Finding himself the man of the family, London dancing master Alec Valcourt moves his mother and sister to remote Devonshire, hoping to start over. But he is stunned to learn the village matriarch has prohibited all dancing, for reasons buried deep in her past.
Alec finds an unlikely ally in the matriarch’s daughter. Though he’s initially wary of Julia Midwinter’s reckless flirtation, he comes to realize her bold exterior disguises a vulnerable soul–and hidden sorrows of her own.
Julia is quickly attracted to the handsome dancing master–a man her mother would never approve of–but she cannot imagine why Mr. Valcourt would leave London, or why he evades questions about his past. With Alec’s help, can Julia uncover old secrets and restore life to her somber village. . .and to her mother’s tattered heart?
Filled with mystery and romance, The Dancing Master brings to life the intriguing profession of those who taught essential social graces for ladies and gentlemen hoping to make a “good match” in Regency England.
Publisher and Release Date: Bethany House Publishers, January 2014
Time and Setting: Devonshire, England, 1816
Genre: Historical Fiction with romantic elements
Heat Rating: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars
Review by Caz
The Dancing Master is a gently-moving story about a young woman coming face-to-face with the secrets of her past and a young man who has to put his past behind him in order to move forward. Although categorised as “Christian” fiction, the religious message is not at all heavy-handed; indeed, the characters behave in a manner that feels very realistic for the time in which the novel is set.
Alec Valcourt, together with his mother and sister, had to leave their lives in London following a scandal, which has also left them in rather an impecunious position. In London, Alec and his father had been the proprietors of an Academy of Dancing and Fencing, and Alec is hopeful that he will be able to set himself up a similar business, albeit on a smaller scale, in the town of Beaworthy in Devon, where they have removed to reside temporarily with his uncle, a solicitor.
Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Alec prior to his arrival, the lady of the manor – Lady Amelia Midwinter – frowns upon and actively discourages the practice of dancing, so Alec finds his dream of setting up a dancing school is pretty much over before it has begun. But he has to find a way to support his mother and sister as they cannot rely on his uncle’s generosity in the long-term. His approaches to the local families do not meet with success – they are all well aware of Lady Amelia’s disapproval and given that they are mostly dependent on her patronage for their livelihoods, nobody is prepared to risk her displeasure by taking lessons. Just as Alec is about to have to consider other, less suitable options, he is surprised to receive an offer of employment from Lady Amelia – her estate manager needs a clerk to assist him. Alec is grateful for the opportunity, although he soon realises that she has made the offer in order to prevent him from pursuing other options.
Lady Amelia’s daughter, Miss Julia Midwinter, is a beautiful and lively young woman who is also a determined flirt. She chafes against propriety and the restrictions her mother tries to place on her, so they have an uneasy relationship, at best, but one which felt very realistic, given Julia’s age (nineteen) and the fact that her mother appears to be a cold, unfeeling woman.
Julia flirts openly with most of the young men of her acquaintance, and tries to work her womanly wiles on Alec, too. He is most definitely attracted to her, but is also clever enough to work out what she’s up to and quickly sees through her rather brittle façade to the lonely girl she is underneath. While he offers her friendship, he doesn’t respond to her romantic overtures (much as he would like to), knowing that her mother would never permit anything between them but the merest nodding acquaintance.
When Julia finds an old letter and she begins to bring to light a number of long-hidden family secrets, her relationship with her mother deteriorates further. In addition to this, the return to the village of one of its former inhabitants unsettles both the villagers and Lady Amelia, and it’s not long before old wounds are re-opened and the truth is finally revealed about an old family tragedy.
The writing is very good, but the pacing at the beginning is very slow and it took me quite a while to become engaged with the story. The romance, too, is a bit of a let-down. It’s very low-key and while there are a few moments of nicely-placed romantic tension, I felt cheated at the end, because whatever finally develops between Alec and Julia happens sometime between the last chapter and the epilogue, and we’re TOLD, rather than SHOWN that they are a couple by the end of the book.
The characterisation of the principals and main secondary characters is strong throughout. Julia comes across as spoiled and headstrong to start with, but as the story develops we get to see another side of her character, the sad and lonely girl who knows her father never loved her and who believes her mother doesn’t much care for her either. Alec is very much a beta hero – quiet, considering and accepting, sometimes to the point of not seeming to be hero material at all. But he does come through in the end, his quiet determination proving to be his real strength as he gradually wins the villagers respect and pursues his ambition of bringing dancing back to Beaworthy.
The characterisation of Lady Amelia is the real stand-out, though. She begins as a very unlikeable, dictatorial woman who seems unaffectionate towards her only daughter, but as the story progresses and the reader begins to understand her motives, the picture that emerges is one of a very different woman. A woman who has had little outlet for her affections and who has tried to do the right thing throughout a variety of very trying circumstances – and moreover, one who is deserving of the second chance she is given.
The mystery relating to the dancing ban, Julia’s past and the involvement of the mysterious stranger in the lives of the Midwinter family is very well developed, and I particularly liked the fact that, when confronted by Julia with what she has found out, Lady Amelia doesn’t attempt to evade her questions.
While this is a gentle, well-written and – for the most part – enjoyable story boasting a well-handled, intriguing mystery I nonetheless came away from it feeling slightly disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed Ms Klassen’s last book – The Tutor’s Daughter – and had hoped to find another book that was as gripping. The fact that I didn’t may possibly account for some of the disappointment I have expressed. But if you’re looking for an undemanding, clean read, peopled with well-realised characters and the gradual unravelling of a long-standing family mystery, then you could do much worse than give The Dancing Master a try.