The Fossil girls have talent and are enrolled by Madame Fidolia in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. The three girls have been adopted by Great Uncle Matthew and left in the care of his niece Sylvia while he goes off on another expedition. He is absent a long time and the money he leaves runs out, so their guardian takes in boarders and the girls find work on the stage. How will this work out for them? Published in 1936, Ballet Shoes is a classic of children’s literature.
This is the fourth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme has emerged and is continued in this classic. This theme is the absence of parents. A second theme is the economic precariousness of girls’ lives in the inter-war years.
The novel is set in London in the period between the world wars. Three orphan girls are collected by Great Uncle Matthew like fossils (after whom he names them). He leaves them in the care of his niece, Sylvia, who is helped by Nana, Cook and the maid, Clara. Pauline was rescued from a sinking ship, has acting ability and very good looks; Petrova’s Russian parents left her to GUM, and she can act but prefers cars and aeroplanes; Posy’s mother cannot look after her while following her career so she leaves her a pair of ballet shoes and gives her to GUM’s care. Posy is an exceptionally talented dancer.
GUM expected to be away for 5 years, but his absence extends much longer. When the money he provided runs out the girls and their guardians must make difficult decisions. All along they have known how important it is not to show that you are poor, but now they have to face losing their home. The girls find they must decide to do things they don’t want to do, like accept parts they don’t want or approach adults about parts they need.
Each has lessons to learn about not getting too bumptious (Pauline), or finding ways to follow her interests (Petrova); or to seize every occasion to further her passion (Posy).
The girls are assisted in their struggles by the boarders that Sylvia takes in: Theo who introduces them to the Dancing Academy and assists with their practice sessions; the two female academic doctors who teach them what they are missing by not being at school; Mr and Mrs Simpson who own a garage and a car and ferry them about from time to time. The sewing skills of Nana are frequently called upon for outfits for classes and auditions.
In the final pages, after several years of penury, taking parts for the money, scrimping and making do, the girls go their separate ways: Pauline to Hollywood with Sylvia, Petrova to learn about aeroplanes with GUM and Posy to Prague to study with a ballet master accompanied by Nana.
Ballet Shoes reveals to young readers that hard work, loyalty to your aims, not being selfish and willingness to learn are essential to achieving your ambitions.
Noel Streatfeild was another prolific writer, like the others in this series, producing nearly 30 books for children and 16 novels for adults as well as many non-fiction books. She lived from 1895 – 1986. She spent time in the theatre but later turned to writing. She also did war work during both wars.
Ballet Shoes was her first book for children, and it was an instant success. It has never been out of print.
Despite what my spellchecker keeps telling me, that is how you spell her family name.
Ballet Shoesby Noel Streatfeild was published in 1936. I used the Puffin edition from 2015. 326pp. Illustrations are by Ruth Gervis, who was Noel Streatfeild’s sister.
The Decade Project in 2019
In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1940-49. Suggestions for decades are welcome.
Here are the links to the first three books in this year’s Decades Project, which were
Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) And just a small note, that at one point Sylvia reads The Secret Garden to the Fossils in Ballet Shoes.
Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)