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