Ballet Shoes: A Story of Three Children on the Stage, is a children’s novel written by the English author Noel Streatfeild. Published in 1936, it is one of the earliest career novels, a genre that emerged almost simultaneously in the USA and Britain. The story concerns the discovery of the emerging talents of three young sisters, who are forced into becoming professional performers by financial necessity, even though one of them has no interest in, or talent for ballet, instead dreaming of working with aircraft.
The peak in popularity of the career novels in Britain was from the mid to late 1950s, when the variety of jobs open to female school-leavers was widening, and paid employment was beginning to be seen less as a stop-gap between leaving school and marriage. The career novels filled a niche in providing girls with information about alternatives to full-time domesticity, within a fictional narrative.
In 2019 Ballet Shoes was included in a list of the 100 most influential novels chosen by a panel of curators, writers and critics commissioned by the BBC.
The novel centres on the three adopted Fossil sisters:[a] Pauline, Petrova and Posy. Each of the girls is discovered as a baby by Matthew Brown (Great-Uncle-Matthew, known as “Gum”), an elderly, absentminded palaeontologist and professor, during his world travels, and sent home to his great-niece, Sylvia and her childhood nanny, Nana.
Gum embarks upon an expedition of many years and arranges for money to support the family while he is gone. But he does not return in the promised five years, and the money is almost gone. As they have no way to contact or track him down, Sylvia and Nana take in boarders to make ends meet, including Mr. Simpson and his wife, Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith, a pair of tutors who take over the children’s schooling after Sylvia can no longer afford their school fees, and Miss Theo Dane, a dance teacher who arranges for the children to begin classes at the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training.
Pauline finds she has a talent and passion for acting, while Petrova discovers that she hates acting and dancing. Posy has a real talent for dancing. When she is about six, Madame Fidolia, a famous and retired Russian dancer, gives Posy private lessons, something she has never done before. As the children mature, they take on some of the responsibility of supporting the household. Much of the drama comes from the friction between the sisters, and from balancing their desire to help support the family financially against the laws limiting the amount of time they may spend on stage. When Pauline is picked for a lead part the early success goes to her head, because of which the producer replaces her with her understudy – although only for a single performance, not permanently as portrayed in the BBC’s 2007 adaptation. Pauline thus learns enough humility to balance her talent, and goes on to play many successful leading roles.
Posy is developing into a brilliant ballet dancer, but she clashes with her sisters, as she is so focused on dancing that she is insensitive about anything that gets in her way. Petrova is not interested in the performing arts, and has little talent for them, but must keep attending classes and performing to help support the family; she has her own dream of working with aircraft.
The book ends with Pauline going off to Hollywood to make a film, accompanied by Sylvia. Posy is going to a ballet school in Prague, accompanied by Nana. Petrova wonders what will become of her, as she is too young to live on her own and has no interest in dance or acting. At this moment, Gum arrives. He has been away for so long that he does not recognise who the three girls are at first, but after realising they are the three babies he left behind all those years ago, he decides he will take Petrova under his wing and help her achieve her dream.
Ballet Shoes was an instant success, to the extent that Hatchard’s bookshop in Piccadilly, London decided to ration customers to one copy each. The book has never been out of print, and remains “a classic of 20th-century children’s fiction”. Streatfeild herself though was less convinced of the quality of her work, recalling that “The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself … I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book.”
In 1975 the BBC broadcast a six-part children’s series based on the Ballet Shoes. A feature-length adaptation followed in 2007, starring Emma Watson, Yasmin Paige and Lucy Boynton as the three sisters, Victoria Wood as Nana, and Emilia Fox as Sylvia.
- The girls’ unusual surname was invented because their rescuer, “Gum”, is a fossil hunter.