"It's to do with happiness. It means hard work."
I came back to Ballet Shoes yesterday after listening to the Christmas episode of the Backlisted podcast. I went into the podcast worrying that a feature of my childhood was about to be ripped apart - I came out of it curious about the author, and wanting to go back into that world.Streatfeild trained at RADA as an actor after working in munitions factories and army canteens in First World War. After the death of her father she decided to become a novelist - in an interview played on the podcast she says she made the switch because she needed a more secure career option, then scoffs at her own naivety. She began writing for adults, and then in 1931 for children. Her publisher asked her to write a children's book, capitalising on the craze at the time for ballet. "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself ... I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book," Streatfeild later recalled: published in 1936, Ballet Shoes has never been out of print and has sold millions upon millions of copies. Streatfeild must have felt both gratified and trapped by its success: it led to a litany of follow-up books - Theater Shoes, Skating Shoes, Party Shoes ...*
Naturally, a house like that needed somebody to look after it, and he found just the right person. Gum had one nephew, who died leaving a widow and a little girl. What was more suitable than to invite the widow and her child Sylvia, and Nana her nurse, to live in the house and take care of it for him? Ten years later the widowed niece died, but by then his great-niece Sylvia was sixteen, so she, helped by Nana, took her mother's place and saw that the house and the fossils were all right.**
... all the passengers had to take to boats. In the night one of the boats filled with water and the passengers were thrown into the sea. Gum's boat went to the rescue, but by the time it got there everyone had drowned except a baby who was lying cooing happily on a lifebelt.
... yet another Fossil to add to my nursery. The father has just died, and the poor mother has no time for babies, so I said I would have her. ... I regret not to bring the child myself, but today I ran into a friend with a yacht who is visiting some strange islands. I am joining him, and expect to be away for some years. I have arranged for the bank to see after money for you for the next five years, but before then I shall be home.
Pauline would be fourteen in December, and not only had the sense to see how much she was able to pick up from watching other people, but she had sufficient technique to follow the producer's reasoning. She understood 'timing', she was still apt to time wrong herself, but she was learning to hear when somebody else timed a line wrong. She was beginning, too, to grasp the meaning of 'pace' The producer of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was a great believer in 'pace', especially for Shakespeare. Pauline, listening to the rehearsals, could feel the pace of the production and going home on the tube she and Doctor Jakes would have discussions about it - how this actor was slow, and that one had good 'pace'.
'Hullo, Petrova!' he would call up the stairs sometimes on Sunday afternoons, 'having a bit of trouble with the car. Come and give me a hand.'The most gorgeous afternoons followed; he was not the sort of man who did everything himself and expected you to watch, but took turns fairly, passing over the spanner, saying 'Here, you take those nuts off'.
There was one other child waiting, who had her mother with her. Her name was Winifred, and she was very clever. She was the child who would have played Mytyl if she had not had measles. She had acted really well, she was a brilliant dancer, she had an unusually good singing voice, but she was not pretty. She had a clever, interesting face, and long, but rather colourless, brown hair. She was wearing an ugly brown velvet frock; not a good choice of colour, as it made her look the same all over.... All the time Winifred was talking people who walked by called out, 'Good luck Winifred, good luck Pauline'. Pauline could see from the way that they looked at her that they thought she looked nice, and from the way they looked at Winifred, that they thought she did not. She wished that she had some money and could buy Winifred a new frock; she was so nice and she looked so all-wrong.
Nana never could remember that though she had been Sylvia's nurse, her child was now a grown-up woman, and the sound of the sort of crack in the voice people get when they are miserable brought all her nurse instincts to the top.
*I quite vividly remember Skating Shoes, better known as White Boots, because of the morbidness of the plotline: the story revolves around two girls, Harriet and Lalla, one rich, one poor, who meet at the ice-rink. Harriet has been set to skating to build up her strength (building up one's strength and putting on weight are two strong Streatfeild themes) whereas Lalla is training because both her parents died in a skating accident and her Aunt Claudia has decided therefore she too should become a world-renowned figure-skater. WTF.
**This paragraph comes on the second page of the book, in the romping set-up to the story. Reading that Sylvia took over domestic responsibilities at the age of 16, after the death of her remaining parent, sat me back as an adult. It is a lot like my experience reading I Capture the Castle repeatedly over the past 25 years, where in my 30s the character of Topaz, the young stepmother, came into focus after years of ignoring her in favour of teenage Cassandra.
***When I was at primary school in the 1980s we regularly sung a song about the Titanic in assemblies: the chorus went "It was sad (it was sad) / Mighty sad (mighty sad) / It was sad when that great ship went down (...to the bottom of the ocean). / Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, it was sad when that great ship went down". It is so weird how these nuggets of culture get passed down from generation to generation.
****As noted in the podcast, Ballet Shoes has tinges of the boarding house novels of the 1930s; people thrown together in reduced circumstances and their lives subsequently intertwining. Effectively, Ballet Shoes is the story of a household of women abandoned by the male figure who was meant to provide for them, having to make their own way in the world - for pre-teen girl readers.