The Dancing Bear by Frances Faviell took me by surprise by how much I enjoyed it. I wasn’t expecting it to be so good.
Frances Faviell (1905-1959) was the pen name of Olivia Faviell Lucas, painter and author. After the war, in 1946, she went with her young son, John, to Berlin where Richard Parker, her second husband, had been posted as a senior civil servant in the post-war British Administration. It was here that she befriended the Altmann family, which prompted her first book The Dancing Bear (1954), a memoir of the Occupation seen through the eyes of both occupier and occupied. She later wrote three novels, A House on the Rhine (1955), Thalia (1957), and The Fledgeling (1958). These are now all available as Furrowed Middlebrow books.
The Dancing Bear covers the years from Autumn 1946 to Autumn 1949, with an Epilogue dated Autumn 1953 and, in this edition, an Afterword by John Parker, Faviell’s son. Her memoir is mainly about her friendship with the Altmann family – Frau Maria Altmann, her husband, Oskar and her children, Ursula, who works for a group of American service men, Lilli, a ballet dancer and son, Fritz, who was a member of the Hitler Youth and is now involved in the Black Market. Their eldest son. Kurt. is missing in Russia. Berlin had been divided into four sectors by the Allies – Britain, the United States, France and the Soviet Union – and Frances is horrified by the conditions she found. There were deaths from hunger and cold as the winter approached and queues for bread, milk, cigarettes, cinemas, buses and trams.
The complete and utter devastation of Berlin had shaken me profoundly. Nothing … had prepared one for the dead horror of this city. (page 15)
The complete absence of shops was something the Allied and German women felt. There was scarcely a single shop left standing in Berlin. The great stores and emporiums lay in dust, as did the great blocks of flats. One could not get the simplest articles except on the Black Market, and then only in exchange for cigarettes and coffee which had taken the place of money. (page 166)
The Altmanns live on the ground floor of a large ruined house – the upper storeys had disappeared and just the twisted iron girders remained, sticking up grotesquely against the sky. The ground floor looked very shaky and the windows were covered in cardboard and the door had been repaired from odd pieces of wood. It was freezing cold, and although they had a stove they had no fuel to light it and because electricity was rationed they had to use candles. There were two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a sitting room and a bathroom. With the help of her driver, Stampie, she does what she can to help them.
The British, unlike the Americans were forbidden to be friendly with the Germans, or to allow them in their homes or any of their buildings, clubs or messes and also to give them lifts, but these rules were frequently broken. At night Berlin ‘became a whirl of revelry’:
But if Berlin was a tragic city by day; at night it became a whirl of revelry. The Allies entertained on a scale which was extraordinary in a starving town, and if one went down to the Kurfurstendamm or the Kaiserdamm at night every cafe and night club was packed with revellers. (page 63)
I have only touched the surface of this book in this short post. It’s a moving memoir and I was fascinated by it all – the people, their situations, and their morale and attitudes as well as the condition of Berlin in the aftermath of World War Two. The realities of living under occupation are clearly shown, as well as the will to survive despite all the devastation and deprivation. I now want to read more of Frances Faviell’s books.
- ASIN : B01M12EH2E
- Publisher : Dean Street Press (3 Oct. 2016)
- Language : English
- Print length : 311 pages
- My Rating: 5*
6 thoughts on “The Dancing Bear by Frances Faviell”
It does, indeed, sound moving, Margaret. And I think that memoirs can be such powerful ways to look at a time, place, and culture. When you see how an event, a movement, etc., impact ordinary people, you really see history, in my opinion. It sounds as though this has several layers, too – even better!
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The focus on ordinary people in this memoir is one of the things that I found so moving in The Dancing Bear.
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I can recommend Frances Faviell’s other memoir, A Chelsea Concerto, about her life in London during the Blitz. I read it a few years ago and have been meaning to read more of her books but still haven’t got round to it. This sounds like another fascinating one.
The Chelsea Concerto sounds just as fascinating as The Dancing Bear. Thanks for recommending it, I hope to get round to reading it sooner rather than later.
I have this, it was one Dean Street Press’s free books a while ago. I had no idea it was about Berlin after the war so thanks for your review. I will try to get to it later in the year.
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I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. As I said I was expecting it to be so good!