your eyes, laugh!)
Couplet from a traditional Limousin wedding song

When eighteen-year-old Madeleine Valadon awoke on 13 February 1849, she knew to expect a thick morning fog to have enveloped the town of Bessines, while the frosty air would sting and redden her bare hands once she stepped outside. It was a Tuesday; soon, the deserted place in the town centre would spring to life, as labourers, shopkeepers, artisans, seamstresses and laundresses hurried across the cobbles in all directions to take up their posts. The tap of wooden clogs on stone was a familiar sound as men in blue smocks made their way through the streets. White bonnets bobbed in time with female footsteps, subtle variations in each cap silently declaring its wearer's social standing and origin. The skirts and capes beneath them were sombre, often being worn for mourning.

The festivities of Christmas had now long passed; calls of Boun Anado in the local patois which resounded through the streets on 1 January were just a memory; Easter was late that year and the colour of Mardi Gras would pass all too quickly.5 February days were short and the nights could be bitter. And in just a few weeks, the truly hard work would begin. The following month, the whole town would be absorbed as the task of preparing the fields and then planting the year's turnip crop commenced.

In one way or another, everyone in Bessines was affected by agriculture and the rearing of livestock. Most households were self-sufficient, and those individuals who did not work the land themselves had a husband, brother or son who surely did. All would need meals prepared and clothing mended. Then there were the associated trades, so vital in the struggle to turn out bountiful yields of crops and herds. Born as she was to the local cartwright, Madeleine belonged to one of the many families whose livelihoods were dependent on the town's dominant commercial activity.

Moneyed, upper-class families were in a minority in the Limousin and countryfolk led a rude existence. Poor soil and a variable climate made it difficult to obtain good crops. Spring frosts could bring tragedy to farms and winters were glacial; hamlets were frequently cut off by snow, and heating the stone-walled cottages was a relentless task. Better off families might boast a home of two or three rooms with adjoining outbuildings, such as a barn, stable and bread oven (for most households had to be able to bake their own; often they would take turns with neighbours to bake for the whole hamlet for the week). There might also be a dryer for chestnuts, that important Limousin staple. Even the poorest peasants owned a shelter for the pig kept in readiness for sacrifice at Christmas. However, the less fortunate among them could be reduced to just one room. For many families, the chief objective was simply to survive.

In such circumstances, the spectre of death cast a shadow over everyday life. The Limousin was a region steeped in folklore and ruled by superstition. All manner of rituals and customs were employed to anticipate and forestall death's arrival. Placing a jar of honey in the stable was reputed to be a good way of protecting a cow, while a nut shell containing a live spider worn round the owner's neck was said to safeguard the wearer from the fever. Rural superstition held that a creaking piece of furniture presaged an imminent death, while a hen that crowed like a cockerel was an equally sinister omen; the creature should be dispatched without further delay and served at table.

But such methods did not always prove reliable deterrents. Indeed, death was an uninvited visitor Madeleine knew only too well. That winter, it had plunged the Valadon household into despair. In early October, just days before his 44th birthday, the young girl's father had died.

Renoir's DancerRenoir's Dancer by Catherine Hewitt. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St Martin's Press.

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