The Dutch Maiden – Gothic splendour and swordplay in a troubled Europe


Fencing is a discipline littered with double meanings ripe for interpretation – attackers are known as “agents”; defenders as “patients”; a sequence of uninterrupted moves is a “phrase”. It is one of the most graceful and cerebral of sports, yet it appears with surprising rarity in literature – Alexandre Dumas and Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novels, both titled The Fencing Master, are the most famous examples.

Maybe its reputation as a sport for aristocrat types is what keeps it out of mainstream writing? (One of the rules – no hits below the waist – originates from the days when fencing used to take place on horseback.) Or perhaps the vast array of regulations associated with the modern sport make it difficult to sustain drama? Seriously, if you sat down and watched some fencing at the Olympics or Paralympics recently, you’ll know, like me, that there’s a bit more to it than “hit the other person with your sword.” But don’t ask me to go into details, because I can’t.  

Perhaps it is fitting that, like the sport it ostensibly concerns, Marente de Moor’s The Dutch Maiden is slippery; hard to pin down. Part psychological thriller, part historical investigation, part Gothic shocker, it is a bold vision whose characters call to mind the troubled outsiders of both John Fowles and John Banville. And of course, its classic setup – the hot-tempered landowner with a dark past, whose world is encroached upon by an ingénue with a penchant for uncovering secrets – is pure Wuthering Heights. However, there is another, more disturbing shadow cast over the story, as Europe heads with seeming inevitability towards another continent-swallowing conflict.

In 1936, Eighteen‐year‐old Janna is making her troubled way towards adulthood. Janna’s father sends her from her home in the Netherlands to train with Egon von Botticher, an aristocratic fencing master in Germany. Botticher is as eccentric as his training methods – but the pupil soon finds herself falling for her master. Botticher, however, is not all that he appears to be and Janna must discover the true nature of her father’s mysterious relationship with him.

Hugely praised in the rest of Europe – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calling de Moor “an amazing storyteller,” NRC Handelsblad praising her “beautifully sculpted sentences,”  The Dutch Maiden arrives on these shores in October, and looks set for similar critical acclaim. So if you want to get on board early with a future hit – or you just want to brush up on your fencing terminology – this should be a shoo-in for the Autumn TBR pile.

The Dutch Maiden is published 13 October by World Editions

Post by Tom

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