My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book and I, we’ve known each other for a long long time. It is one of those books that has been in my life for forever, really, I can’t quite remember a time without it. Without Noel Streatfeild, without the Fossils and without Cromwell Road and Madame Fidolia. It is something I cannot quite conceive of, the unknowing of these things.
Ballet Shoes is beautiful, iconic in its way, a story of stage and screen and of destiny. It is a story about impact, about the value of that impact, and about making your mark on a world who barely notes you exist. It is wonderful. It is my heart and oh how it fits.
Pauline, Petrova and Posy (“Her name is Posy. Unfortunate, but true”) are foundlings, brought home by Great Uncle Matthew to his niece and her nanny. He is an adventerous soul, rather edibly Eccentrically English in his ways, and manages to bring the first of the girls home because “he had meant to bring Sylvia back a present. Now what could be better than this?” Petrova and Posy appear in similarly unusual circumstances and are promptly adopted into the swelling nursery.
It is then that Great Uncle Matthew (GUM) disappears for several, several years. With girls to look after and money running scarce, the newly named Fossil sisters, Sylvia and Nanny have to look into alternative strategies for funding. They get lodgers in (one, to Petrova’s delight, brings their car: “it was a citroen car, and it’s coming here as a boarder”) and it is because of those lodgers that the Fossils’ world is changed forever.
Streatfeild’s great skill as a writer is that she has purpose in her prose. It is a sort of intensely matter of fact style of writing; her children have a place to be and a purpose in their being there. Every child in a Streatfeild book has a vocation, found by hook or by crook, and they are intensely content once finding it. Petrova, in Ballet Shoes, is a revelation. It’s rare even now to see a girl in a book being surrounded by engines and cogs and yet Petrova is that girl and she’s being written in a book which first saw life in 1935.
Petrova is, I think, my favourite. She is vividly practical in her skills and her “yes, well, you can dance but I’m going to finish building my submarine now” attitude is an intense delight. It’s worth contrasting this attitude towards giftedness (the air of practical use and applicability of her skills) and contrast it against the more showy and impractical (I’m not sure if I mean that, but I’ll leave it for now) skills of Posy and Petrova.
It’s also interesting to note the crumpety-warm feeling of contentment that purveys this book. There are worrisome moments, yes, plenty, but there’s never quite the feeling of concern that things Will Go Wrong. Because they don’t, I don’t think, not in a Streatfeild book. They may go wrong initially but then, it is through that wrongness, that we find the right.
And, to be frank, if it did go wrong and remain wrong, Petrova would be more than capable of fixing it.