The third book to be highly commended for the inaugural Carnegie Medal was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Obviously, unlike Sampson’s Circus, this book is very much still in circulation today. In fact, in terms of an actual child readership I’m fairly sure it’s stood the test of time rather better than Pigeon Post: the fact that the latter is now being published with its original jacket design suggests that it’s really targeting the adult nostalgia / scholarly market, whereas the edition of Ballet Shoes currently available on Amazon sports a lurid pink cover with a photo of ballet shoes which is clearly intended to appeal to a certain type of contemporary child reader. (I like to think that the charming Ruth Gervis illustrations from the first edition would still appeal to children, but hey ho.) It undoubtedly holds a more prominent place in popular culture than Pigeon Post (and maybe even than Swallows and Amazons), with its latest TV adaptation in 2007. Possibly this proves that the Carnegie Committee did have some instinct for popularity as well as prestige (or it may have just been luck).
I didn’t read this book as a child (otherwise I might have been more receptive to the ballet lessons my mother insisted I take) but I can’t claim to be coming to this book without any preconceptions. Coming to Streatfeild’s books at some point in adulthood, I gobbled them up as if they had been childhood favourites, and I can still reread any of her books with blithe disregard for the weaker bits. She does tend to recycle quite a lot, hitting the same narrative beats and sometimes even repeating dialogue, but this doesn’t diminish my enjoyment in the slightest. So, fair warning that I don’t necessarily have a lot of critical distance from this book.
For those of you who have inexplicably missed out on Ballet Shoes, it’s the story of three orphans – Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil – who are ‘collected’ like Fossils by an eccentric elderly gentleman (Great Uncle Matthew – or Gum for short) who finds them during his travels around the world and essentially dumps them on his niece, Sylvia. They aren’t blood sisters and all have quite different backgrounds: Pauline is the survivor of a shipwreck, Petrova the daughter of a Russian soldier who Gum meets in hospital, and Posy the child of a ballerina who doesn’t really care for children. Being eccentric, the same day he acquires Posy, Gum disappears on a 5-year journey which turns out to last more like 10. As a consequence of Sylvia’s money running out due to his extended absence, the three Fossil girls end up training at a ballet school in order to ensure they have some prospect of earning money. The majority of the plot concerns their training and careers. There’s a degree of wish fulfilment in this, particularly in the case of Posy, who turns out to have a natural gift for dancing and becomes the protégé of the owner of the school. Really, though, this is a career novel, and Streatfeild is a lot more interested in the hard work involved in the performing arts than in the fantasy of the novice who turns out to be magically better than everyone else. This is probably partly a reflection of Streatfeild’s own background in the performing arts – she trained at RADA and worked as a professional actress for over 10 years – but I think that it also reflects a wider cultural preoccupation with the value of work. Pigeon Post is also very much a book about hard work (the earlier Ransome books are interested in play; the events of PP are explicitly contrasted with these when Nancy comments that the prospecting is ‘serious business, with no pretence about it’), and this is a theme we’ll come back to in some of the books to come.
Although Ballet Shoes shares this theme with Pigeon Post, in every other respect it’s very difference. Where Ransome’s book is about preserving heritage, Streatfeild’s is about radical change. At the start of the book, we’re introduced to Great Uncle Matthew, his habit of collecting fossils, and his house:
Collecting fossils, he naturally needed somewhere to put them, and that is how he came to buy the house in the Cromwell Road. It had large rooms, and about six floors, including the basement, and on every floor, and in almost every room, he kept fossils. Naturally a house like that needed somebody to look after it […]
Sylvia, his niece, is the person who ends up looking after the house, and she seems to be largely responsible for keeping it as Gum likes it, bar the occasional tussle over disposing of a few fossils when he collects too many. This is backstory, though, and by the time of the novel Gum has collected a different sort of ‘Fossil’: the three girls, who adopt this as their shared surname because they have been collected just like the fossils. Of course children are not fossils, though, and so both they and the rest of the household grow and change. When money starts to run out, Sylvia starts to take borders in order to earn money, despite her conviction that Gum wouldn’t like them. She ceases ‘keeping’ the house and starts making ‘a lot of alterations’. Her boarders also bring a lot of alterations: they include a dancer (who suggests the ballet school option for the girls), two female literature professors (who are surely gay, and gloriously self-fulfilled with their joy in Shakespeare and their delicious hot drinks which are heavily implied to be laced with spirits), and a couple who arrive with a motor car (of which more anon). The message runing throughout the book is that it’s not possible or even desirable to try to keep life just as it’s always been: when faced with change it’s better to roll with the punches and work hard to make something good out of your new circumstances. The book pushes back against the idea that the performing arts are not ‘respectable’ (much is made of how carefully regulated child performers are), and we’re given a beautiful alternative family made up of all these unrelated women (the three Fossil sisters, Sylvia, and their nurse Nana) with the boarders as a kind of extended family.
The idea of change is most important to Petrova. Notwithstanding the great significance of the performing arts to this book, it’s really Petrova’s book. She’s the only one of the three sisters who doesn’t take to performing: she’s competent, but she finds it all a bore, and is really interested in mechanics. Streatfeild doesn’t typically linger on characters’ internal lives, but when she does delve into feelings it’s usually Petrova who she’s focusing on. Petrova struggles the whole way through with her conviction that her desire to work with machines is unattainable, both because she’s a girl and because the family can’t afford for her not to make money on the stage. By the end, though, she’s able to pursue this dream (Gum returns and is very pleased with the idea of Petrova training as a pilot) and it’s vindicated as a really important thing for a girl to do. The Fossils have instituted a vow that they’ll put their name in the history books, but Pauline and Posy see their success in the performing arts as closing off this possibility (though I think the novel sets us up to feel that they’re wrong). The responsibility therefore devolves onto Petrova:
‘You’ll go into history books. That’ll put Fossil there all right; it doesn’t matter about Pauline and me.’
Petrova looked puzzled. ‘How will I?’
‘Flying, of course.’ […]
‘Would that?’ said Petrova.
‘Of course.’ Pauline spoke eagerly. ‘Don’t you see? It’s sort of exploring, like Frobisher, or Drake. Amy Mollison and Jean Batten will be there, but not as important as you. The books will say: “The greatest explorer in the middle of the twentieth century was Petrova Fossil, who found routes by which goods could be carried at greater speed and less cost, and so she revolutionized trade.”
The mention of Amy Mollison and Jean Batten works to emphasise that this is an achievable feat (both were notable aviators). The reference to exploring also fascinates me: I’ve suggested that Pigeon Post is all about valuing the British landscape, something which seems to me to be part of the response to the unravelling of Empire. Here Petrova’s future is framed specifically in terms of exploration: something which fits her into the imperial narrative. In one sense I suppose this is regressive, but it’s also incredibly radical: Petrova, who is both female and foreign-born, is presented as someone who can potentially step into the shoes of Drake. There’s a notion here, I think, of reinventing Britain’s identity through radical innovation.
Petrova’s character also provides the one thing Streatfeild’s book has in common with Sampson’s Circus: both books present British identity as something which can be completely and successfully assimilated. Like Jack in Sampson’s Circus, Petrova has been born as a foreign national but brought up in Britain from early childhood. When the ballet school put on a performance to raise money for a Russian hospital, it is seen as especially fitting that Petrova should have a role, but ‘Petrova thought to herself, that though of course she was very glad to help the hospital, it was not because she was Russian; for she was British by adoption, and had taken a British name, and felt very British inside.’ A topical and rather cheering statement in 1936.
Why didn’t this win in 1936 instead of Pigeon Post? The Carnegie committee stated at the time that one reason was that PP would appeal to both boys and girls, whereas Ballet Shoes and Sampson’s Circus were more likely to appeal to just one gender. I think there’s plenty here that a boy might enjoy, though to some extent it is a story about girlhood (especially when you come to Petrova’s narrative). I think Streatfeild’s characterisation isn’t quite so nuanced and fine-grained as Ransome’s, although in part this is a function of this being a stand-alone book rather than part of a series. Compared to Swallows and Amazons, there is considerably more character detail. As we’ve established, I love Pigeon Post, so while I think Ballet Shoes would have been an equally worthy winner, this isn’t a case where looking at it with the benefit of hindsight makes me think the Medal went to the ‘wrong’ book. Ballet Shoes would have set a very different tone as the first Medal winner, though: less nostalgic, more radical; much more urban in its concerns; and much more concerned with change. You get the sense, in Streatfeild’s book, of shaking off the Victorian age briskly and cheerfully, with none of the urge to look back and reclaim British heritage which is such a central feature of Ransome’s. This says something about the Carnegie as part of that heritage-building project, a theme to which I suspect I shall return in future posts.
Some unscientific ratings and notes…
My overall rating: 10/10
Themes: Ballet, performing arts, modernity, family, change
Illustrator: Ruth Gervis (Streatfeild’s sister, though the publisher didn’t realise this when she commissioned the illustrations. You can see Gervis’ original illustrations at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books).