Petrova Fossil & Tania Whichart: Noel Streatfeild’s Literary Tomboys

Ballet Shoes - Noel Streatfeild

This intriguing look at Petrova Fossil, one of the three Fossil sisters of Noel Streatfeild’s best-known work of children’s literature, Ballet Shoes (1932),  is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in mid-20th Century Women’s Fiction by Francis Booth, reprinted with permission

Noel Streatfeild (1895 – 1986; note that she was a female author with a male-sounding first name and an unconventionally-spelled surname), was born in Sussex, England and was the daughter of the Bishop of Lewes.

She wrote several children’s books, of which Ballet Shoes – beautifully illustrated by her older sister – was the first and most well-known and well-loved by more than one generation of girls; her subsequent books were renamed by the publishers to have the word Shoes in the title, though in fact they are not a series.

 

Petrova Fossil  of Ballet Shoes (1932)

Like Jo March, Petrova in Ballet Shoes by is one of a group of sisters but very unlike the others. She is a different kind of tomboy to outdoorsy, sporty girls like Kate Chopin’s Charlie Laborde: she does not charge around on a horse or play boys’ games but loves staying in the house and tinkering with mechanical things, unlike her more conventionally feminine, artistic sisters Posy and Pauline.

Petrova is said to be ‘very stupid with her needle, but very neat with her fingers; she was working at a model made in Meccano. It was a difficult model of an aeroplane, meant for much older children to make.’

Like a conventional boy, Petrova ‘knows heaps about aeroplanes and motor-cars,’ and, like Carson McCullers’ Frankie Addams (of The Member of the Wedding), wants to be a pilot when she grows up.

When it is suggested that the sisters, who want to be famous for something artistic, learn ballet, Petrova does not seem to be ballet material.

‘Well, she won’t be good at it to my way of thinking, but it might be just the thing for her – turn her more like a little lady; always messing about with the works of clocks and that just like a boy; never plays with dolls, and takes no more interest in her clothes than a scarecrow.’ 

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Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

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Predictably, Petrova is bored by the dancing but finds something interesting to do at the weekends.

Petrova had a thin, pale face and high cheekbones, very different to Pauline’s pink-and-white oval and Posy’s round, dimpled look; she was naturally more serious than the others, and so, being bored for eight hours in each week did not show on her, as it would on them. It was Sundays that saved her.

After morning church she went straight to the garage, put on her jeans, and though only emergency work was really done on Sundays, the foreman always had something ready for her. Very dirty and happy, she would work until they had to dash home for lunch. Afterwards, occasionally, they came back until tea-time; then they washed and popped across the road to Lyons, but usually they went on expeditions in the car.

Those expeditions were their secret; Petrova never even told the other two about them. The best of them were to the civil flying-grounds, where they watched the planes take off and alight, and often went up themselves. Sometimes they saw some motor-car or dirt-track races; but Petrova like the flying Sundays best.

Although, of course, she was years too young to fly, in bed, and at her very few odd moments, she studied for a ground license; she knew that when she did, an aeroplane would obey her, just as certainly as Posy knew that her feet and body would obey her.

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Girls in bloom by Francis Booth

Girls in Bloom by Francis Booth on Amazon U.S.*
Girls in Bloom on Amazon UK*
Girls in Bloom in full on Issuu

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Tania Whichart of The Whicharts (1931)

Before she wrote the universally-loved and continuously in-print Ballet Shoes for children, Streatfeild wrote her first published novel The Whicharts, 1931 for adults, universally ignored and out of print for decades. It has an almost identical plot and characters to the later book; in a way it is Ballet Shoes’ evil twin.

Streatfeild wrote several sequels to Ballet Shoes, the semi-autobiographical  A Vicarage Family, 1963 and returned to the subject of orphan girls dancing professionally much later with Wintle’s Wonders, 1957.

In The Whicharts the three sisters have different mothers but the same father: the Brigadier. They are not exactly orphans but they are all brought up by another of the Brigadier’s lovers who worships him, as do the children, though they never know him and he dies when they are very young. They give themselves the surname Whichart after him, ‘our Father which art in heaven.’

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The Whicharts by Noel Streatfeild

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The tomboy in this novel is again the middle sister, here called Tania. Like Petrova Fossil she loves mechanical devices, especially when they are in bits and need mending.

Tania loved machinery, too. To screw things together, to find out why some thing wouldn’t go, was an absorbing game. All the week she was too busy to play at anything, so on Sunday mornings he always had something waiting for her. A clock that wouldn’t go. A toy engine in need of repairs. A sewing-machine that had stuck.

Also like Petrova, Tania hates the dancing she is forced into but loves cars and planes and dreams of working in a garage.

“Pity you aren’t a boy, you could have got a job in this line.”
“If I was a boy I’d learn to fly.”
 “Why?”
 “They goes so fast.”

Tania later pays the owner of the garage to let her work there. ‘The garage life seemed to Tania as near the life of Heaven as was possible while still on earth.’ She even finds a chauffeur who teaches her to drive even though she is only sixteen. Older sister Maimie is not interested in cars, except when they are driven by boys.

‘Maimie bitterly resented interference, she wanted a good time. And a good time was going out with boys. She adored boys . . . Some of the ones she knew had cars; they all had enough money to take her to the pictures.’

Maimie’s coming of age moment happens with an older theatre producer, bizarrely named Dolly, when she is seventeen.

Dolly sat down beside Maimie. He ran his fingers through her hair. ‘You’ve got pretty hair, Baby.’ Maimie only smiled. ‘And a pretty face, and a very pretty little figure’; his hand wandered over her. Her experience with the boys who had taken her motoring and to the pictures had left her quite unprepared for Dolly. She thought: ‘Surely it must have been an accident, he couldn’t have meant to touch me quite like that. Not there!’

But that is exactly where and how Dolly meant to touch Maimie. Shortly afterwards she loses her virginity to him, though Streatfeild seamlessly elides the act itself from the text:

She heard a clock strike. Dolly from behind slipped his hands under her armpits. She shivered. He pulled her round to face him. ‘Little innocent Baby.’ Maimie moved away with a jerk. ‘I think I’d better go home,’ she laughed nervously. ‘It does seem silly, but do you know, I feel frightened, Dolly.’ He pulled her down beside him on the divan. His hands slowly stroked her. Soothed her. She felt almost sleepy. He put his lips to hers. She turned her body towards him. When she put on her hat she couldn’t look at him. She was amazed when she got into the street to find that she didn’t look different. Nobody stared. Nobody seemed to guess.

As they get older the three girls go looking for their mothers. Tania drives herself across the country to meet hers. It turns out to have been worth it; her rich new mother wants to take her traveling to Java.

      “I want to take you about, and show you the world, and perhaps later on find you a husband.”
       “I’d rather have an aeroplane,” exclaimed Tania, horrified out of her usual reticence.
        “Would you? Do you want to fly? Well, could you bear to try traveling for a year first, and after that you can do what you like. I think you’ll find Java fun, you know. The people are too attractive, and they have –”
       But Tania wasn’t listening. Her mind was on the skyline, where an aeroplane, like some giant silver bird, was darting towards them.

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Little women by Louisa May Alcott

See also:
Literary Tomboys in Classic Coming-of-Age Novels by Women Authors
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More literary tomboys to explore in Girls in Bloom

  • Charlie Laborde (“Charlie” by Kate Chopin, 1900)
  • Peggy Vaughan (A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil, 1904)
  • Irene Ashleigh (A Modern Tomboy: A Story for Girls by LT Meade, 1913)
  • George Fayne (The Secret of Red Gate Farm by ‘Caroline Keene’, 1931)
  • George Kirrin (Five On a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton, 1942)
  • Mick Kelly (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 1940)
  • Frankie Addams (The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, 1946)

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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*These are Amazon Affiliate links. If a product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

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