Sunday, April 18, 2021

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild - who is your favorite Fossil?

Title: Ballet Shoes
Author: Noel Streatfeild
Illustrator: Richard Floethe
Publication: Random House, hardcover, 1937 (originally published in 1936)
Genre: Children’s fiction

The 1936 Club is hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.
Plot: Great Uncle Matthew (known as Gum) was a noted collector of fossils and lived in a large house on London’s Cromwell Road with his niece Sylvia, and her childhood nurse, Nana. One day he brings home an orphaned baby who Sylvia and Nana name Pauline. Soon there are two more, Petrova and Posy.  

Then Gum departs on an expedition, leaving money to cover expenses in his absence, and three children under the age of four for Sylvia and Nana to raise. After six years, he has not returned, and Sylvia has run out of money. Worried, Sylvia takes in lodgers, who help with the situation – two are retired teachers and offer to educate the children, while one teaches at the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. She suggests Sylvia send the children for stage training so they can earn their own livings. This introduces the girls, who have adopted Fossil as their surname, and the readers to Madame Fidolia, the indomitable head of the school who can turn nearly any sow’s ear into a silk purse, and sets them on course for a career on the stage.
Sylvia looked round at them all; she felt she must take their advice, but she was worried.

“They are such little children,” she exclaimed.

Nana got up.

“Little children grow up. I suppose that Anna Pavlova was a little child once.”
My Impression: Generations of girls have been captivated by Ballet Shoes since it was first published, and it still seems fresh and ageless after nearly ninety years. First of all, everyone loves a good orphan story and each sister is different, with her own strengths and weaknesses: Pauline is a talented actress but can be arrogant, Petrova hates dancing and prefers mechanics, while Posy is a gifted dancer who remembers things with her feet. Then there is the appeal of training for a career, performing on stage, and appearing to be in control of their own futures – which is not possible for most children of this age – but everyone who reads Streatfeild knows that in this era a child could get a license to perform in public at age 12. The Fossil sisters realize Sylvia is having money troubles, so want to help, and also have a sense of their own destiny after their teacher, Dr. Jakes, tells Pauline they could make their name and accidental sisterhood really important one day.
Petrova was most impressed.

“Do you think she meant we could make it a name in history books?”

Pauline was not sure.

“She didn’t exactly say history books, but I think that’s what she meant. She said making your name worthwhile means you must have given distinguished service to your country. . . .”

[Pauline and Petrova get Posy, so they can swear together.]    Pauline put both her feet together and folded her hands. “We three Fossils,” she said in a church voice, “vow to try to put our name in history books because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.”
This is another book I discovered in my grade school library and read so often I practically knew it by heart. My top ten list fluctuates but this is usually on it. My copy is illustrated by Richard Floethe who did several of Streatfeild’s American editions although does not get a credit here (in the UK, the book was illustrated by Streatfield’s sister, Ruth Gervis). He illustrated books by many prominent authors such as Margaret Wise Brown, Elizabeth Goudge, Mary Treadgold, and collaborated on 23 books with his wife, writer Louise Floethe. I was able to get A Year to Remember, set at a Swiss boarding school, from ILL several years ago and enjoyed it.
British readers complain that Streatfeild’s American publishers changed many of the books’ titles to incorporate the word “shoes” although they are not a series and only a few are connected but I don’t mind, especially if one can find copies of bothBallet Shoes was Streatfeild’s first children’s book and launched her career in juvenile fiction. It was apparently loosely inspired by an adult novel she wrote called The Whicharts that friends have told me I would not like.

Save the Penny: If the weather were not too wet, the sisters expected to “save the penny and walk.”  When I moved to New York in 1989 with my friend Jeanmarie to work in publishing, we were so pathetically underpaid we could barely afford the subway to work. I suggested we either take the subway or buy a muffin/bagel for breakfast and eat it along the way but not both. If we were late for work and had to take the subway, we just fasted until lunchtime. Note: the subway cost us substantially more than a penny and that was before you could buy a monthly unlimited pass, which does save quite a bit. My sisters thought I was mean to make Jean starve but I was trying to keep us solvent and behave like a book heroine in the bargain.
Source: Personal copy. It’s a 16th edition hardcover with a fairly intact dust jacket I picked up at the Bryn Mawr Bookstore years ago.  Even before the pandemic it never seemed to be open when I drove by so it was a lucky find.   And Pauline is my favorite Fossil!


LyzzyBee said...

I love this and all her others - and Petrova was my favourite!

Lory said...

The Floethe illustrations that were in my copy growing up -- I like how spare they are, more sentimental pictures always put me off.

Pauline is my favorite too!

TracyK said...

I have never read any of Noel Streatfeild's books. Maybe someday I will. This one does sound like a good story.

Jeanne said...

I identified with Pauline, the arrogant actress.

CLM said...

I do like Pauline best but, as an adult, I also admire Petrova, who tries her best at ballet and acting because she knows the family needs her earnings but has more scientific interests, ahead of her time!

Tracy, I haven't seen any of the adaptations but I have heard the one with Emma Watson is very good. Not sure if it is available on Netflix. This is definitely Streatfeild's best known book but there are several others I like nearly as well. I had been hoping to do some Streatfeild research in the UK this summer but my seminar has been canceled (actually, they are going to try to do it online but I am fairly sure I am not going to spend my precious vacation time doing more Zoom).

Lark said...

I love Ballet Shoes...but I don't know if I can pick a favorite Fossil. When I first read it I loved Posy, but now that I'm older I lean more towards Pauline and Petrova. :)

Katrina said...

I only started reading her books fairly recently and every time I've seen a copy of Ballet Shoes in a shop I've thought that I already had a copy - but apparently I don't.

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

This looks lovely! And unless I'm very much mistaken, this is the book that Meg Ryan recommends near the end of the movie, You've Got Mail? I wanted to rewatch that old Tom Hanks favorite. Funny how coincidences show up like this. :-)

CLM said...

Exactly right, Lex! And because there are no coincidences, my friend Carla was the book consultant on You've Got Mail and inserted the Streatfeild and Betsy-Tacy references. The Ephron sisters were all children's book fans too, however. And in a former job as NYC Sales Rep, I used to call on Books of Wonder and sell Penguin and Scholastic books to them. Nice guys, although we argued a lot about what books they should carry.

Emily G. said...

Constance, I recommend The Whicharts! Let me know if you'd like to borrow my copy. It's fascinating to see the similarities between the two books (I admit I am a sucker for all of her books). And Petrova is my favorite, though it's a hard choice.

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

Constance, this is amazing! Thanks for sharing about this. And I didn't remember the Betsy-Tacy references from the movie, really really need to rewatch it. ~Lex

Vintage Reading said...

Late to comment but Pauline for me! Love the book but surprising how little ballet is in it. Party Shoes with its wartime setting is my favourite.