Susan Scarlett, Pirouette

Everything relates to my thesis right now, even when Noel Streatfeild is writing ballet stories.

From a recent column.

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 Until quite near the end the most (or possibly only) surprising thing about Susan Scarlett’s Pirouette is that its author is really Noel Streatfeild. The author, who is best known for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, though her brilliant The Painted Garden has featured in this column before, also wrote fiction for adults – including twelve romances under this pen name.

Ballet Shoes is the story of the Fossil sisters, Posy, Pauline and Petrova. Posy is a naturally talented dancer who is given private lessons by the kindly Madame Fidolia, negotiates poverty, learns not to be insufferable to her sisters, and grows up to bepirouette a successful ballet dancer. Pirouette is very different. It is the story of Judith Nell, a talented young ballet dancer acting out her mother’s thwarted ambitions for her without really thinking about it much (Judith’s lack of thought or personality is as valuable to her employer Madame Tania as her dancing skills), when she meets, and is proposed to by, a friend’s brother and has to choose between marriage and a career. Unsurprisingly, she chooses marriage. Streatfeild is brilliant at character in her children’s books as well as her adult ones, but Judith doesn’t give her much scope. For plot purposes she’s something of a cipher, and that fact makes her romance uninteresting—and makes Paul Conquest’s love for her a bit foolish (what is there to fall in love with?) as well.

Far more interesting is Judith’s mother, flawed and infuriating in the manner of one of the less pleasant L. M. Montgomery characters, and contrasted with her kindly husband in familiar Mr and Mrs Bennet style. Mrs Nell’s neglect of her Judith’s younger brother in favour of her daughter (Mr Nell’s neglect is less of an issue) leads young Tim Nell to act out, lie, and eventually steal. And this is where things possibly get interesting—friends of the family advise the Nells to send him abroad.

“The right place for a boy to make a new start is the Commonwealth; more room for a boy who’s kicked over the traces a bit at home.” This in itself is not unfamiliar—Victorian literature often suggests that the whole of the British empire exists as a sort of reformatory school for British children, there solely to provide an occasion for said children to develop their characters. Adventure novels have their protagonists develop heroism through traversing unchartered terrain; more domestic novels send off the unsatisfactory younger son or the school bully to the colonies to sort them out (the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser do wonderful things with this trope). And that’s not even touching on the real history of penal transportation. What’s interesting to me is that the Nells do not choose to avail of this opportunity. “No, I think the Commonwealth deserves nothing but the best and I’m sorry to say the best is not my Tim, not as he is now.”

Pirouette was published in 1948, well into a number of freedom movements across the empire and after the independence of India. But this idea that Britain owes the Commonwealth a duty of care, rather than the latter existing for the convenience of the former, interests me. It’s far from being an ideal political stance—the comic image it creates is of Britain as nurturing patriarch to a loving global family—but I’m curious as to when and by what degrees this attitude crept into the mainstream. I’ve been reading Nick Harkaway’s 2014 novel Tigerman recently, and that too is struggling with the question (in a very self-aware, 2014 kind of way) of the question of Britain’s relationship with what was once its empire.

In the event, the Nell and Conquest families each send their two eldest children to Rhodesia on the promise that an uncle in that country will find jobs for them. It remains to be seen whether these young people are examples of “the best” that Mr Nell thinks the Commonwealth deserves.

 

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