‘Big Shoes and the Bishop of Fenchester’ by Hannah Smith

  • Big Shoes and the Bishop of Fenchester

    I have been thinking a lot recently about being a girl.

    I know that I am not a girl any more. At 32 I am surely, by any definition, a woman. But I grew up thinking of myself as a ‘little girl’ and then a ‘big girl’ and unless I actively police myself these are the words that slip off my tongue.

    I suppose that is not surprising. The books I read, the films I watched, the toys I played with all reinforced this world of thinking. My sister and I used to while away the hours riding our bikes in figure 8’s around the garden and playing a game in which we were two sisters riding our bikes in figure 8’s around a garden. We come to know the world we live in by the stories that we tell, and vis versa.

    I grew up on a diet of girlhood – and my appetite for it has not waned. Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, Lorde – in the current cultural moment I am surrounded by a chorus of strident girlish voices, and perhaps for the first time in history those two things are not mutually exclusive. These days we are being asked to look on ‘girlishness’ not as something precious, delicate, fluting or twee (although I am well aware these descriptors can be levelled at T.Swift) but as something powerful, articulate, inclusive. A loud voice. A stirring performance.

    In my reading time I immersed myself in an older world. Noel Streatfeild and Pamela Brown write about girlhood in a time before ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Royals’; before #yesallmen and even women’s suffrage in Switzerland. In these books devastatingly talented heroines devote themselves to careers in the arts, whilst learning to shoulder the burden of emotional labour that is their feminine lot. They learn lessons, they face inner demons, and they come to terms with themselves as artists and as humans.

    In the ‘Blue Door’ series by Pamela Brown a group of neighbourhood children turn a disused hall into an ad hoc theatre, slowly learn the ins and outs of producing work for the stage, and come to find that the theatre is the only life for them. Against an economic backdrop of post-war England, the children beg props from beleagured pawnbrokers, stitch elaborate ballgowns from meagre curtain lining, and constuct false moustaches from their mother’s cut-off ringlets. The power of theatre is transformative, they take the humdrum, the meagre and banal, and create friendship, magic and beauty.

    As the children do their darndest to make theatre on a budget, their parents chat fretfully over the fence about their future – worrying that Sandra, who is so good at cooking, wants to become a costumier, Jeremy would rather play the violin than become an accountant, and Lyn, who is hopeless at everything except acting, has no interest in becoming an English teacher. The parents are determined to force their children into taking up real careers, and their salvation comes only through the timely intervention of the Bishop of Fenchester (as it so often does). This unlikely hero is a fervent advocate for the arts, and ultimately convinces the doubting families to let their children follow their passions both to preserve their familial relationships, and as their civic duty. “As a lover of Fenchester, I feel the need for a good theatre. Although they do not know it at the moment, people would relish good drama, were it made possible”.

    “But what we don’t want to happen,” the fathers complain, “is for our girls to come home with false and superficial values”.

    But of course, this is something the books could never allow to happen. In both Brown and Streatfeild the path to artistry is accompanied by a twin path to selfhood. The girls must learn that being a star on stage does not mean getting to be selfish in real life and whilst their voices might be loud, you would never call them strident. While Lyn basks in the applause as she enjoys a star turn in the children’s award-winning production of “Saddler’s Circus”, she has also painted the set, swept the floor boards, and pasted up the posters around the town. Childhood dreams can come true, but only with a solid underpinning of grit and determination.

    Noel Streatfeild’s books follow a reliable pattern. Her ‘Shoes’ series (Ballet Shoes, Circus Shoes, Skating Shoes, Theatre Shoes… you get the picture) are all cut from the same cloth – straitened circumstance, undeniable talent, and the siren song of the stage. In ‘Ballet Shoes,’ her best known book, three orphans are adopted by an absent-minded as well as physically absent guardian – and are then forced to go on the stage to make enough money to feed and clothe the family. They support their elderly nurse, and kind-hearted but distressingly incompetent adopted Aunt Sylvia, by performing in Christmas pantomimes and Shakespearean plays.

    There are many aspects of this that seem laughable from a modern viewpoint. My Facebook feed is littered with friends who couldn’t feed their cat with the money they made from putting up their last Shakespearean play. A parodic article on the Toast lists as one of its signifiers of “How to tell if you’re in a Noel Streatfeild novel”:

    Something unfortunate has happened to your family, meaning they have to pour every single one of their resources into making sure you and your siblings achieve your talents, so you can go out and earn money. Yes, you are now expected to keep your family in porridge and organdy, even though you are nine years old and have never taken a single ballet or acting or music lesson.

    The book ends with Pauline – the oldest and most beautiful – signing on to a five year contract with a Hollywood studio in order to fund her youngest sister, Posy’s, training with the Czechoslovakian ballet. It is nonsensical and aspirational, and funny – but in some other way it is also deeply satisfying. Rather than taking up as nurses or teachers, or wives (there is very little in the way of happy marriages in Noel Streatfeild’s world), these girls become artists. And while some of them are born with astonishing talents (Posy from Ballet Shoes, Anna from Ballet Shoes for Anna, insert-other-identical-ballerina-character-from-any-of-the-other-books-here) the books focus on discipline, training, hard work and good luck as essential ingredients to success.

    Prior to Ballet Shoes, Streatfeild wrote an adult version of the same novel The Whicharts – essentially the same story told from an adult perspective – with more sordid details and less plum pudding. In The Whicharts’ the three girls are half-sisters – illegitimate daughters of the erstwhile guardian. His death leaves them penniless and they take to the stage to survive, though the difficulties they face (seduction by skeezy theatre directors, tawdry and unpleasant working conditions) are more ‘realistic’ than those of Ballet Shoes. Margaret Mahy, in a personal essay “The Dissolving Ghost” (Sport: Winter:1991) considers the murky relationship between the dream presented in Ballet Shoes, and the less comfortable reality of The Whicharts.

    “…As an adult reading Ballet Shoes I am now always aware of that ghostly other story, that extra truth, and something about the nature of my adult experience makes me think that The Whicharts is the truer story. I think Ballet Shoes is a better book for what it is than The Whicharts for what it is, and yet for all that I feel I have unfair knowledge, for I can’t help including what I know of the adult story as part of the truth of Ballet Shoes. I say to myself, ‘This is what was really happening, but we couldn’t tell the kids…’

    Of course these books don’t present ‘the truth’ of a life on stage, or of what being a girl is, and of course, there isn’t just one truth anyway. As Mahy’s essay says, story presents its own arguments as to what is ‘true’, and Noel Streatfeild novels for children, whilst old-fashioned and middle-class and fluffy, are also full of exceptional women choosing to live unconventional lives.

    Recently The Otago Daily Times published an article calling for the public to vote on the ‘most notable resident’ in Dunedin’s history. The article put forward a list of 17 nominees complied by local historians including architects, artists, public servants and business people. Not one of the 17 nominated ‘notable characters’ was female, and several pretty remarkable Dunedin residents (Janet Frame, Frances Hodgkins, Ethel Benjamin) did not make the cut. The paper defended accusations of institutionalized sexism claiming that while it was “regrettable”, that “with one person per decade, there wasn’t space for women”. It seems hard to believe, but in many public spaces this kind of thinking still dominates, and the ‘Great Man’ narrative masks the contributions women make to society, rendering their input invisible. We can’t cycle in figure 8’s around the garden forever, and girls need to be able to see women who matter making a difference, if they are to grow up to be women themselves. We come to know the world we live in by the stories that we tell.

    While it seems madness to run a household on the income of a twelve-year-old ballerina, and most of New Zealand’s theatres would want a good look at the Blue Door’s budgets, there is value in presenting this vision of pathways and possibilities. I work in the theatre, and one of the most common questions that people ask me is “what do you really do?” by which they mean (I presume) “how do you pay your rent?” It’s a valid question – one I have to ask myself at least once a month. Financial stability is a ‘nice-to-have’ and we often don’t have it at our house. The Bishop of Fenchester has never come by to placate my mother. But I do pay my rent, and I am an artist, and I think I have just about sufficient porridge and organdie to see out the winter.


    Hannah’s Reading List

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