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Books Remembered: Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes”

 

This essay, commissioned by the Children’s Book Council, first appeared in CBC Features, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter-Spring 1993.

Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was published in 1936.  It is still in print.

 

We were in London, my daughter and I, walking down the Cromwell Road.  Anne was an exquisitely ingenuous fourteen-year-old, a pupil in George Balanchine’s revered School of American Ballet, and the one of my two offspring who’d given me the magical gift of reading and loving the books that had been my own childhood favorites.  Pale and willowy, her fair, waist-length hair streaming down her back, she strolled dreamily along, running her hand across the tall iron railings that separated the sidewalk from private domains.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked, thinking, as mothers will, of jagged metal edges, germ-ridden dirt, and emergency tetanus shots.

“Posy must have done this on her walks,” Anne replied blissfully, referring, as I immediately recognized, to the young heroine of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, shepherded down this street on daily constitutionals that ended—as our own jaunt would—with an inspection of the dollhouses at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Instantly, I was flooded with delight over Anne’s identification with that child artist-in-the-making and, beyond that, over this evidence that the flesh of my flesh was so susceptible to the influences of fiction.  But then the illogic of the situation struck me, and I blurted out, “But that never happened; Posy wasn’t a real little girl; she was never actually here.”

“Oh, yes, she was; it was all true,” Anne said confidently.  At the same time, she eyed me warily to see if I had suddenly, tragically, lost my familiar ability to dissolve the barriers between the humdrum objective world and the ardent realm of the imagination.

I hadn’t.  I haven’t.  Nothing—neither long experience of life itself nor the encounter with more adult and exalted literary works—can diminish the power that books like Ballet Shoes still exercise over me.  Today, to be sure, I can see clearly the discrete elements of its magic, yet no amount of analysis lessens its appeal.  Like many beloved books for the young, it offers a scrupulously crafted, self-enclosed world.  Though not without sorrow or danger, it’s ultimately a world in which events and characters make sense and one in which there is a place that can be defined as home (a metaphor for safety and self-definition).  At the same  time, counter-balancing the prosaic and potentially stifling element of security, there is an equally forceful suggestion of infinite possibility, of wild dreams just about to come true.

These, of course, are generalities.  In Ballet Shoes, as in the “Shoes” books that followed upon its success, Streatfeild fruitfully indulges her obsession with a few specific themes.  For benighted souls who have neglected to read the work, I should say that it is set in London in the twenties and early thirties and that its narrative centers on three foundlings joined into a makeshift family.  Overseen by a well-meaning, ineffectual guardian and a reassuring, no-nonsense nurse, Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil (this is the surname they adopt) are trained, out of economic necessity, to earn their living on the stage, something they can do from the tender age of twelve.  Their extended family consists of a handful of people who fall into their lives by sheer luck and volunteer to teach these “chosen ones”—without pay—what they need to know.

The most insistent and affecting of Streatfeild’s themes is that of vocation.  From the outset, it is clear that Pauline will make a gifted actress while Posy is a nascent Pavlova, destined to become a ballerina of genius.  (Even Petrova, a hopeless misfit in the theatrical world, is recognized early on as having her own special future—flying planes.)  Posy, imprinted by the fairy’s kiss, is matter-of-factly single-minded, ruthless in a strangely egoless way, utterly dedicated to dancing.  She is irresistible to the reader because she never has to face the two questions that haunt most ordinary mortals—often, sadly, for an entire lifetime:  What do I want to be when I grow up? and its corollary, Who am I?

According to Streatfeild’s world picture, which has a great deal of literal and poetic truth in it, being an orphan is the ideal condition for the budding artist.  It leaves the field clear of encumbrances of all kinds.  Such a creature doesn’t have to follow in anyone’s footsteps, waste chunks of her adolescence rebelling against the ancestors, or conform to familial expectations.  She’s free to become self-made.  In a simple fantasy, Streatfeild embodied the concept of self-actualization—the artist’s essential task, after all—decades before New Age types made so much ado about its importance.  Revealingly, the sisters’ “family” disbands in the book’s whirlwind denouement.  Once the support system is no longer needed and would, indeed, be confining, it splits open like a cocoon to permit the fledgling performers and their aeronautically inclined sister to embark upon their careers.

Rereading Ballet Shoes as an adult, you see that Streatfeild’s creation has it, unfairly, both ways.  Posy and Pauline have none of the problems that plague artists-to-be in real life:  They’re never fundamentally at odds with the world.  At no time are these characters required to grapple with the truth the film critic Pauline Kael summed up thusly:  “A good-girl artist is a contradiction in terms.”

No matter how special their circumstances, all three sisters remain “nice.”  They’re simply not permitted to be otherwise.  Set against their encounter with the radiance and glamour of the stage is the grueling, endless work behind it and, even more tellingly, the cozy rigor of an upbringing that combines gentility with poverty.  Between them, Nana and Garnie see that their wards never get above themselves.  Schedules are enforced; behavior is monitored.  Peripheral authority figures join in the discipline to ensure that the youngsters remain modest, obedient, diligent, and polite.

For Pauline and Posy, the plainness and high standard of conduct in their home life, along with the rigor of their training for the stage, serve as a corrective to the recognition of their special talents and the witchery of the theater, where their gifts will be exercised.  For the reader, the documentation of what is required of the girls offers the comfort of orderliness:  The reader can escape from the uncertainties and chaos that characterize daily existence in normal life to the idealized picture of the Fossils’ situation, in which one knows exactly where one stands and what to expect.  Even the poverty is attractive—the beauty of making do and doing without.  The same perverse magic is at work in Ballet Shoes as in Little Women and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series:  The periods in the characters’ existence in which they have the least in the way of material resources are the most vividly and lovingly remembered.

My daughter returned home briefly after college and, since she would be moving to a minuscule apartment of her own, I offered to store some of her books on my shelves.  Organizing them with a tidiness of which Nana would have thoroughly approved, we found that we each owned a copy of Ballet Shoes, with a third to spare.  This we handed on to another writer-mother/imaginative-daughter team, inscribing in it our fondest wishes.

© 1993 Tobi Tobias

Comments

  1. Paul Parish says:

    “Per aspera ad astra!”
    There’s nothing easy about aspiration, except the glorious feeling when the imagination gives you glimpses of that beauty you long to see.

  2. Myra Malkin says:

    I was delighted to discover your piece about Ballet Shoes.

    There are a number of “Shoes” books (Theatre Shoes, Circus Shoes, Movie Shoes, etc.), some of which I read as a child. A few years ago I reread as many as I could find, and they were still entrancing, though Ballet Shoes is perhaps the most indelible one. Several of the books have a similar structure: three children with diverse gifts (the gift not always obvious or easy for the child to discover) in a difficult emotional or economic situation. Not all the would-be artists in the books are as certain of their vocations or as promptly successful as Pauline and Posy, but what is always clear is that unremitting work is called for.

    You’ve reminded me that there’s a biography of Streatfeild that I bought and didn’t get around to reading; I will haul it out of its pile. Thanks so much.

  3. sandi kurtz says:

    You (and Streatfeild) put your fingers on something essential when you talk about being an orphan. I’ve noticed over and over in books and films for children how often parents are dispatched with or nudged to the side. From Peter Pan to Pokemon — the best adventures happen to children without attachments.

  4. Iris Fanger says:

    Dear Tobi, I missed your essay about Ballet Shoes the first time around. Thanks for re-printing it. I, too, found my way to ballet school as a child in Chicago and avidly read all the Streatfeild books, as Laurie, my daughter, did in her time. As you might remember, she and Anne were students at the Boston Ballet School at the same time.

    Glad to think about these books again.

  5. Thanks for this. Years ago, growing up adopted and dancing in Denver, Colorado, I read these books and until now, I never heard of anyone else reading them. They were a very special inspiration. A few years ago I picked up a copy used in a bookstore in New York. Your article reminded me to pass the book on to my two granddaughters who study dance in London.

  6. Barbara Palfy says:

    Twang the strings of nostalgia and how they reverberate! Ah, the Streatfeilds, ah, the Marie-Jeannes; the must-have and read and reread books of our ballet-fixated youth. Thanks for the memories.

  7. Melissa Fisher says:

    I loved this book.

  8. Alison Buchbinder says:

    “Ballet Shoes” is one of my very favorite books. I poured over it as a child and still return to it every year. I can’t tell you how lovely it was to read your article today and revisit an old friend. Thank you for such a bright spot in my morning.

  9. Penelope Freeh says:

    Thank you for this walk down memory lane! I loved this book and return to it every couple of years. There’s a good 2007 film version, starring Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame, and is currently streamable on Netflix. The scene w/ Posy dancing en pointe is perfectly captured as I recall, expressing that fragile moment of an adolescent’s colt-like qualities paired with passion.

  10. Do you really believe what Kael says about female artists is true?

  11. A marvelous review of a delightful book. I truly enjoyed the details of a book I savored and passed on to my own four daughters.

  12. The people that walkèd in darkness… Are we benighted not to have known of the existence of this book? Or rather unfortunate? In any case, thanks for the spark. A lovely essay, with so much understanding of How Things Are… Complimenti.

  13. Martha Ullman West says:

    I too read all the ‘Shoes’ books as a child, but my favorite of the “orphan” books was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Little Princess,” which I read under the covers with a flashlight when I was in the third grade. I would add that Edgard Varèse, who played the role of the genius artist to the hilt and is owed much by his descendants in the field of electronic music, once said that not everyone has the good fortune to be an orphan. He had an obstructive father who wanted him to be an engineer.

    • Carolyn King says:

      I love the old “Shoe” books (Ballet Shoes et al., by Noel Streatfeild. I credit these books with my life-long love of reading. I so wish they would be brought back in print electronically. I can’t find all the old books and the ones I do find are very expensive. Who is the Streatfeild heir? Could we talk them into turning them into ebooks, where they will live forever?

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