Seeing this topic roll up, I was very torn over which to pick out of the many fandoms to which I subscribe. It was not easy. In the end, I decided to go with Noel Streatfeild, an author I have adored for over two decades. Over the past few years though I have really come to appreciate her artistry and to be frank, I feel that she is criminally under-rated. Streatfeild is too quickly dismissed as being a writer of children’s adventure stories, particularly in this era when young adult literature books seems to need a vampire or a terminally ill child to get attention. When I am in the children’s section, I too often see her work in the ‘classic’ literature section – available in gift editions but few others. I loved my Noel Streatfeild books, all of which ended up battered and dog-eared from being carried round in the bottom of backpacks, stuffed under pillows, rendered sticky through being read while eating – Streatfeild is a writer who always seemed to understand how people thought, how they lived, her books are more than ‘classic’, they are timeless!
1) The glamour
As a dyspraxic child and adult who has never even managed the forward roll let alone the handstand, the chances of me ever making it on the stage or screen were zilch. Instead, I was able to enjoy the thrills vicariously via Theatre Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Ballet Shoes and the rest. I learnt about what really went on backstage – it made going to the pantomime the Christmas after I first read Ballet Shoes into a whole different experience. I learnt what an understudy was, about ‘the wings’, auditions – when I was nine and watching a film with my Auntie and my Grandma, I was the only one who knew what a stand-in was. The only reason for that was that I had read The Painted Garden. What also became clear was the graft – Mrs Wintle’s Little Wonders in Dancing Shoes had to spend weeks away from home, Pauline had to make difficult decisions about her career based on work availability. The Warren family in Theatre Shoes have to deal with management difficulties and critical reception – Streatfeild never seemed to be over-simplifying or trying to paint a fairytale reality about the industry and that made the moments of triumph all the more wonderful.
2) They were quietly diverse
I want people to hear me out on this one. It was been ‘Trending’ on my Facebook page for days that the up-coming Disney film ‘Finding Dory’ appears to include a fleeting glimpse of a lesbian couple. Similarly, people got very over-excited when we got an equally fleeting glimpse of a gay couple in Frozen. Streatfeild (and also, to be fair JK Rowling) long ago mastered the art of having characters from diverse backgrounds but you never noticed because they just seemed like people. Dr Smith and Dr Jakes were two ladies who took rooms together in the Fossil family home in Ballet Shoes, one being a professor in maths, the other in literature. Despite being retired, they find they miss teaching and decide to start teaching the Fossil girls gratis (although one presumes that it probably factored into a rent reduction). Re-reading, I realised what this domestic arrangement probably signified, the way the two spoke of ‘we’, how when one was ill, the other took her away to help her convalesce – but it doesn’t matter. The girls take it all at face value – just as I did when I was a child and had a childminder who just so happened to be in a lesbian partnership. When true acceptance is achieved, the characters do not function as mere ‘tokens’ to show off how far we’ve come, they are just part of the fabric.
The only book to undermine this point though is The Painted Garden. This is the one when the Winter family travel to America and there are some troubling passages describing the encounters described with black people, who are universally in service positions. It is difficult because this is the only book I have read by Streatfeild which takes her off her ‘home turf’ of Britain so there is a strong element of being a ‘fish out of water’, with the three Winter children working to find a place for themselves in America. The British based books also contain recurring ‘loyal servant’ characters, which is entirely acceptable in a Downton Abbey-esque manner over here but has some unfortunate (and no doubt unintended) Gone With The Wind connotations when transplanted to America. I don’t want to wave a magic wand and say that this makes it all ok – it doesn’t, and modern readings with impressionable children do prompt discussion and explanation. However, if we set her writing alongside that of Enid Blyton, I think we can see that even with The Painted Garden, there is still an attempt to understand others. I think that’s what I love most about the books – there always seems to be an attempt to humanise each of the characters.
3) It was OK to be sad
A lot of children’s literature puts an emphasis on being happy – or at least, if one is sad, then it is a problem to be solved. By this I mean the Jacqueline Wilsons of this world etc – if a protagonist is sad, they must finish up happy. Noel Streatfeild never really puts that kind of pressure on her characters. For all that her work is accused to seeming formulaic (and to be fair, certain character types do get recycled), she did allow a greater degree of psychological complexity. Rachel in Dancing Shoes is felt by many around her to be not mourning her dead mother ‘properly’ – the reader knows that this is not the case at all, that she is not the ‘unfeeling child’ that her aunt paints her as but there is such reassurance to how Streatfeild describes her, such acceptance. Similarly, Streatfeild depicts Jane’s “black-doggish” moods in The Painted Garden as just part of the furniture. Sometimes they hit, eventually she will overcome it but Streatfeild never dismisses them as something that will just vanish. Laurel in Saplings is shown to behave in a way that the adults around her find difficult, but we are always given her perspective – Streatfeild works hard to show both sides. She shows both that perpetually unhappy people can bear no blame for their situation but can simultaneously be difficult to be around.
4) They revealed the trials of being female
I would hesitate to call Streatfeild’s books as feminist but what her work did manage to do was to illustrate how hard it can be to be female. By this, I refer to the way she depicted the treatment of women’s bodies within the creative industries. Pauline in Ballet Shoes gets the job as Alice at her first audition, even though both she and her nurse recognise that the person with the better audition was Winifred. The problem was that Pauline looked better for the role. Winifred bursts into tears, saying that this will always be the case. In later books, we see that Pauline becomes a movie star and Winifred ends up back at the drama school in a teaching capacity. It’s not fair – but then, life isn’t. Another case was Dancing Shoes, when Hilary needs to learn a dance routine quickly to win a competition, so goes to the troupe understudy, Alice. Alice is one of the most technically proficient pupils who Mrs Wintle has ever had – her curse is the fact that she is tall for her age. In a dancing troupe prized for cutesiness, this is unforgivable, condemning poor Alice to perpetual understudydom and with the ever present fear of unemployment. Bear in mind that Alice is most likely still only twelve. In White Boots, events take a more sinister turn when Lalla’s ghastly aunt puts her on a diet as part of her skating regime, stopping her from having any treats and giving her rusks instead of bread. Lalla’s decline depicts the pressure of living a life where even your body is not your own. Even in Saplings, Laurel’s maturing body means that the adults around her forget that she is still a child, putting her under suspicion of behaviour that she does not yet even understand. In Streatfeild’s own way, she allows the reader to consider the injustice of all this without ever passing judgment directly herself.
5) They pointed out the perils of the imagination
For an author who wrote so much about dressing up and acting and pretending to be someone else, Streatfeild is very clear about the risks of setting too much stock by daydreams. In her own autobiographical novel The Vicarage Family, her fictional counterpart Vicky has a nasty shock when she comes into real life contact with the family she has been making up stories about all summer. She realises that despite her obsession, it would ‘spoil’ them to find out what they were really like. It is the same lesson which many of her own characters learn. Hollie in Theatre Shoes pretends to herself that her cousin’s attache case is her own and is ashamed to have to remember her own lie. Her brother Mark finds it difficult to come out of character, at one point having to meet Madame while internally pretending to be a bear. Laurel’s lies in Saplings do nothing but land her into trouble even though she invented her stories to comfort herself. The message is clear and consistent – no situation, no matter how unpleasant, can be made better without facing the truth. Reality and daydreams do not mix.
6) Nobody is “special”
In our X-Factor age, I think this one is particularly important. Ballet Shoes‘ Pauline goes through a diva phase after achieving success as Alice in the Alice in Wonderland pantomime. She thinks her success entitles her to queen it around. An unfortunate incident where she is rude to the theatre manager puts her in her place – her understudy Winifred goes on the following night in her place, receiving the same rave reviews. She has to learn that nobody is irreplaceable. It is the same lesson that Miranda has to learn in Theatre Shoes – although it is not quite clear if the message has the same success. Streatfeild has little time for inflated egos – those who are going to get anywhere in her books do so through hard work, not by stomping over everyone else. We don’t have a ‘right’ to be treated with respect, we have to earn that privilege and I really like that this is something that Streatfeild addresses in her books.
7) It is OK to be different
A lot, but not all, of the books feature children on the stage, screen or circus ring (I haven’t actually got to Circus Shoes yet). That is lovely. However, Streatfeild also celebrates those children for whom the theatre is just not really their bag. Petrova Fossil is one such. My favourite thing about Petrova was that she was actually not bad at ballet (I was terrible). She was in fact one of the more proficient members of her class – the problem came from the fact that the work bored her and it looked as though it did. Instead, Petrova learnt about airplanes and engines and motors and when the novel ended, she got set to go and train as a pilot. I am not sure what exactly Petrova would end up doing in World War Two, but I am quite sure that the war could not have been won without her. Similarly, Theatre Shoes‘ Mark decides that he will not be becoming a singer as his grandmother wishes, but will instead be joining the Navy like Daddy – Sorrel and Hollie will be following the family tradition but Mark is allowed to make his own decisions.
8) Blood isn’t everything
What I liked about Streatfeild’s books is that her characters always seemed to be at the centre of large families – having a small family myself, this was very appealing. What was also apparent was that bonds of blood had very little to do with anything. Pauline, Petrova and Posy are definitely sisters even though they have not a scrap of DNA in common between them. They are loved and adored by Garnie and Nana who again bear no blood relation. Rachel and Hilary in Dancing Shoes are sisters just the same and although Rachel is a cousin to Dulcie, this clearly means nothing next to her bond with her sister. Like Paddington Bear, the Streatfeild books are tales of people constructing their own families and finding their own way to something that works. It’s an incredibly comforting view on humanity.
9) Anyone could be special
As a follow-up to the point above – Streatfeild’s books still did have an optimistic outlook. Even Saplings concludes on a hopeful note with Laurel’s grandfather appearing to save her at the eleventh hour. The Fossil girls are three foundlings with no money but they are clear in their own minds that this unpromising beginning will not hold them back. They make their vow on their birthdays and special occasions that they are going to get their name in the history books because it is ‘our very own’ and has nothing to do with their ancestry. By the end of the book, all hopes are pinned on Petrova – she has not flourished on the stage as her sisters have but this only means to them that she is more fit to make history, since actresses and ballerinas rarely do. Rachel in Dancing Shoes languishes as the miserable and apparently ugly duckling throughout the book until at the last minute it turns out that she will be having the most glittering career of all. Jane is the ‘plain one’ of the family but in The Painted Garden, she gets a chance to shine. Harriet starts skating in White Boots with no prior experience and only because her brother is willing to work after school to pay her fees – but it turns out that she is incredibly talented. Reading these as a dyspraxic young girl with no co-ordination and inability to catch a ball, skip a rope or play any kind of team sport, it was very reassuring that things would get better. It was inspiring to hear of children, children just like me, being able to earn their own living, be independent, not through a spell being cast or the good wishes of a passing fairy but through actual real life work.
10) It actually seemed like real life
In so many books, the heroes and villains are sternly demarcated – the same is not true here. One of my least favourite things about the recent adaptation of Ballet Shoes was that they made Winifred evil. Nobody is ever outright awful in the books – certain characters are more caught up in the excitement of the stage (and/or their own importance), but nastiness for the sake of nastiness is very rare. Enid Blyton’s books are packed full of malice, with the author displaying a horrible kind of pleasure whenever the characters go through suffering. When Pauline is given a talking-to during her diva period, Winifred and Petrova thinks she has gone so quiet because she is angry but the reader and Nana know it is because she is trying not to cry. Theatre Shoes‘ Miranda is beside herself at not getting to play Ariel, but despite her unpleasantness we can see that she has had a huge disappointment. Even Lalla’s horrible behaviour to the innocent Harriet comes because the poor child has been put under unspeakable pressure. While there are more than a few annoying aunts, Streatfeild is happy to lampoon their selfishness but they never seem without motivation.
I liked too how the books are so female-centric. In Ballet Shoes, Great Uncle Matthew repeatedly remarks about how he keeps a whole house full of women but they are never around when they are wanted – really it is the other way around, he has been out of the picture for over ten years, leaving the women to fend for themselves. The responsible adults for a lot of the books are women – whether they are nurses or housemaids or miscellaneous females living with the family for undisclosed reasons (Peaseblossom!) Oddly enough, the men seem to be a crowd of shrinking violets. Cora’s husband Tom in Dancing Shoes does not dare gainsay her, nor does Lalla’s uncle in White Boots. A similar dynamic is revealed in Saplings, although there the husband does dare to break free during the wartime relaxation of normal behaviour. Streatfeild’s books featured many different kinds of women, a variety of roles to play, that yes life offered complications but it never seemed like a world without options.
Having written this list, I now want to go and re-read the books all over again!