Dances with the Daffodils

In one of my early posts here at The Ruff Draft, I shared a William Wordsworth poem about daffodils and was pleasantly surprised to find a comment that contained a book recommendation. Liù wrote: “May I suggest a book inspired by the same poem? Dances with the Daffodils by Matthew Connolly.”

I ordered the book right away, but did not pick it up and start reading until recently. I’m now nearing the end of Dances and have quite enjoyed it. It turns out that William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy have relatively small parts to play in the story (which suprised me). Instead, I’ve been treated to an intriguing tale about Luke Greenhead, a prodigal son who returned to England’s Lake District from London to find that he had no home; Sally Nettleslack, who is in danger of losing her own home; and a cast of characters that includes the tenant farmers of Grasmere who, in 1802, are dealing with harsh economic times, a cruel nobleman and his snakelike overseer, a pampered parson, and the loss of their sons to a war with Napoleon. While I was a bit disappointed to discover that I had stumbled into a story of social unrest, I was later heartened by the thoughtfully created characters, good story, and many touches of humor. Here’s a passage I especially enjoyed (though some may consider it a bit of a spoiler):

Word got round that old Nettleslack was a goner, and the word was fleshed out by the rumour that he’d left a daughter and seven-grand-daughters without a farthing. Refreshments began to appear in the porch, along with a black-painted casket for the deceased, which sobered heightened appetites within the house. Two mornings later, the funeral party of a baker’s dozen stood around in the fire-house eating bread and cheese, and drinking ale. One mourner who’d never known the Nettleslacks, but enjoyed mourning,  pointed out that the mirrors must be covered because it was bad luck to see the reflection of the corpse in glass. Sally pointed out, in return, that there had never been a mirror at Nettleslack Fram and there never would be, implying that dishevelment was a proud family tradition. Jack was laid out and mourners were invited, in keeping with another tradition, to touch the corpse to see if it bled, in which case the toucher would be branded a murderer, after which tea would be sipped.

Jack’s procession slid inexorably towards St Oswald’s as the mourners carried the coffin downhill to Grasmere singing psalms. The black casket was thrown into sharp relief against a cloud-blurred sky. Along the way, Sally, by giving the time of day to a young woman travelling with her ass, enjoyed the guilty comfort of hearing about a tragedy worse than her own.

‘You’ve had it right lucky, you have,’ the woman said, giving Sally the begging cant and whine of self-sorrow, tugging her arm on the offbeat as they advanced to the rhythm of an imaginary funeral drum. ‘I buried me yusband and three bairns in eighteen month over in Manchester. All in one grave. Levenasix it cost me each time I put another one in. You’re a lucky divel, you are!’

Sally didn’t feel like a lucky devil, and not only because her dearly loved father had died. The night before, as she’d snubbed out her candle, she’d thought about the two remaining men in her life. One was suspected of murder, while the other one was also suspected of murder. She’d weighed up both, and concluded she’d rather cavort down the aisle with Billy Tindle after all than consort with either of these damfools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *