This week’s TBT is about the children’s classic, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, one of my all time favourites. To clear confusion now: We won’t be talking about actual ballet shoes (sorry!), Noel was a lady and no, I didn’t misspell Streatfeild, that’s just how she spelt it. We good? Good.
My mother was an avid Noel Streatfeild reader as a child and bought the books for me when I was a child. I fell in love with Ballet Shoes from the first time I read it. It tells the story of three sisters: Pauline, Petrova and Posy. All three are adopted by explorer and palaeontologist Matthew Brown, who to them becomes Great Uncle Matthew or Gum for short. Gum has already raised his orphaned niece, Sylvia and as she grows older, decides to fill his house with babies for her to mind, reasoning that ‘women like babies’. Sylvia and her nanny, Nana (governesses and nannies feature heavily in all Streatfeild novels; always reliable, redoubtable women who sort everything out) take on the task of raising all three girls themselves, giving them the unifying surname Fossil, after Gum’s usual presents from his trips. However, when Gum heads off on another adventure after dropping off baby Posy, they don’t see or hear from him again for another 12 years or so. This unusual set up means that with no Gum, they have no real source of income. They turn Gum’s big house at the end of Cromwell Road in London into a boarding house to earn money. The arrival of their lovely boarders: dance teacher Theo, Mr & Mrs Simpson, fresh from Kuala Lumpur and scholars Dr Jakes and Dr Smith change the Fossil girls’ lives forever.
Drs Jakes and Smith provide the girls with decent (and free) education after they have to withdraw from school due to the fee cost. Mr Simpson teaches tomboy Petrova all about engines, changing her life path and Theo encourages Sylvia to send all three girls to stage school – the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training to be precise. Theo is a teacher there and arranges for the girls to have singing, dancing and acting lessons, reasoning to Sylvia that once they are old enough, they can earn money as performers (it’s not as icky as that sounds, I promise).
The children are generally pretty sceptical about stage school, except for Posy, whose mother was a dancer and who is already showing a natural propensity for dance. At just six, the head of the school, famed Russian ballet teacher, Madame Fidolia, provides Posy with private one to one lessons, to the astonishment of the rest of the school. Pauline discovers she has both a love and talent for acting, shining early as Alice in Wonderland on stage. Petrova detests all the performing classes she has to take, but loves her sisters and Sylvia (who they call ‘Garnie’) and so plugs away, determined to contribute to the family.
The book follows the sisters over a period of about 15 years, ending when Pauline (the eldest) is about 16/17. Streatfeild balances the story of performers with that of a family trying to get by. I was a huge ballet fan as a child; I took class and read everything I could that involved ballet. In fact, I was fascinated with performing arts generally as a child and was delighted by the idea of going onstage as a kid. It sounded like a dream come true!
I was the sort of kid that loved books that made me feel cosy. All Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books have this feeling. Rubbishy stuff might happen (Pauline’s embarrassment at being reprimanded by a director, the girls’ shame at their old clothes, worry about Garnie and her health etc) but you know that everyone is safe, everyone is loved and things will work out. I think stories containing those things are valuable to children – even ones coming from stable homes, like myself.
Reading it as an adult, there are other things to notice and enjoy. Streatfeild gently develops the girls’ personalities as they grow older and we see them grow and change. They learn things about themselves and each other that affect the sort of adults they are going to become (Streatfeild lets us have a glimpse at their futures in Curtain Up). There is also an interesting exploration of sibling relationships and dynamics (Streatfeild was herself one of five) and of filial responsibility. The girls take care of each other, even when they are frustrated with one another and the older two prioritise supporting Garnie and their family over almost everything else. (It’s also interesting as an adult to observe how much Sylvia struggles with taking money from the children).
There is also a great sense of ambition running throughout the book. The book was first published in 1936 and Streatfeild is writing about a family in Britain in the 1920s and 30s, when times were tough and women primarily stayed at home. Despite this, there is no sense that the Fossil sisters can’t do whatever they want to. All the women in the novel are forces to be reckoned with in one way or another, all survivors and all independent. Sylvia is probably the meekest and she still manages to run a boarding house and care for three girls with just her and Nana. Pauline wants to be an actor, Posy a ballerina and Petrova a pilot and Streatfeild writes their stories in such a way that it all seems perfectly possible. The girls make a vow each year to make names for themselves and achieve great things. In this vow, the girls note that ‘no one can say it’s because of our grandfathers’ after Dr Jakes points out that being adopted with a fairly unusual surname means that they get to leave a mark on the world as individuals, rather than as somebody’s daughter or grand-daughter.
I love Ballet Shoes. It’s one of the few books I own that I have read over and over again and I have every intention of installing it in the libraries of any children I might have or be auntie too. It’s a warm and lovely novel and well worth checking out.