Noel Streatfeild, the children's novelist, came from a middle-class background, but worked as an actress for 10 years before starting to write. Ballet Shoes, her first children’s book, was published in 1936. She recalled, "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself ... I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book." But according to writer and playwright Samantha Ellis (and internal evidence), Ballet Shoes was a retread of an adult novel, The Whicharts. So much for the story “telling itself”.
To create the children’s book, she removed snobbery, cruelty, anti-Semitism – and sex – from the backstage story. The Whichart girls are three half-sisters, bastard children of a Brigadier, brought up by his devoted, discarded and childless mistress, Rose Howard. Though he leaves them some money and a house, they struggle financially until someone suggests to Rose that she send the children to stage school to learn to dance, and let out rooms to lodgers. (But they hang on to a nanny and a cook.)
From a young age, the three girls work in panto, and then the chorus of musical comedy – just as in Ballet Shoes. But they are not cute, innocent and whimsical – they are pettish, spiteful and amoral. Maimie, the eldest, quickly becomes the mistress of a theatrical impresario. When he drops her, she moves on to Herbert, who has made money in the garment trade. In the Ballet Shoes version, the girls live in a strange world in which they work, but don’t have boyfriends.
The Whicharts describes a world that has disappeared, in which children can work in the theatre from a very young age (eight?). After the war, rules became stricter, and dance academies trained children for a life that no longer existed.
Streafeild stresses that the eldest two children’s mothers come from “nice” backgrounds, as does Rose. The youngest child’s mother was a dancer from Balham, and this fact is quite frequently cast in her teeth. Daisy is the most talented of the three, but ends up moving in with her real grandparents who have moved up in the world and landed in Surbiton.
Through her characters, Streatfeild expresses her contempt of shabby theatrical lodgings and the people who stay in them. She has the prejudices of her era and class – despising “slop” (sentimentality) and “showing off”. The story is not aspirational, like Ballet Shoes – she does her best to make the life of the theatre sound unpleasant.
The eldest girl, Maimie, is pretty and a “show-off”, but not an inspired dancer. The middle child, Tania, is hard-working and competent, but would rather be a mechanic. Only the youngest, Daisy, is a natural dancer (those Balham genes). The other two sneer when she is marketed as a “child wonder”.
As the story becomes more about Tania, the "plain" one, it becomes a better read, especially when she falls in with some genial but incompetent Shakespeareans who are doomed to forever tour the provinces.
Streatfeild refutes some well-known platitudes. Tania ponders: “All that bunk people talked. ‘Life is what you make of it.’ All that muck!... Daisy would probably make money because she really could dance.”
As for Maimie, she becomes a chorus-girl and “This changed her.” (So much for “Change comes from within”.) She wishes she had more money. “Money can’t buy happiness, you know,” says Rose. “Oh, my God! Fancy handing that slop out to me... Look at us! Taking in boarders. Too few servants. Too few clothes. Us children dancing to help things out.” Brought up by the ladylike Rose, the children think of themselves as middle-class, like the other girls at their school.
When Maimie gets her hands on some money of her own, she buys “rubbishy, showy clothes”. But she wants a good time, and “a good time was going out with boys... in her new clothes she was a great success”. (So much for “inner beauty”.)
Tania “detests” going on tour. She “loathes” her lodgings. “...the woolly mats, the aspidistras, the enlargements of the landladies’ family, the curious smell of old food and dirty carpets, the shiny horsehair sofa with the stuffing coming out and all the springs broken... the bedrooms with the wallpaper hanging in shreds... the dreary row of equally awful little houses, the dirty paper blowing up the gutter...”
An aitch-dropping dresser (whose “humorous” speeches I skipped) notices that the sisters are "so obviously a cut above the other children.” Rose suggests some other careers to Tania: “Very nice people work in shops nowadays.” After Rose dies, Tania suggests pawning her jewellery to buy Daisy some audition clothes. “Nanny was really shocked. Pawn! Ladies and gentlemen didn’t pawn.” But she does.
Nanny’s name is Mrs Riggs, Daisy’s real family are Mr and Mrs Higgs – standard “working-class” names. Daisy describes the Higgs’ home: “Imagine! They’ve got the loveliest house with the neatest garden. All the flowers in rows – a different colour in each row – and such a pretty drawing-room – everything pink – and heaps of pink bows... And there were heaps of pictures all in bright gold frames... and lots of ferns – with green bows on them to match the carpet.”
Having discovered their granddaughter, the Higgs would “like to do well by her. Like her to have a chance of meeting really nice people. There were lots of nice boys growing up in the neighbourhood. Nice for Daisy to have a chance to meet nice boys...” Which is kind of them. We hope she meets and marries a nice boy. It’s suggested that Maimie turns down Herbert and breaks her heart over a married man. As for Tania... well, read it for yourself.
I would love to read Away from the Vicarage, the second volume of Streatfeild’s (fictional) autobiography, in which she becomes an actress in the 20s.
More literary snobbery here.