Dance the Moon Down is an engaging and well-researched historical portrait of one young woman's life in rural England during the Great War.
Victoria has enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life prior to the war, with her father supporting her continuing her studies, enabling her to benefit from education for longer than many women at that time. Whilst studying she makes friends with Beryl Whittacker, a staunch advocate of women's rights and independence, and she also meets the gifted poet Gerald Avery, with whom she falls in love. The two spend such happy times together, and the feelings of joy and love Victoria experiences are wonderful;
'It was to be an unforgettable year - a year of risk and excitement, of secret liaisons, the fear of discover, of reluctant partings and counting the minutes until they were together again…She was light as a feather, whilst all around her the world seemed wonderfully bright and inexpressibly beautiful. She'd never been so happy. She was so very much in love that she hardly knew where she was, except when she was with him…She felt as if she'd been only half alive before she'd met him...'
After a battle with Victoria's mother, the pair start to make a life together in the countryside. A strong love and bond grows between Victoria and Gerald prior to World War I. However as I read I was afraid as to what would happen to them when the war began.
The tale follows Victoria's subsequent search for news of Gerald when he has gone missing in France after volunteering to fight. She is persistent and fiercely determined to discover what has happened to him, she scours the lists of the dead, she goes to London and enquires there, never giving up the hope that he is alive, just as so many other women await news of their men, whether sons, husbands, brothers, fathers; …'women, their faces tired and drawn, who were sick at heart with waiting and worrying.' Victoria is accused of being a spy and we see how this blot on her character will influence her future choices.
She returns to the countryside, to Staunton Gifford near the south coast, where she must get used to a much lower standard of living than she was once used to, and she eventually finds work, albeit hard, physical work as a farm labourer; '...Victoria understood that even though the work was backbreaking, it was still work. Without it, you didn't get paid, and if you didn't get paid, you starved. It was a part of life she'd never had to consider before.' There she makes firm friendships with some of the other women who are similarly employed, friendships that cross the social/class barriers. I won't write any further about the plot, as it is for the reader to discover further what happens to Victoria and to Gerald.
I must admit that I found the narrative perhaps a little overly descriptive at first, but then the story grew and blossomed fully to life and I was caught up in it fully, eager to see what the path ahead would hold for these characters. The author vividly conveys the determination and perseverance, and sheer hard physical work that so many did at home during the war in support of the country and of those overseas. It was brave of the author to tackle the female point of view here and he gives a fresh, compassionate and honest portrait of the lives, trials and struggles of those left behind during wartime. He has paid keen attention to detail, and the novel shows his careful research of the times and the events of this period; I felt transported back to another time.
I really liked the portrayal of Beryl, her independence, fighting for what she believed in despite being considered a criminal, and her urging Victoria to want to make more of life and not just settle down and get married. But it felt right too, that this is what Victoria wanted, and that she could defend that choice. It was interesting to see the depiction of women trying to break free from convention but at the same time to be able to have the freedom to make their own choices either way. And Beryl is a rounded character; despite her independence and her actions as a suffragette demanding progress, she is nevertheless susceptible to romance. I admired Victoria for the way she adapted to the hand life had dealt her, and the way she was prepared to us her knowledge and abilities to help others who had had less chances in life than her thus far, whether due to lack of education or due to poverty.