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August Book Club Choice

The Hidden Dance by Susan Wooldridge

Cover of The Hidden Dance

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A moving and gripping novel, set in the 1930s, as English Society emerges from the shadow of the Great War and wakes to the nascent horror of Chancellor Hitler.

The story unfolds aboard the SS Etoile, a luxury liner, during its five day voyage from Southampton to New York; the heroine, an upper-class English woman, who is fleeing from her abusive husband to start a new life in America with the man she loves. Travelling in disguise in steerage to avoid being apprehended, she forges an unexpected friendship and encounters an old enemy who could threaten her escape. Within the ship’s bubble, the author produces a story that masterfully depicts the English class-system and the essence of the time, whilst offering an empowering story of courage and determination.

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Author Q&A

Q. What drew you to set the novel in the 1930s?
Joyce Carroll, Southampton

A. My mother was the lovely actress Margaretta Scott who started her career in the 1920s, my grandfather keeping all her press cuttings in great big scrapbooks from the start. I can remember as a little girl being fascinated particularly by the earliest ones from the 20s and 30s and would gaze at the pictures and read all the articles in such magazines as Picture Post and The Bystander. Besides the columns about the theatre world and the ‘pictures’, as films were then called, these magazines detailed current events - both political and social. I suppose that’s when the seeds were sown to ultimately write a story set in those times.

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Q. There is a lot of intricate detail about the ship in the novel. Did you spend a lot of time researching it, and how did you go about it?
G. Burns, Hitchin

A. One day walking down Charing Cross Road in London just after I first started thinking about The Hidden Dance, I saw two books in a second-hand bookshop that concerned ocean-going liners. One was a big childrens’ book which had a pull-out centre-fold of a section of the Titanic and to me it was like opening a doll’s house; so many stories and lives seemed to be hidden there. The other was a vast book of period photographs which included at the back, the dimensions and mechanical details of some of the mighty liners of the 1920s and 30s. When I came to write my novel, I found that one authentic fact slipped in here and there seemed to suffice in terms of research so that ultimately it has made me appear much more knowledgeable than I really am!

Q. Authors often say they had the most fun writing about a particular character in their novel. Did you have a favourite in The Hidden Dance?
D. James, Edinburgh

A. I suppose I had the most fun writing Lady Lavinia Slocombe as once inside her head, I could behave really badly! But then I also loved falling in love whilst being Lily and finding friendship whilst being Nellie Webb.

Q. Your depiction of domestic violence comes across as very real. Did you draw on personal experience or talk to people who had been victims of abuse to create this vivid picture?
Mary Kingston, Sheffield

A. I am very relieved to say this part of the story – the domestic violence – I did not write from personal experience. However about ten years ago, as an actor, I played a role in an episode of Heartbeat where I was abused by my husband, a wealthy ‘respectable’ member of the community whom behind closed doors terrorised both his wife and son. Rather late in life, I realised what a ‘democratic’ and widespread crime domestic violence is – and since then I’ve become very interested in the work of both Women’s Aid and Refuge, the two key national charities who are working to end domestic violence against women and children.

Q. Did you find your background as an actor helped your writing process or hindered it?
K. Reynolds, Berkshire

A. I think in the long run I would have to say my background as an actor helped the writing process. It gave me a handle on dialogue as so many times I have been faced with a script with absolutely ‘unsay-able’ lines! Consequently I have had to ‘doctor’ those words or if that’s not possible, find a way in which my character could speak like that. Also I have been lucky enough to have done a lot of period drama so I think that helps when thinking about clothes and the feel, say, of a piece of fabric or the weight of a hat.

Q. Why did you choose to write a novel and not a script – as an actor I would have thought it would be a more natural inclination?
Sue Henault, London

A. The Hidden Dance in fact started life as a screenplay. However I realised that a line of dialogue gave me very little freedom with which to explore the ‘inner world’ of a character and so very soon I began to find this form too confining. I had realised that I knew so much about my characters – their thoughts, their secrets – that it was these emotions, along with telling a story, that I wanted to fully explore.

Q. When you were writing the novel did you ever envision how you would have ‘played’ the parts of the various characters? Or thought about what actors you would have cast in the various roles?
V. Dodds, London

A. Originally I would have loved to have played Lily and then again, I’d also liked to have been Lavinia Slocombe but sadly - in both cases – I’m too long in the tooth! But we have so many wonderful actors, both men and women, that I’m sure if a script were ever given a ‘green light’, we would be marvellously spoilt for choice!

Q. What stands out the most from your experience as a debut novelist?
Marjory Brimson, London

A. The thrill of standing in a bookshop and seeing a pile of your books on a table or a shelf is pretty unbeatable! Though perhaps checking the tab at the front of a library edition of your novel only to see that it’s been taken out lots of times is also wonderful!!


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