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Does every small girl want to be a ballerina? It is surely parental wishfulfilment rather than the lure of a frilly pink frock and matching shoes that pushes the lisping infant into the world of dance. Mothers tend to have forgotten that whirling across a draughty church hall doing the same exercises week after week palls for everyone except the extremely disciplined, that acquired grace and deportment will invariably be undermined by teenage slouching, and blocked satin ballet shoes will remain for most girls an unattainable holy grail.

Such rose-tinted maternal memories notwithstanding, Noel Streatfeild’s children’s classic Ballet Shoes, published in 1936, remains a favourite for anybody interested in theatre. Whenever one mentions a first-class book of this kind, if the adult addressed knows it, their face will light up, and they’ll look exactly as they must have done as a child. This is true of either sex. E. Nesbit’s name gets many nods and smiles, particularly from elderly gentlemen who remember the Psammead: ‘a little beast’, said one. Mention of Narnia produces endless discussions on the merits of the seven books. And every woman who discovered I was writing about Ballet Shoes responded in exactly the same way. A sharp intake of breath was followed by, ‘Oh! My favourite book!’

Strangely,  however, few recalled the story in any detail or the personalities of the three Fossil sisters, only their various talents. At the end of Ballet Shoes, a question is posed: ‘I wonder . . . if other girls had to be one of us, which one they’d choose to be?’ Most of the women remembered choosing Pauline, the eldest, a pretty blonde actress. Two chose the youngest, Posy. Her absolute dedication to dance was an alien concept to her sisters and she had red hair. She seemed to be a typical small girl, annoying, opinionated and rather naughty. Nobody ever said they’d chosen Petrova, the dark, sallow middle c

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Does every small girl want to be a ballerina? It is surely parental wishfulfilment rather than the lure of a frilly pink frock and matching shoes that pushes the lisping infant into the world of dance. Mothers tend to have forgotten that whirling across a draughty church hall doing the same exercises week after week palls for everyone except the extremely disciplined, that acquired grace and deportment will invariably be undermined by teenage slouching, and blocked satin ballet shoes will remain for most girls an unattainable holy grail.

Such rose-tinted maternal memories notwithstanding, Noel Streatfeild’s children’s classic Ballet Shoes, published in 1936, remains a favourite for anybody interested in theatre. Whenever one mentions a first-class book of this kind, if the adult addressed knows it, their face will light up, and they’ll look exactly as they must have done as a child. This is true of either sex. E. Nesbit’s name gets many nods and smiles, particularly from elderly gentlemen who remember the Psammead: ‘a little beast’, said one. Mention of Narnia produces endless discussions on the merits of the seven books. And every woman who discovered I was writing about Ballet Shoes responded in exactly the same way. A sharp intake of breath was followed by, ‘Oh! My favourite book!’ Strangely,  however, few recalled the story in any detail or the personalities of the three Fossil sisters, only their various talents. At the end of Ballet Shoes, a question is posed: ‘I wonder . . . if other girls had to be one of us, which one they’d choose to be?’ Most of the women remembered choosing Pauline, the eldest, a pretty blonde actress. Two chose the youngest, Posy. Her absolute dedication to dance was an alien concept to her sisters and she had red hair. She seemed to be a typical small girl, annoying, opinionated and rather naughty. Nobody ever said they’d chosen Petrova, the dark, sallow middle child, whose passion for aeroplanes and cars was mystifying. The aviator Amy Johnson was the darling of press and public in the Thirties, and Ballet Shoes is a book very much of its time. Petrova represented the new craze for all things airborne and mechanical. By 1936, since the ennobling of the Edwardian greats, acting had become a more respectable career for women. Ballerinas, too, were seen as exotic – ‘Continental’ or impenetrably Russian. The visits to London of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the appearances of Pavlova were still a recent memory. Miss Streatfeild was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman – ‘an Edwardian’ I was told (by someone who knew her at Puffin); ‘formidable, a grande dame’ (from the husband of a family friend). Bodley Head once published a series on the work of well-known authors which included one from the 1960s on Noel Streatfeild by Barbara Ker Wilson. Noel grew up as a vicarage child. Ker Wilson tells us, rather touchingly, that her father William, a bishop, replicated his own childhood, raising his five children ‘in the same manner as he himself had been brought up’. He was dismayed that his wayward daughter was set upon such an inappropriate vocation as the theatre. Noel’s theatrical career was reasonably successful, but not as successful as she would have liked, so she turned to writing, both for adults and children, using her experiences to great effect in many books. The influence of her old-fashioned childhood is very evident in Ballet Shoes. Nursery teas, regular exercise, manners and neatness are the mainstay of the Fossils’ existence, all instilled by Nana, their redoutable nurse. What is so extraordinary about the girls (whose surname has been bestowed on them by their adopted uncle, an archaeologist), is their independence. Whilst they have a strict routine, unlike most children of their age, they stay up late – theatre hours – have an income and are treated with a good deal of respect by most of the adults. Each of the children is, effectively, parentless and Great Uncle Matthew, having rescued them, creates an instant family for his spinster great-niece Sylvia, the children’s guardian (‘Garnie’), who in turn creates a second adopted family for the girls when she is forced, in straitened circumstances, to take in lodgers. Ballet Shoes is subtitled ‘The Story of Three Children on the Stage’, and that, in a nutshell, is what the book is all about. It tells of three children in the 1920s, and those they encounter in and out of ‘the profession’, as Noel and her contemporaries breathlessly called it. Ker Wilson describes Noel’s manner of writing as ‘verbal’, suggesting that this was due to her dramatic training, ‘her professional awareness of spoken tones and inflections’. Noel Streatfeild herself believed that in a children’s book ‘the readers get to know their characters through dialogue, whereas in an adult book, characters are known through description’. Her great talent as a children’s writer lay in depicting the dynamics within families – between siblings, between parents and between those within the family orbit – and she perfectly captured their hopes, disappointments and achievements. (‘“You are a show-off, Posy,” Pauline said. “It’s not showing off, it’s because I thought of something and wanted to see if my feet would do it,” Posy explained. “You could wait till you get home, couldn’t you?” Petrova grumbled, for she hated people looking at them.’) Pauline, the eldest, understands the consequences of genteel poverty and the pressing need to earn money. Petrova, perceived as plain and awkward, a middle child like Noel herself, is given the greatest burden: she has to stifle her true feelings and knuckle down to earn a child actor’s wage doing a job she loathes, in which she is proficient but uninspired. The youngest, Posy, secure in her talent, blithely goes out and gets exactly what she wants. Pauline’s decision to forego a classical stage career for Hollywood lucre in order to pay for her younger sister to become a prima ballerina does seem an extraordinary piece of altruism. Yet it is all of a piece with the ruthless way in which these two dismiss their middle sister, who is to be abandoned as they pursue their plans, orphaned yet again. Rereading the book as an adult, one sees that Pauline and Posy are no simpering stage-school brats but clearly focused ambitious artistes who understand one another. Noel’s books are inspiringly full of successful single women. She herself never married, and her books probably reflect her own attitudes to the cramping effects marriage can have on a dedicated writer. She wrote in bed. ‘Before work, I have a bath and I put on some make-up and earrings.’ Back in bed, she started work and she would not receive visitors until she was absolutely ready. There was a sequel of sorts to Ballet Shoes. Noel had long been urged to write one by her fans. In 1973 she duly obliged with a story for The Noel Streatfeild Christmas Holiday Book, rather unimaginatively entitled ‘What Happened to Pauline, Petrova and Posy’. Another short story, ‘Coralie’, featuring Pauline, remains elusive. Noel Streatfeild’s agent couldn’t help, and research at the British Library drew a blank. If anyone reading this knows where it might be found, it would tie up a nagging loose end. An unexpected legacy remains from my own ballet lessons. The tallest in class at 13, I was for two years allocated the man’s part during ballroom sequences, which means now that at formal dances I always lead – with disastrous consequences.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 19 © Sarah Crowden 2008


About the contributor

Sarah Crowden believes that any form of structured exercise is a displacement activity.

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