Noel Streatfeild ~ Ballet Shoes & Saplings

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

I have just spent a very pleasant long weekend in the company of Noel Streatfeild, first rereading her children’s classic, Ballet Shoes, and then exploring for the first time her adult novel, Saplings.  I thought it would be interesting to consider how the work of a writer for two contrasting audiences might be seen to both differ and to bear similarities and Streatfeild proved to be an excellent choice in this respect.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Ballet Shoes.  I’m not sure why I was so fond of it as a child, because the world that was being described was completely alien to me; perhaps that’s why I found it so enticing. It was first published in 1936 and reading it now I have to wonder how much of it was wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. As I’m sure you all know it tells the story of the three Fossil girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, each of whom has been “collected“ by great uncle Matthew (GUM) and deposited with his niece Sylvia in a large house in London. When GUM fails to return from his travels, the money begins to run out and so Sylvia takes in boarders, one of whom, Theo Dane, suggests that the three girls be trained for the stage so that eventually they may also contribute to the family purse. For two of them this is an absolute delight, but for Petrova it represents something akin to one of Dantes’ circles of hell. Into the breach steps another of Sylvia‘s lodgers, Mr Simpson, who, with his car and eventually his garage, provides the outlet that she needs for her own talents.

In many respects it’s possible to read this as almost a proto-feminist work, given that what we have in the end is three young women who are able to dictate their own futures. But, as I’ve suggested, this may be wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. I wonder just how many young girls in the 1930s were able to manipulate their responsible adults in the way that the Fossil sisters do? Of course, the fact that those adults are not the girls’ actual parents is important. Already the significance of being able in someway to isolate children and thus give them a certain amount of independence is making itself felt in children’s literature.

The relationship between Pauline, Petrova and Posy is very tight, possibly idealistically so. The children at the heart of Streatfeild’s 1945 publication, Saplings, are perhaps a more realistic portrayal of sibling interaction. When we first meet them in the summer of 1939 Laurel, the eldest, is eleven, the two boys Tony and Kim, nine and seven and the younger daughter, Tuesday, four. They are spending a last idyllic holiday at Eastbourne and while they may not be aware of the dangers lurking on the horizon, it is clear that both their father, Alex Wiltshire, and the writer are. In his afterword for the Persephone edition, Dr Jeremy Holmes suggests that Streatfeild’s primary concern is the psychological damage that war does to children. Certainly the final words of Mrs Oliver, I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, “we got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered ‘o-ever else ‘as” have to be seen as ironic given the trauma that at least three of the Wiltshire children have endured. And, it is true that while one of the chief issues for the adults in the novel is the question of physical safety, of where the children will live, questions initially to do with evacuation and eventually, given that we are dealing with a nice middle-class family, where they should spend the holidays when their boarding schools are closed, the consequences of the decisions that they make in this respect are given very little thought at all. And yet, they are frequently disastrous, especially for the mental well-being of Laurel, whose distress at being moved from pillar to post is rarely taken into account. However, it seems to me that Streatfeild is every bit as interested in the relationship between the children and the adult women in their lives and frequently the young Wiltshires are let down by the very people you would expect to offer them the most support.

There are many women, relatives and teachers for the most part, who are influential in the children’s experiences, but the primary contrast is between the children’s mother, Lena, and the governess, Ruth Glover. For Lena the children are darlings, charming decorations, but they must not interfere with her real life:

she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on doing just those things.

Lena is not used to having to accommodate herself either to other people or to circumstance. The war hits Lena hard.

Ruth, on the other hand, has had a difficult childhood:

she was highly strung and acutely sensitive and, to defend herself drew away from her childhood, studying it with detachment, waiting patiently to be grown-up. As a legacy of these bitter school years she possessed a profound understanding of children.

As the war progresses and the children are successively sent away to boarding school, Ruth joins the ATS and from what we are told has a remarkably successful career there, but it is still to her that the children, Laurel in particular, turn in times of crisis. Lena, almost literally drowning in her own misery, is of no help to them at all, prepared to have them home only when it suits her needs. Not that she is capable of recognising this; she is a victim of muddled thinking, a problem from which the Fossil household suffers as well. The children’s grandfather defines this for us during a conversation about two young evacuees, Albert and Ernie, whose mother has demanded that they return to London, explaining

she didn’t get them home because she thinks the danger’s over but because she’s lonely without them…the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is…very important not to fool yourself.

Lena may think clearly at the beginning of the novel, but by the time the war has taken its toll she is incapable of doing anything other than fooling herself and damaging her children in the process.

I understand that this is the only one of Streatfeild’s adult novels available in print, which is a shame. Saplings is by no means a flawless work, but nevertheless it’s one that I enjoyed very much and I would have liked to have been able to explore more of her writing for this audience. It’s clear that her main interest is still children, how they interact with each other, and how they grow through childhood into young adults. Perhaps when it came to writing just about adult relationships she found herself at a loss, I’m not in a position to find out, but perhaps some of you have read other works by her intended for an older audience. If so, I would be very interested to know what you thought of them.



23 thoughts on “Noel Streatfeild ~ Ballet Shoes & Saplings

  1. A Life in Books June 24, 2020 / 7:28 am

    I loved Ballet Shoes which took me to a world so very different fom my own when I was a child; White Boots, too. I’m delighted to find they’re still in print. I wonder what today’s children think of them.


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 10:56 am

      I’ve only read Ballet Shoes, Susan, but thinking about some of my younger goddaughters I don’t think they would’ve enjoyed them now which is a great pity. Perhaps if they had a real interest in dance. But then, even as I wrote that, I thought well two of them do and I still don’t think they would appreciate it.


  2. BookerTalk June 24, 2020 / 8:11 am

    Im confident that when I read Ballet Shoes as a child I had no thought about the issue of independence or adult/child relationships – I just wanted to know about their dancing because I was mad on ballet at the time.


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 10:58 am

      I enjoyed it even without being mad on Bali. In fact, my mother took me to one dance lesson to try to get me interested and I just sat on the floor and absolutely refuse to have anything to do with it. I suspect in my case I was more interested in Pauline and the world of the theatre. The first time I was taken to the theatre I was only two and I was sold on it from that moment onwards.


  3. Annabel (AnnaBookBel) June 24, 2020 / 9:59 am

    I definitely identified with Petrova! I did enjoy going to the ballet, but hated ballet lessons – luckiy my mum saw reason and I took up the violin instead. I’ve been meaning to read Saplings for so long, I may have to swap it into my 20 books of summer bookcase. Lovely write-up.


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 10:59 am

      Thank you, Annabel. I think you would really appreciate Saplings. I identified more with Pauline because I’ve been crazy about the theatre since I was two years old. Fortunately, my parents realised it and took me instead of birthday parties, something which I absolutely loathed!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jenny @ Reading the End June 24, 2020 / 11:56 am

    I don’t think I realized that she had written other adult novels! I thought there was Saplings and that was it! I still haven’t read Saplings, but I do own it, and I love the idea of doing it as a companion read to Ballet Shoes to see where they align and differ.

    Though, point of order: I’m one of four sisters, and we were as close as the Fossils growing up! So it may be unusual but it definitely happens. We were all fairly close in age, and definitely there was a gap between the older ones and the younger one, but basically we were all pretty supportive and attached to each other.


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 5:47 pm

      Saplings is good enough to make me wonder why her other novels are not still available, Jenny. If you are one of four sisters do you know Ruth Elwin Harris’s quartet about the Purcell sisters? I’m in the process of getting copies of them to read-read and then post about. You might enjoy them.


  5. Elle June 24, 2020 / 12:50 pm

    Absolutely adored Ballet Shoes as a child, and Saplings sounds fantastic – I’m getting slightly Elizabeth Jane Howard/The Light Years vibes from your descripton of it!


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 5:47 pm

      Same sort of time period and class structure, Elle but not as accomplished.


  6. Calmgrove June 24, 2020 / 1:21 pm

    I was never attracted to ballet stories (let alone girls‘ stories) as a lad but I’m discovering lots of unexpected delights in my maturer years. The only Streatfeild I’ve consciously read is a Foreword to Nesbit’s childhood reminiscences. As I’ve a few Eva Ibbotson novels repackaged as YA still to read Streatfeild may have to wait a bit longer but you make her fiction sound so tempting… 😁


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 5:49 pm

      Everyone should read Ballet Shoes and you will feel for Petrova who has no time for ballet either.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mary Colburn June 24, 2020 / 2:16 pm

    Noel Streatfield wrote an adult version of Ballet Shoes called “The Whicharts”. It came first and was a much darker book. The 3 girls were half-sisters, products of their father’s various affairs. There’s the same initial struggle to succeed but they don’t persevere like the Fossils. One ends up with a married man and the others are reclaimed by family members.
    I don’t own it so I must have got it from the library.
    She also wrote adult crime novels under the name Susan Scarlett.


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 5:51 pm

      That is fascinating, Mary. Thank you. I know that she came from a difficult family background herself so perhaps that fed into the earlier version. I don’t suppose there is any chance of the crime novels being available, but I’m off to have a look.


  8. Lory June 24, 2020 / 2:54 pm

    You made me want to revisit my own review from four years ago – – which reminded me that the narcissistic character of the mother was what stood our for me in Saplings. She does far more harm to the children than the war.

    I was reminded of Ballet Shoes when I recently read Julie Andrews’s memoir, “Home.” She is like a real life Fossil, with a grittier side – she had parents, but they were divorced and her stepfather was an alcoholic with sexual predator tendencies. Julie was performing with him and her mother from a young age and with her amazing talent ended up supporting the family. It’s quite a story, highly recommended if you are interested in backstage stories.

    Anyway – I’m glad you enjoyed this bout of Streatfeild. I still go back to the “shoes” books for comfort reading from time to time. After Saplings I wonder if her adult writing has been deservedly forgotten, though it certainly has some interesting features.


    • Café Society June 24, 2020 / 5:54 pm

      She certainly found her audience when she turned to children’s literature, Lory. As I understand it her own early life had a fair bit of the grit about it so perhaps that fed into her adult work. I was horrified by Lena, but even more so by Alex’s sister Lindsey who should never have been allowed anywhere near children.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. heavenali June 24, 2020 / 6:39 pm

    I loved Ballet Shoes when I was a child. I read Saplings several years ago and I thought it was wonderful. I read another Noel Stretfield book a year or so ago, it was an 1950s hardback. I think some of her adult books are available second hand and the Scottish publisher Grey Ladies re-issued one or two I think. Though they might be out of print by now.


    • Café Society June 25, 2020 / 12:53 pm

      Yes, I’ve just found some of the earlier ones available from Grey Ladies. I have to say they look a little bit on the “romance“ side of things for me, but I’ll probably be tempted to try at least one of them.


      • heavenali June 25, 2020 / 1:18 pm

        I read Parson’s Nine from Grey ladies a few years ago. It was good, quite light but not heavily romantic.


  10. Helen June 24, 2020 / 8:38 pm

    I read Ballet Shoes as a child, along with a lot of Streatfeild’s other books for children, and I’ve often wondered what her adult novels were like. I’ll have to give Saplings a try.


    • Café Society June 25, 2020 / 1:01 pm

      As you will have gathered, Helen, I thoroughly enjoyed Saplings but I’m not sure if enough of it is concerned with the history of the time for you. However, it is very much of its period so it might be worth you giving it a go


  11. smithereens June 30, 2020 / 10:10 am

    I read Saplings thanks to Persephone Books, but I’d never heard of Ballet Shoes before. Saplings was indeed memorable. I thought that the weak mother was blamed quite a lot (a bit too much for my taste), but I enjoyed the novel!


    • Café Society June 30, 2020 / 11:28 am

      You really must read Ballet Shoes. Streatfeild is much better known in the UK for her children’s books that she is for her adult novels, probably because that’s really where she found her niche.


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