I adored all Noel Streatfeild’s books as a child, particularly the ones involving children training for the stage because I had rather a hankering to do that myself at the time. Ballet Shoes was the first one I read and I found all the stage school bits fascinating; the discipline, the auditions, life at the theatres, the sheer hard work of it all.
The charm of the book was hugely increased for me by the lovely, simple black and white illustrations by Ruth Gervis. She had a wonderful knack of capturing character in a few lines and draws children, with all their earnestness and awkwardness, beautifully.
The way that quite young children in the book were earning money, not to spend on themselves but to keep their families afloat financially, was an eye opener. Streatfeild writes brilliantly about the constant counting of every penny, how the children have to borrow, lend and improvise, even ‘pawning’ all of their treasured necklaces to raise money to buy Pauline an audition dress, so that the family wouldn’t have to bear the shame of her wearing her old, much-darned velvet.
The ‘family’ in the book is a rather fascinating and wide-ranging one, consisting of the three adopted but unrelated sisters, Pauline, Petrova (which I always pronounced PeTROva but never actually knew if that was correct) and Posy, plus Sylvia and Nana. As ever with Streatfeild’s child characters, the sisters are believable and very human, both as individuals and as siblings. Nana is a traditional and very splendid nurse; I was always amazed that Nana referred to Sylvia as Miss Brown to the children. It seemed extraordinarily formal. Sylvia is a less developed character but nevertheless the best sort of guardian, barely turning a hair as, out of the blue, her great-uncle drops three babies in her lap in quick succession, something that would surely make most single young women run screaming for the hills.
The rest of the ‘family’ consisted of the various lodgers in the house, all delightful and helpful and never appearing to hog the bathroom, throw loud parties or fall behind with the rent. I think actually that one of Streatfeild’s many attractions to a child reader is the fact that she makes so many lovely and sympathetic adults. In Ballet Shoes the teachers are firm and fair, the lodgers treat the children like their own, and any extraneous adults are in the same mould. How easy it would be, I used to think as a child, to be well-behaved if all adults were this delightful . . . .