Friday, February 5, 2010

Reading for comfort: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Pauline, Petrova and Posy are the three wards of Gum, short for Great Uncle Matthew--a fossil collector that travels all over the world. He places the girls, as babies, into the capable hands of his niece Sylvia and Nana, her nurse. Pauline he rescues from a shipwreck; Petrova is an orphan of Russian parents; and Posy is the daughter of a great dancer, a single mother who can't afford to keep her. They are all brought one by one to the house in the Cromwell Road, and then Gum disappears on his longest trip away yet. Desperate for money, Sylvia, whom the girls call Garnie (a shortened form of "Guardian"), takes in borders. Each border is highly influential on the girls' lives, and it is decided that they shall learn dancing and acting in order for them to earn a little money once they are twelve. All three from vastly different backgrounds, they exhibit varied talents and hopes for the future. The vow they make on their birthdays each year binds them together: that they put Fossil, the last name they choose for themselves, in the history books.

When I was a child I had an audio book of Ballet Shoes, read by Jan Francis, that I listened to many, many times. I was a ballet student at the time, and although I wasn't very good I absolutely loved my dance classes. I loved the ballet-pink tights and white leotards; the older girls in their pointe shoes; the chalk powder on the stage at the end of year performances. I found Ballet Shoes so fascinating. The girls came from another world, one of shillings and proper teas and whooping cough. I loved how they, at such a young age, were able to begin earning money on the stage to help with the running of the household. How new clothes were always such an issue as they needed nice dresses for auditions, and they would buy organdie and velvet in yards and Nana and Cook and Clara would run the dresses up in one mad afternoon.

I bought a sweet hardcover edition recently to read again, and I was surprised to find that the audio version that I'd loved was slightly abridged. It was a real treat, because it meant now I was able to read even more Ballet Shoes! The best comfort books, I think, are favourites from your childhood. When I'm feeling blue I also love to reread the Narnia books and a beautiful fairytale-style story called The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye.

Now older, I was able to sympathise a lot more with Petrova Fossil. As a girl I was fascinated with Pauline, the actress, and Posy, the prima ballerina-in-the-making. Petrova is probably the most likable and authentic of the three girls, the one who hides her distaste for dancing as they so desperately need the money she can bring in as a dancer. Pauline, as the eldest, feels responsibility the keenest, and in the end makes the biggest sacrifice of all. I'm the baby of my family--well, the youngest of two--and while I find Pauline noble, I didn't identify much with her, now or as a child. Posy was always my favourite, for her sense of fun and her love of dancing. At the end of the novel the author invites the reader to choose which Fossil they would choose to be. I always wanted to be Posy. I still want to be Posy, but I have a new found love for Petrova, despite not having a great affection for cars and aeroplanes.

Which Fossil did you want to be? Also, has anyone seen the film version of Ballet Shoes? Is it good?

As I said the other day, I had a very bad weekend. I broke up with my boyfriend. It was very sudden. Very heart-breaking. It's a mixed blessing being the one who gets to keep the apartment. Coming home and seeing holes in places where his things used to be, or our things that he has taken, has been a very distressing experience. So is walking the streets around here, where we lived together for more than a year, and seeing "our" cafe and walking "our" route home. We had nearly three years together. They went so fast, and they were very happy ones.

On Wednesday I got the terrible news that a family member had died. It was unexpected, untimely and tragic. I still don't know why it happened. I don't understand at all.

Thank you for all the lovely messages that have been sent. I will try and reply to them individually very soon. I haven't been reading as many posts as I meant to these last few weeks, and there are several blogs that I always like to comment on. I'm sorry for my absence, and I will be back to myself anon.

Meanwhile, which books do you read for comfort? Lauren said she had a big list to share with me. Do share, Lauren!


  1. I want to read Ballet Shoes. Haven't gotten around to it yet...

    The movie was fairly entertaining. I can't compare it to the book, though.

  2. I didn't know about the hard time you've been going through. I hope the future will be brighter for you soon.

  3. i saw ballet shoes last year, and i liked it. not loved it, just liked it. i didn't like posy at all, i thought of her as a very conceited person, pauline was all right, i liked how driven she was, and could see myself in her shoes, and i found petrova to be very likeable. it was a really fun film, and i especially enjoyed the scenes where the girls acted in the theatre. emma watson did a really nice job playing pauline.

    as for the book, i haven't read it, but it's on my wishlist as of now.

  4. La Cocinelle--I think you'd like the book :)

    Elle--Thank you so much

    Ella--In the book Posy's "conceit" is discussed by the other sisters, and they agree that in a strange way she's not conceited at all, merely truthful because she is a brilliant dancer. It's difficult to explain, but I doubt it comes across that way on screen. Do let me know what you think when you read it.

  5. I'm so sorry you're having a horrible time, I hope life takes a turn for the better soon. My Dad used to say when you're going through hell, keep going!

    The Pursuit of Love and Little Women are my comfort books.

  6. I'm so sorry Rhiannon. :(
    I have a lot of go-to comfort books, and they're all old. Something about escaping to an earlier time where, even though in real life things weren't easier or nicer, in literature they were simple and rose-colored -- works every time.
    I read P&P (of course -- read more than any other book), Persuasion, Anne of Green Gables, Little Men and An Old Fashioned Girl. Love those books so much, and they always make me feel happy and comfortable and at peace. Hope your happy books comfort you until things start to be better.

  7. Hey, I'm really sorry that things are sucking so much right now. Why is that bad crap seems to happen all at once??

    I hate to be lame, but my comfort books are Harry Potter. What can I say, they make me happy! I also like to watch the BBC P & P miniseries. Mr. Darcy makes everything okay!!

    I hope you're feeling better soon

  8. As a kid, my mother used to say she knew how sick I was by the books I was reading. If I was just sick, it was Lord of the Rings, if I was quite ill, it was Narnia and if I was really ill, I didn't read.

    Nowadays, whilst those books remain comfort books, I would also add several Neville Shute's "Pastoral", "The Far Country", "Landfall" and "Trustee from the Toolroom". Whilst I didn't read these until I was in my teens or later, the strongly evoke the post World War II world of my early childhood in many ways. I return to them (and several other Neville Shute books) when I am tired and emotional.

    Mind you, care is needed with Neville Shute as some of his books are quite sad ("Requiem for a Wren") or really bleak ("On the Beach").

    For those of you who don't know Neville Shute's novels, they are well worth exploring. I am not sure if his books are in print, but you can find them in second hand bookshops!

  9. So sorry about your sad news--I hope the books bring some comfort, or at least a brief escape.

    Ballet Shoes is a favorite comfort read of mine too.

  10. I was wondering why M.M Kaye's named looked familiar and then I realized I have The Far Pavilions at home (gotten in the past few months, not read yet). I'll have to check out Ordinary Princess now. It sounds lovely.

    My comfort read has always been Anne of Green Gables, and I recently reread it in college.

    I hope things start to pick up for you soon. Sending happy thoughts your way!

  11. I'm really sorry to hear you've been having such an awful time, and I hope you'll be doing a little better soon.

    Ballet Shoes is such a wonderful nostalgic book. I reread it last year and I also have more of a fondness for Petrova now I'm older too. Posy's still my favourite though.

    I've made a comfort-reading shelf on my goodreads just in case you need any more inspiration for comforting childhood reads. Now I've started, I'm sure I'll remember a *lot* more to add. But here's the highlights so far:

    A Little Princess - Frances Hogdson Burnett
    Theatre Shoes - Noel Streatfeild
    The Starlight Barking - Dodie Smith
    Charlotte Sometimes - Penelope Farmer
    Ramona Quimby, Age 8 - Beverley Cleary

    I think children's books are the best for comfort, definitely. I'd actually forgotten about The Ordinary Princess, but I had that exact edition as a child and I adored it.

  12. I love The Ordinary Princess. I also recommend Daddy-Long-Legs when looking for a comfort read. It's by Jean Webster and available online in places like Project Gutenberg as it is out of copyright.

    I'm so sorry life sucks right now. I hope it improves soon.

  13. Noel Streatfeild wrote a lot of children's books that I look back on with fondness. The ones I remember liking that weren't the most common ones were Caldicott Place and White Boots. I know some had different titles in the US. (I think White Boots got called Skating Shoes or something like that to go with the Ballet Shoes motif.) I also liked Wintle's Wonders, which no-one else ever seems to have heard of.

    Lauren, which one was Theatre Shoes? I'm sure that had a different name in the UK editions I read in New Zealand.

  14. I've never read Ballet Shoes, but will definitely check it out.

    So sorry to hear about your bad news, I do hope things start to look up for you. I know break-ups can be really terrible and messy, I hope it wasn't that bad. I also sincerely hope you find joy and happiness and a silver lining.

    As for comfort books, I'm partial to The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster, the Redwall series by Brian Jacques and clearly, Harry Potter.

  15. I'm so sorry to hear about your rough week. I'll be sending many good thoughts your way this weekend.

    I also loved Ballet Shoes as a kid and was mostly partial to Posy. She was fun! She was a dancer! All things I desperately wanted to be. The movie was very cute, however they changed a few scenes making it more 'audience' friendly. Which I thought a real shame because it couldn't have been a more perfect story in my book.

  16. Kerry - I think NZ might have had Theatre Shoes as Curtain Up. We did here in the UK. Another of my favourite of Noel Streatfeild's is The Painted Garden which is also known as Movie Shoes. I'm not really sure why someone's decided all her titles need to have the word 'shoes' in, but whatever... they're great books!

  17. Alexa--I just looked up The Pursuit of Love and the cover is your profile pic! I think I've seen an adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate and I liked it. Must read those two.

    Jade--Ah, Mr Darcy. And I haven't read the Harry Potter books STILL, even though I promised myself this summer I would.

    RobH--Ha! "Robert's not reading! Call the doctor!"

    Charlotte--Thanks, and I'm so glad you like Ballet Shoes too.

    PolishOutlander--Anne of Green Gables is a good one. I love when she gets Diana accidentally drunk!

    Lauren--RAMONA! Oh, she's just the best. I loved Ramona as a kid. Definitely worth buying these for my nostalgia shelf. How lovely is The Ordinary Princess? Lavender's blue / Rosemary's green / When I am king / You shall be Queen... Peregrine is a doll.

    Kerry--I must look up some more of Streatfeild's books. I've heart of Skate Shoes.

    April--Thank you :) I've heard of The Phantom Tollbooth but never read it.

    Michelle--Posy is so adorable. I wish I'd gone to Czechoslovakia to study under Manoff! I won't be in a hurry to see the film. It might inadvertently spoil the book for me.

    Lauren--Quite. What the hell are "Movie" Shoes anyway??

  18. I like reading childhood favorites and getting different perspectives on them now older.

    I'm so sorry about you're current difficult times. And my condolences to you and your family for your tragic loss. Take whatever time you need to heal.

    My comfort books are some old Meg Cabot - 1-800 series and The Mediator series - along with my two Dean Koontz favorites - Lightning and also Watchers.

    I hope you are reading lots of your comfort faves and that it helps you get through.

  19. Nice blog, I would like to say that I also recommend daddy long legs when you are looking for comfort reading. I love the Ordinary Princess too, thanks for the share.

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