Thursday, 8 March 2012

Ballet Shoes

It's another Day of Note today; International Women's Day- one that I'm sure you will have heard of and even be marking in some way without me mentioning it.

As a 'sah' mother of sons I am conscious that I'm often pretty lazy about their feminist education in a way that I wouldn't be if I had daughters. They've shown themselves to be capable of some fairly startling gender divide assumptions at times and while I'm prepared to cut them some slack on the basis that most of it is simply ego-fueled small child self obsession; 'I am the coolest. I am a boy: Boys are the coolest', I'm considering a bit of active reprogramming.

Reading Bill Noel Streatfield's 'Ballet Shoes' may seem a pretty small step in raising boys to the Sisterhood but you know, it's a start. In fact I'll take the fact that he was perfectly happy to have  a mauve book with a picture of a girl lacing pink shoes on the cover read to him as some grain of comfort.
Noel Streatfield was my Absolute. Favourite. No-questions-asked author as a child and 'Ballet Shoes' was my Absolute. Favourite. No-questions-asked of her books. Therefore re-opening it as an adult to read to Bill felt a bit soul- exposing.
'This was your favourite mum wasn't it?' 'Yes Bill' 'I'll listen extra carefully then.''Thank you'

If you don't know this classic, it's the story of three adopted orphans; Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil 'collected' by the flaky Great Uncle Matthew who then disappears on an overseas expedition leaving them to be brought up by his saintly niece Sylvia and her indomitable old retainer nurse Nana. When the money he left runs out, they are forced first to take in lodgers to their enormous crumbling house on London's Cromwell Road, and then to send the girls out to earn their keep as performers through attendance at 'Madame Fidolia's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training'. Pauline shows herself to be a talented actress and Posy's precocious feet are those of a Prima- Ballerina to be. Only Petrova is miserable in the limelight. She has a passion for engineering and ambitions to fly; thankfully she finds support in the form of the lodger Mr. Simpson who ('oh heaven!') owns a garage and can offer afternoons of engine tinkering to offset the misery of performing.

All that stage sparkle and pinkery may sound distinctly anti-feminist but in fact, given its publication date of 1936 it's a surprisingly gritty girl read. Sylvia is very open about her own lack of education leaving her completely ill equipped to earn her own living and determined that the Fossil sisters should have the ability to be independent. The girls themselves invent their own surname and make a yearly vow 'to try and put our names in history books because it's our very own and nobody can say it's because of our grandfathers.'

And it's the sheer amount of drudgery for both children and adults to achieve economic independence which impresses me re-reading it now: this is no shallow tale of X Factor sparkle. The girls have a structured daily timetable of education, exercise and practice that occupies their every waking moment from 7.30am to 7pm bedtime. Bill was impressed and incredulous; 'when do they get to play?'. Of course poverty is relative, and although the Fossils have to pawn some possessions to buy a posh frock for auditions they still live in a house with 'staff' in the form of a cook and a housemaid. The contrast of a child needing to work in order to eat in a world with no welfare state is reinforced in the character of Pauline's friend Winifred whose talent and cleverness is not matched by beauty and who is doomed to be forever the understudy.
'Winifred pulled up her socks.
"There's needing money and needing money," she said wisely. "If I could get this job, Mother'd put half away for me, but even what's left would mean the extra stuff Dad needs to get well. He's had an operation and doesn't seem to get right after it. Then there's the clothes wanted for all of us, especially shoes. Oh it would be wonderful if I could get it!"'
She doesn't get it. Pauline does and Streatfield is clear eyed in all her books about the pragmatics and compromises involved in the pursuit of dreams.

The book has a famous ending; the girls are to go their separate ways, Pauline to Hollywood, Posy to study ballet with a Maestro in Czechoslovakia and Pertrova to live with the returned Great Uncle Matthew in a house by an aerodrome:
'"What different things we are going to do!" said Pauline.
"In such different places," added Posy.
"I wonder"-Petrova looked up-"If other girls had to be one of us, which of us they'd choose to be?"'

How I pondered this question. It was always a split between Posy and Pauline I'm afraid- poor Petrova - set to win a Nobel prize-didn't get a look in. Surprisingly Bill was similarly split. He enjoyed 'Ballet Shoes' but it was a fairly polite enjoyment- I have to accept it didn't grab him by the heart as it did me (possibly too much detail about the particularities of child performer licencing laws- certainly more than I remembered).

What I didn't expect is that I should turn out to be Nana! But there you go; Noel Streatfield was right about the need for pragmatism in the female life. Happy International Women's Day whoever you turned into.
'Ballet Shoes' by Noel Streatfield, pub. (not edition shown) by Orion isbn 978-1842556795


  1. How wonderful that you read this book to your sons! Bravo! I absolutely loved this book! Read it for the first time very recently actually and was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I also thought the recent film adaptation wasn't half bad!

  2. I have read this book for the past five years to my year 5 class, well actually they have listened to a very good BBC audio version. It has proved to be an enduring success as they always love it. We then followed the read by watching the very poor movie version, that came out a few years ago. Which inevitably led to fabulous discussions about how good books never quite translate into good movies. Oh and Ballet Shoes was my favourite too! Closely followed by White Boots.

  3. And thanks to my lovely pedantic brother for pointing out that I have misspelt my Absolute Favourite Author's name-
    Streatfeild not Streatfield. Doh.
    I was so excited by the news of the movie coming out...but it didn't quite hit the mark for me- probably impossible that it should have done. May need to invest in the audio version for the car.

  4. Ah, perhaps my lack of childhood acquaintance with the book led me to not entirely hate the film. It isn't a perfect adaptation - the girls are too old and the tacked on romance was lame. But I still enjoyed the actresses, costumes, etc.

  5. I didn't hate it- just felt that they tried to cram too much into too short a time...inevitable really. But are there any books in the world that you love where you think they've done it justice on the screen? I do have a predictable fondness for Colin Firth dripping-shirt-Darcy...

  6. I agree. A longer/multi-part series could have done better justice to the story. Regarding your question: To Kill a Mockingbird and Princess Bride are, in my oppinion, both fantastic adaptations. I also really like the more recent (2003) adaptation of Peter Pan. I think Scorsese did a nice job with Hugo Cabret. I also really love Studio Ghibli's version of Howl's Moving Castle even though it differs from the novel (which I love!) quite a bit. Oh and I credit Kevin Sullivan's lovely adaptation of Anne of Green Gables with acquainting me with one of my favorite books and authors of all time :-) Still there's no denying that the book is almost always superior to the movie. And yet, I always have an irresistible compulsion to watch book to film adaptations. In fact, we're currently reading The Borrowers with plans to watch Arrietty later this week!

  7. Wow lot's of good reminders! You're right- To kill a Mocking Bird and The Princess Bride both excellent...haven't seen the Peter Pan or Hugo yet (nor read the latter) and didn't even realize Howl's Moving Castle was a book. I want to seek that out now. I think you'll find Arriety a very acceptable addition to the list of good adaptations. I really liked it but hard not to like Studio Ghibli. you should definitely check out Hilda and the Midnight Giant book if you like that style of storytelling.

  8. Oh definitely *do* watch Peter Pan! I think it is equally delightful for kids and adults, boys and girls! Have you read the book with your kids? I haven't read it with mine yet, but I did read it for the first time a few years ago.

    Howl was written by Diana Wynne Jones - love her! I absolutely adore her Chrestomanci series!

    I will definitely check out Hilda! Is it a graphic novel? My daughter is way into those these days!

  9. I missed this series as a kid but your admiration for the books have motivated me to track down Ballet Shoes.
    Apples with Many Seeds