The ‘dancing plague’ of 1518 was stranger than fiction – can a novel do it justice?

One day in 1518, a woman began to dance on the Place de Strasbourg; soon hundreds more joined her in the summer sun. The dance went on for weeks, to the anger of the authorities. According to some accounts, several women died of exhaustion each day.

The “dancing plague” remains unexplained and invites many interpretations: call it a tale about religious fervor or the madness of crowds.

In Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Dance Tree, these historical events frame the story of Lisbet, a young woman beset by misfortunes: a series of stillbirths, a tyrannical stepmother, and now the return of Agnethe, her sister in law. , who spent six years in a convent because of a mysterious sin.

Beyond these murky relationships, the women are suffocated by male power, from abusive husbands to a repressive elite – which means that when their dance begins, it sounds like a cry for freedom.

It is Hargrave’s second adult novel, after six award-winning children’s books, although like 2020’s The Mercies, about a 17th-century witch hunt, it doesn’t quite close the gap.

It has that familiar young adult patness, as if most of its characters were drawn with a marker pen. Lisbet is a nest of conflicts, but from her mother-in-law to the local tough man, the rest is only caricatures. The dialogue is anguished but gnomic; the information is delivered in slices.

The awkwardness is a shame, for Lisbet’s inner life is well painted, as well as those of the individual dancers we meet in the interludes. In an afterword, Hargrave recommends A Time to Dance, A Time to Die (2008), John Waller’s study of the events in Strasbourg, on which The Dance Tree draws generously. I would support his recommendation: fiction cannot correspond to fact.


The Dance Tree is published by Picador at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

Irene B. Bowles