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.