X Libris: what we make of the books that made us
We were raised by Puffins. With three TV channels and no internet, for long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us and analyse what makes them great.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Surrounded by a cast of benignly eccentric adults, three adopted sisters grow up in genteel poverty in 1930s London and find their respective vocations in acting, motor mechanics and ballet dancing.
I can’t remember reading Ballet Shoes for the first time. It feels like one of those childhood totems that pre-dates conscious memory, like the pattern of a bedroom wallpaper. There are books I repeatedly re-read if I’m feeling mildly perturbed or sorry for myself, and Ballet Shoes was the first of these; an enrapturing and emotionally satisfying little work of genius.
Noel Streatfeild was herself one of three sisters, and within her family cast herself in the role of plain, unremarkable middle child (Petrova, I suppose, although she was kinder to Petrova than she had been to herself). She published more than fifty books, but Ballet Shoes was her first for children and its roaring success took her by surprise. She later remarked that she had initially despised it because she’d written it so easily. The extraordinary illustrations, which have the kind of stripped-down simplicity that takes years to achieve, were by her sister, Ruth Gervis.
Ballet Shoes is a fairly standard tale of overcoming adversity: three adopted and not-biologically-related sisters battle unconventional beginnings and straitened circumstances to achieve success in their young careers. As with all the best children’s books, though, it’s about many other things too.
As a child, its depiction of sibling rivalry and bad behaviour got my motor running. The ‘golden-haired, pink-and-white’ Pauline, the ‘dark, sallow’ Petrova and the ‘decidedly ginger’ Posy suffer the intense growing pains of social sorting that will be familiar to anyone who has been a little girl: in-groups and out-groups, envy and spite, comparisons and jealousies, whispering in corners and getting found out. Pauline and Petrova victimise Posy because she has been marked out as unusually talented; later Pauline, having become spoiled and bumptious, is forced to hand her lead role over to her ‘not pretty’ friend Winifred. It was wish-fulfilment on a grand scale; in my real life, blonde pink-and-white beauties were forever doing whatever they pleased and getting away with it.
There are descriptions of the gaslit glamour of a grimy pre-War London, as the girls take the ‘Piccadilly Railway’ every day from Gloucester Road to Russell Square for their dancing classes. A child of the humdrum south-west suburbs, I was entranced by the idea that young girls might actually live in the grand old city, among the department stores and museums, travelling to school on the underground and buying groceries from shops next to the V&A.
The book is shot through with a dramatic air of mysterious cosmopolitanism, with glimpses of the darkly glittering expanses of Eastern Europe and beyond. Petrova is the child of White Russian parents who died after escaping the 1917 Revolution; there are boarders from Malaya, dancers from France and the exotic Madame Fidolia. Many of the most benign adults in the book have international experience and backgrounds: the girls’ tutors lay on teatime treats, ‘queer biscuits, little ones from Japan with delicate flowers painted on them in sugar, cakes from Vienna’. There is even an explanation of what it means to be a refugee, and how communities have a responsibility to look after them.
Delicious descriptions of presents, which always came in threes, aroused my acquisitiveness; endless mentions of knickers aroused my prurience; tutus, gowns and velvet coats sated my dressing-up fantasies. There were also hundreds of nouns that made no sense: rompers, tunics, tarlatans, organdies; parlour maids, possets, blotters and sashes. Much about the book was totally baffling (if you have ever come across ‘The Blue Bird’ outside the pages of Ballet Shoes I demand that you make yourself known in the comments). But children of the ‘70s were used to reading Edwardian and Victorian authors, and we accepted that about 5% of the words in any given book might as well be in Ancient Greek. To this day they are embedded in our brains like little unexploded glitter bombs, occasionally detonating when you least expect it: oh, that’s what distemper is!
But more than anything else, for me, there were the illustrations: brilliantly spare line drawings of impossibly beautiful young girls, slim and tall and strong, with long smooth limbs, perfect hair and cats’ eyes. For years afterwards I doodled pictures of ballet dancers on scraps of paper, trying to climb inside the skin of Gervis’s creations. That it fed my own burgeoning body dysmorphia was something I only realised later.
Nevertheless, the striking thing about Ballet Shoes is how far it is informed by a quiet feminism. In its emphasis on education - specifically STEM education - for girls it slots happily into present-day liberal feminist preoccupations. Petrova, who loathes dancing, has a fascination for engineering and mechanics; her happy ending comes when she’s offered a weekend job at a garage. Her sisters acclaim her interests as being more meaningful than theirs; at the end of the book, as Pauline is engaged by a Hollywood studio and Posy goes to Czechoslovakia to study ballet, they conclude that it is Petrova who will become truly famous by becoming an aviator. (Female aviators were all the rage: this was the decade of Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart.)
The illustrations focus on an impossibly perfect female form but in the text, objectification is markedly absent. No female person, at any point in the book, ever attempts to arouse the romantic interest of a man (something that was inexcusably abandoned in the horrible 2007 film version). The female academics Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes - one a mathematician, one a Shakespearean scholar - who board at the house in Cromwell Road are surely lesbians.
This is a story about what women can do, left to themselves. The girls essentially grow up in a female commune and get what they need from the solidarity and resources of adult women; everything, that is, except money, which has to come from one of the rare male characters - the kindly Mr Simpson, the absent Great-Uncle Matthew, the men who run the West End and Hollywood. Never let it be said that Ballet Shoes isn’t a work of realism.
The sisters eventually choose their own surname - Fossil - and Dr Jakes points out that, if the girls succeed, ‘it’s all on your own. Now, if I make Jakes really worth while, people will say I take after my grandfather or something.’ The girls compose a vow that recurs through the book: ‘We three Fossils 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.’ They interpret this vow to mean building careers. ‘They have no parents or relations; it’s a good thing they should have a career’ says the dance teacher Theo Dane, another Cromwell Road boarder. ‘Wouldn’t it be a good thing if they were trained to support themselves?’
One of the reasons it’s imperative the girls can support themselves is that they experience a particularly English kind of upper middle class penury. They live in a huge house in central London, but they can’t afford new shoes; they shop at Harrods, but pawn their little pieces of jewellery; they have a Cook, two parlour maids and a Nurse, and are forever worrying about money. It’s like those families who eat jam with the mouldy bits scraped off but mysteriously send all their children to boarding schools and keep a holiday home just outside Nice. Generations of posh people have evolved a deliberately perverse lifestyle that involves constant discomfort and rolling bankruptcy. It reminded me of the scene in Succession when Lady Caroline (played by Harriet Walter) serves up a single tiny pigeon and a few boiled potatoes for dinner (‘don’t want a great bolus of gubbins.’) It’s a very effective status-preservation strategy, because few people are prepared to live with so much debt and physical irritation. If Great Uncle Matthew had done the sensible thing and sold the Cromwell Road house, installing his adopted daughters and his niece Sylvia in a modest new build somewhere out in Surrey, Ballet Shoes would have been a very different book.