Previously published in Dawn's Books & Authors.
Twelve princesses are locked in a tower by their father, the man who rules the world they know. He doesn’t want them exposed to the world; he thinks them vulnerable and weak. He mostly ignores their needs and for a long time he does not know that the princesses have worked how to engage with the world outside. Every night, when the king is asleep, the princesses sneak out and go dancing to secret places shimmering with music and life, where swaying dresses and flashing shoes spark gold and silver spangles. They’re back before the morning, carrying their worn out dancing shoes so they can sneak up back to their rooms on their quiet, stockinged feet.
Genevieve Valentine’s second novel, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, is a version of the Grimm Brothers’ ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses,’ but set in Prohibition-era New York City. With no trace of the speculative fiction or fantasy element Valentine employed in her first novel about a steampunk circus, Mechanique, this is a magical story nonetheless. Twelve sisters have grown up on the upper floors of their family home with only each other for company. Ashamed by the lack of an heir, their father chose to hide them, letting them out only occasionally for walks with their nannies. The girls barely know their mother — the younger ones don’t even remember her — a woman who was always unwell or pregnant in yet another attempt to bear a male child.
The eldest sister Jo, nicknamed the General, is both parents to her sisters though even she knows little about their family: “She knew they had money; she knew her mother was sad, and had been better off than this, once, she knew no one wanted to hear a word out of girls who were nothing but trouble.” Jo knew that “there were no monsters in the streets, but if they misbehaved, their father would be angry.” The sisters’ nannies told them there were “wolves in this city who eat wicked girls” but as they get older, the girls realise they can manage the wolves just fine.
Each develops a great love for dancing — the older ones teach the Charleston, the foxtrot, the American tango to the younger ones and for years “they lived that way, doves in cages, peering out and shaking the feathers of their wings; with every practice they were dancing along their perches, just waiting for a door to open.”
Jo opens this door for them when she starts to lead her sisters into secret nocturnal visits to the dark, smoky world of all-night clubs and speakeasies, where the “effect of all twelve of them standing on the stairs was striking enough that the room paused as the crowd caught sight of them, and even the musicians dropped the volume for a beat, as if the wind had been knocked out of them from twelve girls with glittering, dance-hungry eyes appearing all at once.”
The sisters are quick to catch on and there is not a single instance of them being taken advantage of by any number of the (possibly) shady men they meet in the clubs; they can hold their own when it comes to music, booze or conversation. There is, at the start, a little fear that this would end badly — this nightly sneaking out into the big bad world of secret speakeasies, smuggled alcohol and sudden police raids, but the sisters are able to fend for themselves, which is fortunate considering their father has plans of his own. It isn’t the world outside they need to fear, but their own home. When their father hears rumours of a group of young girls who may be sisters frequenting speakeasies, his immediate reaction is to pay someone for information on them and then to marry his daughters off to men he intends on choosing.
When he informs Jo that he will start to look at suitors, she realises that the girls will be “passed from one house to another, without ever seeing the city in daylight, moved into place like any other heirloom.” She is to inform her younger sisters and so she does though “they had all been sneaking out into the world long enough to know what sort of man wanted a captive bride, a girl that a father was handing out select.”
Jo is desperate to save her sisters but “unfortunately the house wasn’t tall enough, and the cigar box with her savings in it wasn’t full enough, and the world wasn’t welcoming enough” and she is forced to tackle the situation as best she can. She looks at them, “piled like birds on the beds: 11 girls in New York’s most refined prison,” and attempts to deter the prospective suitors with what little arsenal she has. Jo’s strength and independence is admirable, her sacrifice is huge — and it’s also a great way to refer to the changing role of women during the roaring twenties.
Of course, it is the relationship between these sisters that makes this story extraordinary. Twelve young women, cooped up in one house with no outlet other than sneaking out at night to dance with strangers — twelve young women who don’t have any other friends or family but each other. There’s no way they’d all get along with each other all the time, but their bond is undeniable. Together, they are a united front, with a strength that even the youngest shares, especially when they are out dancing: “They moved in little packs, two and three at a time, and it was tough to keep track.” Their closeness worried people who saw them, made them think “it wasn’t right, all those women sticking together so close. Something about the wall of bob-haired girls scared the men, though they hardly knew it.”
Valentine has recently been hired to write an arc for DC Comics’ Catwoman and I’m excited to see what a writer who handles relationships between female characters with such craft will do with Selina Kyle. I’m certain there will be no risk of failing the Bechdel Test for Catwoman in this arc.
What’s most impressive about Valentine’s bittersweet and well-written story is that each of her twelve princesses are real and nuanced. To have written 12 characters, each with her own distinct personality and an individual dynamic with her sisters is a real feat. It is rare to find a book that has not a few but a dozen fully realised and interesting female characters, each so perfectly detailed. It is rarer still that this feat is achieved in under three hundred pages and with such controlled, charming prose. This is a book about sisterhood, friendship, love and most importantly, about developing your own agency and daring to defy rules that someone else has chosen for you.