Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Whichart children lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is furthest away from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the dolls' houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet expected to 'save the penny and walk.'
Saving the penny and walking was a great feature of their childhood.
Sounds familar? That's because The Whicharts is Noel Streatfeild's adult prototype for Ballet Shoes, one of my all-time favourite books as a ballet-mad little girl. I read it again quite recently when I bought a copy for my niece (who thought it was far too old-fashioned and silly, but then she won't read anything unless it's by Jacqueline Wilson). Reading it as an adult, I picked up on hints that had sailed over my head all those years ago ... that underlying tawdriness of Madame Fidolia's Children's Academy, where all those tap-dancing little popsies learn to eke a living in panto. Remember the photographs of past pupils? These were signed: 'To dear Madame Fidolia from Little Doris,' or 'Babsy,' or 'Baby Cora', or names like that.' Did I spare a thought for Babsy's moral welfare and whether she grew up no better than what she oughter be?
And when GUM - Great-Uncle Matthew - came back from his expeditions with one motherless baby after another, and some preposterous explanations as to how he acquired them ... Did I ever think, 'Hah, a likely story indeed?' I didn't. (Of course, if I'd read any Jacqueline Wilson they couldn't have pulled the wool over my eyes.)
The Whicharts, written in 1931 - five years before it was rehashed as a story more suitable for children - is Ballet Shoes for cynics. Which I found utterly disconcerting, especially as some passages are almost word for word exactly the same. GUM is recast as the libidinous Brigadier who has a habit of dumping his illegitimate offspring onto Howdy/Garnie, who this time round isn't his niece, she's his discarded mistress. When the Brigadier is killed during WWI, and money runs short, his three daughters are enrolled in the Madame Elise Academy. Maimie is the eldest, as blonde and lovely as Pauline Fossil ... but she's a hard-bitten chorus girl who loses her virginity at 16 to a well-known impresario and accepts gifts of money for 'being nice' to married men.
Tania, whose mother was Russian, is completely recognisable as the Petrova character, gauche and rather shy, and much keener on motorcars and aeroplanes than on dancing.
Daisy has Posy's red curls and her gift for dance ... but her future lies with rich, vulgar grandparents in Surbiton not with some version of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
As you might well imagine, reliable old Nannie has to turn a blind eye to goings-on ... 'It mayn't be what we're used to, I says, But theatricals is a trashy lot.'
Oh dear, oh dear ... I gobbled up The Whicharts with a kind of horrible fascination on Easter Sunday afternoon. (I do think the new edition ought to come with some kind of preface to put it in context. But it doesn't.) It's terribly clunkily written and no wonder that it vanished into obscurity for 80 years.
And now I feel rather saddened by my own loss of innocence. Because Ballet Shoes has been irretrievably tarnished.


rachel said...

Having read neither, I got a bit muddled here, but am now tempted to buy The Whicharts despite the clunkiness you mention!

mary said...

You would be muddled if you'd never read Ballet Shoes, Rachel! Sorry, I thought it was such a classic that people would know the story. (Okay, I admit! I was too lazy to write a longer review!)
But, actually, if you're tempted I'd start with Ballet Shoes. There's not much point to The Whicharts unless you're thinking, Ooh, that's just like Pauline/Petrova/Posy.

Sue said...

I recognized the opening lines straight away. How funny, I must reread Ballet Shoes again.

mary said...

It felt quite surreal reading it from the Dark Side, Sue!

Vintage Reading said...

I'd like to read this to compare the two. How interesting that Streatfeild re-wrote it. I like all the thriftiness and the making of clothes in Ballet Shoes.

On the subject of ballet-mad girls, I was reading a review of Barbara Trapido's new novel Sex and Stravinksy which features a young girl who devours ballet-books. I think I'll read it!

mary said...

Well, she was certainly thrifty recycling her first book into a best-seller, Nicola!
I hadn't come across the Barbara Trapido. I've only read one or two of her very early ones.