Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers
It’s many years since I read Miss Garnet’s Angel and I decided it was time to catch up with another of Salley Vickers’s novels. Dancing Backwards is an older woman’s physical journey across the Atlantic to meet up with an old friend, whilst her mind travels back to the past and recreates a period when they were close friends. As she travels forward in time, her memories take her back to her younger days, and she discovers the answers to questions she has always known, but never acknowledged.
Drawing on contemporary and cultural references we travel with Violet, the protagonist, back to England in the 1960s as she relives her teens and early twenties. Vi first meets Edwin, the friend she is visiting, when she is an undergraduate student, and he is a postgraduate tutor at Cambridge University. He is writing a thesis on Ovid and she, shrinking, shy violet that she is, amazes him with her knowledge of John Donne. Other literary allusions are made to Christopher Marlowe, who attended Corpus Christi college, Tristram Shandy, The Duchess of Malfi (a text taught by Edwin when he abandons his thesis and teaches at a school in Oxford) and Mustardseed, one of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is used as the title of a poetry anthology that is set up by Edwin and Violet, and leads into several mentions of Peter Brook’s production of that play, although Vi never manages to see it.
The novel introduces references to contemporary culture and reminds us that we are part of the modern consumer society. The younger Vi shopped at Biba and used Nivea cream on her face, she drank Valpolicella (Valpol), the mature woman imbibes Chablis, Dr Kildare is watched on television, Rice Krispies are eaten for breakfast, Spider-Man becomes a miniature on a keyring, mobile phones are mislaid, the ship’s gift shop sells expensive malt Scotch and Gucci handbags, Mitsouko perfume is dabbed behind the ears and La Dolce Vita is shown in the cinema. As a counterbalance to the sprinkling of writers and their works (that also include Mark Twain, Hermann Melville and A E Houseman) we are also made aware of a child’s favourite story, Skarloey and His Friends. Vi befriends the young Patrick, who enjoys the later stories about the Railway Engines as the novel anticipates the birth of her forthcoming granddaughter, Blossom, who will be named after Blossom Dearie, the jazz singer.
Shakespeare seems to run through the novel like a leitmotif. Vi borrows a copy of his complete works from the ship’s library and is plagued by a quotation from the bard, but one that she is unable to locate until helped in New York by a literary critic she has met on board. He completes her snippet of ‘They say miracles are past…’ with ‘and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear’ and reminds her that it is from All’s Well That Ends Well. Violet is finally faces her unknown fears and realises that the future will not be such a bad place after all. T S Eliot famously stated that his past was in his present: we all carry the baggage of our former selves and it is sometimes necessary to face the past in order to face up to the future.