When writing The Last Days of Leda Grey, my novel about an Edwardian actress who plays a part in silent films, I was very much inspired by the oriental and vampish style of many theatrical femme fatales in this era that led to the First World War.
But what could be more sensational than the appearance and life of the dancer who was known as Mata Hari: the true life story that is told in The Red Dancer, by Richard Skinner?
The Red Dancer opens in 1895 when, as a young woman in Amsterdam, Margaretha Zelle answers a lonely-hearts advertisement placed by a soldier twice her age in a local newspaper. But her marriage to Captain McLeod of the Dutch army ends in tragedy and acrimony and she leaves their posting in Indonesia. Heading for Paris, she adopts the stage name Mata Hari ~ 'Eye of the Morning' ~ and reinvents herself as an exotic dancer. Mata Hari's fame soon spreads throughout the cabarets and theatres of Europe and, as the major powers lurch towards inevitable conflict, she begins to attract the attention of numerous admirers ~ many of whom are officers, all too keen to share their secrets with a woman of notorious intrigue and allure.
Set against the dramatically imagined backdrop of pre-War Europe, Richard Skinner's novel weaves interlinking chapters of fiction and non-fiction to conjure up the life, the loves, and also the tragic destiny of a woman who continues to fascinate almost a century on from her death.
The above description is taken from the Faber & Faber website.
Who can have seen the photographic images of the exotic dancer, Mata Hari, and not have been intrigued to know more about this glamorous woman ~ even more so to understand how she could have been drawn so easily into webs of spying conspiracies leading into the years of the First World War: the crimes for which she was then tried and sentenced to death by a firing squad?
For a fascinating insight peeling back the layers of lies and intrigue I found myself glued to every word of Richard Skinner's The Red Dancer.
The structure of the novel is original and quite unique, offering different viewpoints from the voices of those who, to greater or lesser extents, came to know the alluring dancer. Between such first-hand narratives, and ultimately a transcript of the arrest and interrogation that took place in London's Scotland Yard, we also read small chapter 'essays' that illustrate the politics, the art, and the general atmosphere of the Europe in which she rose to fame, and which so influenced her fate.
Not a word is wasted as we read of the making of a myth, with much of that creation spoken through our Dutch heroine's lovely lips, as they are in Skinner's Prologue ...
I am absolutely Oriental.
I was born in the south of India on the coast of Malabar, in the holy city of Jaffnapatam, the child of a family within the sacred caste of Brahma. By reason of his piety and pureness of heart my father was called Asirvadam, which means 'The Blessing of God'. My mother was a glorious bayadere in the temple of Kanda Swany. She died when she was fourteen, on the day I was born. The priests of the temple, having cremated my mother, adopted me under the baptismal name of Mata Hari, which means 'Eye of the Dawn.'
From the time when I took my first uncertain steps I was shut up in the great subterranean hall of the pagoda of Siva, where I was to be trained to follow in my mother's footsteps through the holy rites of the dance. Of these early years my mind retains only vague recollections of a monotonous existence in which, during the long morning hours, I was taught to imitate automatically the movements of the bayaderes, and in the afternoons was allowed to walk in the gardens while weaving garlands of jasmine for decorating the altars.
When I reached the threshold of womanhood, my foster mother saw in me a predestined soul and resolved to dedicate me to Siva and to reveal to me the mystery of love and faith on the night of the Sakty-pudja, in the following spring. It was on the purple granite altar of the Kanda Swany that, at the age of thirteen, I was initiated. Naked, I danced before the rajahs on the banks of the sacred Ganges...
And so, the spell was woven around Margaretha ~ also known as Gerda ~ whose Dutch father abandoned the child who then suffered her own unhappy marriage which was full of betrayals on both sides, and during which a small son would die and a daughter would be stolen by a gambling, violent husband.
Left alone and penniless, with only her beauty and wits to survive on, Gerda becomes Mata Hari, the performer and the courtesan who trades her flesh for the secrets of prominent men in the military. As Europe heads towards a war the seductress is all too rapidly lost in a spiralling slide to disaster (beautifully foreshadowed in the description of a skiing accident in which she almost meets her death) through brave though misguided illicit affairs.
This is quite a story. Refreshingly original and utterly captivating in style. With the glamour, thrills and mysteries of this roller coaster of a life, in some hands it might perhaps have led to melodramatic fantasies. But Richard Skinner's stylistic pen is very cleverly restrained. A calm rendition of the facts allows the raw emotions felt for such a doomed and tragic 'heroine' to strike home with a reality that is immensely powerful.
The Red Dancer (the original cover of which is shown in the body of the article above) was first published by Faber in 2001. Now, it will be repackaged and re-issued in October 2017 to commemorate 100 years since Mata Hari's violent end.
Richard Skinner is the author of The Red Dancer, which was translated into seven languages. He has also published a collection of poetry, the light user scheme, and a writer's handbook, Fiction Writing. A translation of The Velvet Gentleman was shortlisted in France for the Prix Livres & Musiques. He is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy.