Wednesday 28 December 2022

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes

"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 ...* 

I inhaled Ballet Shoes, and many other Streatfeild titles, as a child; while I recall the beat-up Puffin editions with their 1970s orange-yellow-green covers, I cannot remember how I came upon them - the library, hand-me-downs or acquisitions from the secondhand book store in New Plymouth. Her books were wholesome, the language sparkled, the tone was often appealingly knowing, the child characters had flaws that were treated as natural and normal, but still to be reined in. But I think the thing that appealed to me most (as with so many great books aimed at pre-teen readers) was that Streatfeild showed the tough realities of her child characters' lives, but also gave them the tools and abilities to pull through them and create their own destinies.

For the uninitiated: Ballet Shoes is the story of the three Fossil sisters, set in London between the wars. The three girls - Pauline (pink and white and platinum-blonde), Petrova (dark-haired and sallow) and Posy (the red-head) - have been "collected" by Great-Uncle Matthew (known as 'Gum'). A 'legendary figure' to the girls, he had been a 'very important person' collecting outstanding fossil specimens around the world. Having collected them, he needed somewhere to put them, and hence secured a large six-storyed house on London's Brompton Road:
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.**
Gum then loses a leg in spectacular fashion: undismayed, he and his new wooden leg give up fossil expeditions in favour of exploration by sea. One night, the ship he is travelling on is struck by an iceberg and sinks (this is 1936, remember, the Titanic sunk in 1912)***:
... 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.
Gum takes charge of the baby, and when she cannot be traced to anyone on board, returns with her to London, 'fusses and fumes' as the adoption papers are made out,  presents her to Sylvia, then promptly fucks off on another journey. This time he winds up in hospital next to a Russian, "a shabby, depressed fellow who yet somehow conveyed he hadn't always been shabby and depressed, but had once worn gay uniforms and had swung laughing through the snow in his jingling sleigh amidst rows of bowing peasants." The Russian and his wife fled during the revolution; they 'tried to train themselves to earn a living' but failed; the wife died, then the husband dies, and their little girl gets scooped up from the children's ward and taken back home to Sylvia.

"The last baby Gum did not deliver himself". She turns up in a basket, with a letter and a pair of ballet shoes: 
... 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.
Thus, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil ("P.S. Her name is Posy. Unfortunate, but true."). To begin with, the girls had "a very ordinary nursery life". There are few toys, because they have no relations to give them any, and clothes are handed down (clothes are a SIGNIFICANT feature of Ballet Shoes), but the two older girls are sent off to a nice school and all is well. But then Gum shows no sign of returning, the girls are pulled out of school, and Sylvia resorts to taking in boarders to help pay the bills.**** The boarders are all lovely, however, and effectively form a team to assist Sylvia in the children's upbringing. Two retired lady doctors, used to coaching children for exams, take over the older girls' education (with Dr Jakes introducing Pauline to the beauties of speaking blank verse). Mr and Mrs Simpson arrive with their Citroen, much to the delight of car-mad Petrova. And Theo James is a dancing instructor at Madame Fidolia's famed stage and dancing academy, and it is her idea to have the three girls taken on as fee-free students, on the basis that when they are twelve they can get their stage licences and start performing, paying back a fee to the Academy and supporting the household.

None of this is a secret from the children. They are full participants. They create a vow - to make something of themselves, to put the Fossil name into the history books (as self-made sisters, 'nobody can say it's because of their grandfather') and to make the money to alleviate Sylvia's concerns. 

And from there we launch into the story, of the household's continuously precarious financial position, and the children' training and entry into working life. There are pages and pages of financial calculations (how to scrounge together the money to make the audition dresses, in order to get the parts, in order to pay back the borrowed money). There are pages and pages of clothes - the lovingly detailed list of required items for the Academy, the "whipped frills" of organdy frocks, the shame of aged velvet and straining seams. And there are pages and pages of stagecraft - while commissioned to write a book about ballet, it is her own background Streatfeild evidently draws upon:
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'.
So, Pauline is beautiful, and a natural actress; Posy is a great mimic, and born to be a dancer; Petrova is "technically proficient" but hates the whole thing - however, she sticks at it, because that's what the sisters do. Petrova was always my favourite, as the odd one out - she is the Jo of this set of sisters. Petrova's saving comes in the form of one of only two real male characters in the book. Gum is the catalyst but he creates the action by disappearing. Mr Simpson, the garage owner / boarder, exists to keep Petrova's hopes up by enabling her to explore the world of mechanics and engines that she is drawn to. Mr Simpson is an intelligent, kindly, noticing sort of man, engaging in the Fossil's world of frills and nervous anxiety without demeaning it. There is one beautiful passing observation about his and Petrova's friendship that summarises Streatfeild's knack for describing the kind of adults that kids want to be around:
'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'.
It all works out well in the end, because - and this is one of the great lessons of Ballet Shoes - hard work and a good attitude almost always pay off. After the glorious detail and many moments of honesty in the book, one is somewhat jolted by how quickly it is wrapped up in the closing pages. 

I went into the book with trepidation - it's hard going back to the classics and measuring them up against today. Aside from Gum's "what's the point of keeping a pack of women about the house if they're never there when you want them" (a statement that bookends the novel and which I think on re-reading might be Streatfeild being mocking about self-important men?), the thing that knocks you back about the book is the focus on appearances. Prettiness is both desirable, and unfairly distributed, and this is personified in the character of Winifred, a peer (and thus competitor) with Pauline:
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.
You have to wonder what the character of Winifred is there to do in the book, if not simply to teach the Fossil sisters some relativity. At 12, Winifred is the oldest of 6, her father is an invalid, and her mother needs her to get work to support the family. Pauline reflects "Of course she needed the money too, but somehow, although there was not any for new clothes, and the food was getting plainer and plainer, nobody had ever said what a help it would be when she could earn some, and certainly she had never been as worried about it as Winifred." But Pauline beats Winifred for the role of Alice, and then Petrova beats her for a role because Winifred is late to an audition, and Winifred exits the story without any relief beyond a nice cup of tea in their nursery. The lesson I took out of this as  child was that smart, plain, hardworking girls have to work that much harder - and perhaps that's just what Streatfeild intended. Her short biography at the front of the book, written for the child audience, includes the phrase "Noel was born in Sussex in 1895 and was one of three sisters. Although Noel was considered the plain one, she ended up leading the most glamorous and exciting life!"

The other thing that struck me on this re-read was that Streatfeild gives her child readers considerable insight into adult lives. Mr and Mrs Simpson cannot return to Kuala Lumpur because the markets have slumped and their rubber-tree plantations have been outstripped by other means of producing rubber.  Nana often speaks crossly, but it is because she cannot see solutions to the pressing problems that confront them. Sylvia is worried and thin and explains to the children that she feels guilty and embarrassed to be taking money from them, but can't see an alternative. One passage particularly stood out, for teaching me to see layers of emotion when I was young:
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.
And the final thing I learned about myself in this re-read was how much Streatfeild's writing conditioned me. I used words like "amidst" in my primary school journals because of her; I knew what a 'game leg' was, had the phrase 'Satan finds tasks for idle hands' stuck in my head forever, knew way too many names for different fabrics because of her. And I retain a deep fondness, a kind of comfort, for 1930s writers because, I think, I grew up on this diet. Streafeild was my entry drug for Mitford, Waugh and Taylor and for that - as well as some of the dubious life lessons - I will always be grateful.

*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 ( 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.

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