May 1945 and at long last, Rosamund Caradon is feeling optimistic. As she returns the last few evacuees to London from her Devonshire manor, she vows to protect dance-obsessed daughter Jasmine from further peril.
But a chance meeting with a Sadler’s Wells ballet dancer changes everything.
When the beautiful, elusive Briar Woods bursts into Rosamund’s train carriage, it’s clear her sights are set on the immediately captivated Jasmine. And Rosamund cannot shake the eerie feeling this accidental encounter is not what it seems.
For Briar may be far away from the pointe shoes and greasepaint of the Sleeping Beauty ballet that is so much a part of her, but her performance for Rosamund might just be her most successful yet.
This, Briar feels, is a show for a mother and daughter. A dance that could turn deadly…
READ AN EXTRACT FROM THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES
Martha rose from the dressing table, her make-up perfect and her dark hair sleek in a tight bun. Kicking shoes and discarded clothes out of the way, she found a space on the floor to stretch. She had a book with her, a translation of Charles Perrault’s ‘La Belle au bois dormant’, and she opened it, lying on her front with the soles of her feet pressed together to stretch out her hips.
‘Every version of this story gets more and more innocent,’ she said, flipping between the pages. ‘One day it will be nothing more than a pretty fairy tale for children.’ She pressed her pelvis down into the ground, shifting her weight from side to side. Martha had always struggled with her turnout, spending hours attempting to persuade her hips to find the rotation we all longed to achieve. I knelt next to her and looked at the book. It was a slim, illustrated hardback, the silhouette of a sleeping woman surrounded by roses on the front cover. At first glance it did look like a tale for children, a ‘once upon a time’ story of love and first kisses and happy ever afters.
‘Don’t be fooled by the pretty pictures,’ Martha said. ‘The first version of the story is about a prince who impregnates the princess in her sleep.’
I looked at her sharply. Martha returned my gaze for the briefest moment before flicking her eyes back to the book, her cheeks burning. She shifted uncomfortably as she stretched, her thighs pressing harder into the ground. I noticed Vivian staring at us in the mirror, her eyes wide and her lips parted in small oval of surprise. ‘Do we really need to hear about this just before the beginners’ call?’ she objected, coming to my rescue. ‘I’d prefer to imagine it as all fairies and roses and enchantments.’
I was aware of the other girls around us. Their attention had shifted to Martha and her book now their costumes were fastened and their pointe shoe ribbons stitched in at the ankle.
‘It’s okay,’ I whispered, just loud enough for Martha to glance up at me again, an uncertain apology hovering in her eyes.
‘It’s originally from an anonymous medieval prose romance called Perceforest,’ Martha said. ‘Troylus gets so frustrated when Zellandine fails to wake up from his kiss that he rapes her. She still doesn’t wake up as she’s giving birth nine months later. When she finally does emerge out of that sleep, she marries him, but is obviously traumatised for the rest of her life. Then there was an Italian version in the seventeenth century by Giambattista Basile. His was even worse. The princess, named Talia, has twins in her sleep. She stays fast asleep until one of the babies sucks out the cursed splinter of flax from her finger. Then her mother-in-law tries to eat her children, out of jealousy.’
‘Sun, Moon and Talia,’ I said, remembering. Stories from the Pentamerone. A red book, gold embossed lettering on the front cover: it was on the bookshelf at home in Devon. I read the stories with my father when I was younger, the two of us laughing over the wildness of the magic and the improbability of the narratives.
‘Perrault’s story isn’t much better,’ Martha continued, the noise of the dressing room hushed now to only the low rustle of our skirts. ‘No rape, thank goodness, but the prince’s mother is an ogress who tries very hard to make the cook serve the children for her dinner, before throwing herself into a vat of snakes and toads and lizards in a suicidal rage.’
‘A lesson for us all,’ Vivian mumbled under her breath.
‘Clearly it is simplest never to marry at all,’ I said, trying to keep my voice light. These stories, ridiculous fairy tales though they were, had tainted the evening. Like Vivian, I preferred to think of The Sleeping Princess as a magical spectacle of fairy godmothers and characters from folklore. But then we had both learned the hard way about heartbreak and loss, Louis de Manton, Frank Ellis, just boys but with the power to root deep into our self-worth.
The Sleeping Beauties by Lucy Ashe is published in hardback by Magpie on 15 February 2024