Theatre women: Female characters in Streatfeild’s _Ballet Shoes_

As noted in my previous entry, I was cutting the Moomin books some slack on the gender-roles front because they were written in the 1940s. But then I read Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, which has pleasingly reminded me that it was possible to write three-dimensional female characters even in the 1930s.

I don't think I had ever heard of Streatfeild or her Shoes books until Susan mentioned them at WisCon this year. They sounded really intriguing, so I picked up the first one, and quite enjoyed it.

I gather that these books are still widely read by American girls. I wonder whether I did hear of them, along with all the other girl-oriented classic books that I did read (Little Women, Ruth Sawyer's awesome Roller Skates, Little House, etc), but didn't bother reading them because I was uninterested in ballet. If so, my loss.

The backstory of Ballet Shoes is that a woman named Sylvia has a Great-Uncle Matthew (known as Gum), who has found three orphaned girls in his travels, and has sent them all to live with Sylvia. The oldest girl is good at acting; the youngest is good at dancing; and the middle one, naturally, is good at fixing cars.

Gum has been away, without any contact, for several years, so Sylvia takes on boarders in order to pay the bills: a (female) dancing teacher; a husband and wife (the husband is into cars); and two “lady doctors,” one a teacher of literature and one of mathematics, who (very subtextually) might or might not be a couple. (They have separate rooms, but they seem to spend all their time together, including vacations and recuperating from illness, and they don't seem to have or want men in their lives. But there's definitely nothing to explicitly indicate that they're anything other than platonic friends.) There are also a few female servants: a nanny, a cook, and a maid. So the household ends up consisting of eleven women and girls, and one man.

I found the book mostly charming, with a quirky sense of humor, very likeable characters, and an engaging storyline, though the plot (such as it is) is a little unfocused, and the structure/pacing gets a bit disorienting at times. I glazed over a little at the detailed descriptions of clothing, but I imagine lots of readers would find those parts engaging. And I love the matter-of-factness of the lady doctors, and everyone's casual acceptance of Petrova's interest in cars and aeroplanes.

Another way to put that is that I love that the book casually provides so many different examples of ways for women to have careers and live their lives. Some women are dancers or actors; some keep boarding-houses and raise children; some are servants; some are professors of literature or mathematics; some are aeroplane mechanics and pilots. They teach each other; they're friends and siblings and colleagues to each other; they have personalities and concerns; sometimes they're rivals; sometimes they support each other. For all I know, a lot of books for girls are like this; but it's not something I see much in work that isn't specifically aimed at girls per se.

On a side note, I'm not quite sure what to make of the class stuff. On the one hand, the family is relatively poor—the girls need to go to dancing/theatre school so that they can start making money as actors to support the family by the time they're twelve, and there's a lot of making-do about clothing and food and such. On the other hand, the family lives in a big house and has three servants (though Nana is deferring her salary), and they seem to take some class markers for granted. I guess what I'm seeing is carryover from a culture where anyone above a certain class level took the presence of servants for granted, as a necessary household expense; but that always surprises me when I come across it in fiction.

One more side note: When I first heard the author's name, I was uncertain whether they were male or female, but I thought I had checked to be sure, and found him to be male. Only that can't have happened, because in fact she's female. I'm not sure what happened there. It was a little disorienting, halfway through writing this entry (and after reading two-thirds of the book), to check Wikipedia and discover that I had the author's gender wrong.

Anyway. Overall, I very much enjoyed this book.

I had been assuming that the other books in the “shoes” series followed the further adventures and lives of Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, but it turns out that the other books are about other characters; I gather that the only major recurring “character” is the dance-and-acting school, though the protagonists of this book do appear as relatively minor characters in at least one of the other books. (Most of the other books didn't originally have the word “shoes” in their titles; the titles were changed to make connection to the popular first book.)

Looking at the summaries of a couple of the other books, it looked to me like Streatfeild had a penchant for writing about pairs or trios of orphans who end up having to go to dance and/or theatre school and end up becoming performing-arts prodigies, which seemed to me to be a rather specific niche; but I gather that there's more variation in the other books than that description would suggest.

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