First Published: 2011 by Authors Online
My copy: Supplied to me free of charge by the author, in return for an honest review
Memorable quote: “In her headlong pursuit of information, she was soon to discover that behind the peaceful facade of quiet rural life, every home in the village was a battle ground, where wars of hope against adversity were fought daily. The protagonists were invariably women, their faces tired and drawn, who were sick at heart with waiting and worrying. An unsung army of wives and mothers who suffered alone and in silence, and for whose names no memorial would ever be raised.”
I have always been drawn to works like Kari Herbert’s Polar Wives that focus on those lives -real or imagined – typically overlooked by mainstream historical narratives. This is why I was excited to receive a request to review this, Bartram’s debut novel. The First World War has inspired so many powerful poems, diaries, narratives and moving accounts of both fact and fiction but the majority of these works do tend to concentrate on front-line male experiences. Bartram’s well-researched historical novel attempts a new slant on old themes by exploring not just the lives of the women left behind but specifically lower class rural lives. One of the paradoxes this story highlights is that while so much war propaganda extolled the need to fight for beauty of the English countryside, that Green and Pleasant Land is all but forgotten in the most popular war narratives which tend to ping-pong between London and the trenches. So I welcomed Bartram’s more unusual focus on female farm labourers fighting their own battle to feed the blockade-starved nation by toiling to meet desperately increasing food production quotas.
This class distinction really makes Dance The Moon Down stand out even from other female-focused war narratives I’ve read, which typically concentrate on the upper/middle class urban milieu. However, this fascinating difference took a while to emerge. Bartram explores rural experience using a fish-out-of water narrative involving his heroine, Victoria, an educated woman for whom the war cuts tragically short her newly-wed bliss with her poet husband, Gerald. The early chapters of the book described Victoria’s experiences at university including her entanglements with the WSPU. Of course, the limited avenues of women’s higher education during this period are worth emphasising, and the battle to win women the vote was an important one but there are a lot of novels out there already about bluestockings and suffragettes and at first this one didn’t feel like it had much new to add to the mix. Victoria is a likeable protagonist, believable in her flaws, admirable in her passions but I’ll admit that I wasn’t captivated by her story straight away.
Heavily plot-driven, Dance The Moon Down covers a lot of ground, however, and it’s well worth pushing through the slightly pedestrian tone of the expository chapters for the enjoyable story that follows. When Gerald’s letters from the front stop arriving, Victoria’s unwavering quest for information about his whereabouts propels her on a journey both of discovery and self-discovery taking in the War Office, the police, an array of earthy country folk with secrets and stories of their own, and even the emerging Women’s Institute. Bartram’s passion for early twentieth-century history sings loud and clear from every line of this book. And he’s clearly done his research – although at times I felt the tone became a little too didactic, with the need to share certain facts shaping the fiction rather than vice versa. This is a relatively minor quibble, however, and though overall I found Dance The Moon Down slightly uneven it is still by turns moving, playful and informative with a twist ending that managed to satisfy while steering clear of the most obvious clichés. In short, worth a read.