Reading this, the adult book which Noel Streatfeild adapted to create Ballet Shoes, was a very strange experience indeed. It was a bit like finding out that your sweet little old auntie had a disreputable past about which you’d had no idea. Sleaze. Grooming. Mistresses. Illegitimate children. Going after married men for their money. This is not what I’m used to from Noel Streatfeild! And, although it was meant as an adult book, some of the writing was quite simplistic, which made it even stranger. As a stand alone book, it’s something that you’d read once, quite enjoy, but probably never read again. As a Hall of Mirrors version of Ballet Shoes, it’s fascinating, in a rather weird kind of way.
Well, we’ve still got the three girls, although they’re Maimie, Tania and Daisy rather than Pauline, the ridiculously-named Petrova, and Posy. And they’re still, respectively, an actress, a would-be mechanic and pilot who dislikes the stage, and a dancer. But, rather than being three orphans whom GUM randomly collected, they’re the three illegitimate children of a rakish brigadier (a very Edwardian type – probably had mutton chop whiskers, used sandalwood aftershave, smoked expensive cigars and played billiards), by three different mistresses. And, rather than being his niece, their guardian, Rose, is his discarded long-term mistress, whom he dumped when he met Maimie’s mother. Rose takes in the first two women (not simultaneously!) and, after they’ve given birth, they ride off into the sunset and she takes on the babies. She then also takes on Daisy, whose mother died of, presumably, childbirth fever. I’m not sure what’s more unrealistic, GUM collecting orphans or this. Where on earth is Rose’s self-respect?!
However, Rose is a very attractive character. Like Sylvia, she’s devoted to the children. Unlike Sylvia, when the money runs out – in this, darker, version of events, Mr Serial Seducer dies, whereas GUM just goes missing for a while and then turns up safe and well -, she gets a job. It’s in a wartime munitions factory: this book starts in the Edwardian period, rather than the inter-war period. There are boarders, but they don’t feature much, whereas they’re key characters in Ballet Shoes. There is a kindly mechanic who helps out Tania, but he doesn’t live with them. There is, however, still a devoted Nannie, who stays on even when there’s no money to pay her full salary (Noel Streatfeild is obsessed with devoted old nannies). And a cook.
Rose herself then also dies, so the girls – and Nannie, of course – are left to fend for themselves. As I said, this is a much darker version of events. Daisy doesn’t feature much, unfortunately – and surprisingly. Posy re-emerges in a different guise as Lydia in the Gemma books, Nicky in Tennis Shoes, and arguably as other characters too: she was obviously a character of whom Streatfeild thought a lot, so I’m surprised that Daisy isn’t a stronger character here. Tania, however, is the one whose mind we really get into – she’s fascinating. And very little changes from Tania to Petrova.
Maimie, on the other hand, is a big shock, though. She’s certainly nothing like Pauline. She decides early on that what she needs is a man with money. Not a husband, or even a keeper – that’d mean being tied to one man. Just a lover with money. It’s not clear whether or not she deliberately goes after married men, but her men are all married. There’s an uncomfortable episode in which she’s groomed by a sleazy theatre manager, to whom she succumbs. In the MeToo era, this would be seen as abuse. In a different time, it’s not, as she is not forced, but it’s not very pleasant. We don’t get the detail, but we see her worrying in case she’s fallen pregnant. I really wasn’t expecting all that in a Streatfeild book. That was a long way from Ballet Shoes.
So was Maimie’s whole attitude. Interestingly, we hear Phyllis, a wardrobe mistress with whom Tania becomes friendly, musing about how she herself has always stuck to the straight and narrow, and all she’s got out of it is a thankless, low-paid job, and the as yet unfulfilled hope that she might strike lucky and marry a nice man, who’ll probably also have a thankless, low-paid job … whereas Maimie, by using her face and figure to ensnare married men, breaking all sorts of moral codes and without doing any work, is living the Life of Riley. Plenty of people must have thought that at one time or another …
A small note on diversity and religion. Maimie’s main lover, one Herbert Rosen, is Jewish. He doesn’t bother with religion any more, but (probably?) identifies as being Jewish. Maimie’s first crush is also Jewish, although he hardly features at all: she goes off him when she finds out that he sells socks. That doesn’t carry across into Ballet Shoes … well, obviously not, as Pauline doesn’t have any lovers, or even any crushes! I just picked up on it because there’s not a lot of religious diversity in Girls’ Own books. Elinor M Brent-Dyer is unusual in having so many Catholic characters. And one agnostic, although the poor girl is forced to attend church services. Antonia Forest has one Jewish character. And Noel Streatfeild has the kindly Jewish uncle in Curtain Up. But there aren’t many characters who aren’t Protestant.
Oh, and there’s, there’s a strange episode in which Maimie temporarily goes very High Church because she’s got a girl crush on a teacher who’s very High Church, and Tania, Daisy and even the narrative make fun of her. What was that about? The bishop’s daughter making fun of someone’s religious beliefs and practices?!
So, the three girls are very different. As are the Fossils, but there’s much more of a bond between them than there is between the Whicharts. The name, incidentally, comes about because they misunderstand the Lord’s Prayer and think that their father’s surname must have been Whichart – “Our Father Whichart in Heaven”. That was quite good! There’s no “let’s make the name famous and no-one will be able to say that it was because of our grandfathers” scene. It’s a lovely scene, that one in Ballet Shoes, but there just isn’t that bond here. Maimie and Daisy are both reluctant to move out because it’d mean leaving Tania on her own, but that’s only because of guilt, not because they don’t want to be parted from their sisters.
And, in the end, they do go their own ways. Daisy goes to live with her maternal grandparents, who turn up looking for her. Tania goes off to find her mother, in a totally bonkers episode which sees her, aged 16 and without a driving licence, drive all the way from London to somewhere near Carlisle, find out that her mother’s moved down south, sleep in the car overnight, and then drive all the way to the Sussex coast … whereupon her mother whisks her off on a cruise to Java. No, me neither! And Maimie, we presume, is set up in a nice flat by Herbert. It’s quite sad, really – but, then again, it looks as if they’ll all be happy, in their own ways, so maybe it isn’t.
Life isn’t always easy, in Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books. But it’s always fairly innocent. It isn’t here. I haven’t read any of her other adult books, so I don’t know what they’re like, but I can’t think of any other example of an adult book, especially one with a fair bit of sleaze and seediness (by the standards of 1931, when this was published), being adapted into a book for little girls. And it’s such a classic, as well. It’s very strange.
This is a rather silly book, to be honest. Rose taking in the three kids, and Tania’s mad drive up and down the country, aren’t very convincing. But it’s quite interesting, in its way. However, it was impossible for me to read it without comparing it to Ballet Shoes every step of the way, and, as I’ve said, it was like being in a Hall of Mirrors. I don’t think I’ll be reading it again, but I’m glad that I have read it, just to see what it was like.