Review 1712: Pippa Passes

I have been reading the Indian novels of Rumer Godden, so I’m not quite sure how Pippa Passes got in there. It was published in the 1990’s and is set mostly in Venice. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Browning poem except by its being about a young, innocent girl. It does relate, however, to many of Godden’s novels that have a theme of the loss of innocence.

Pippa Fane is a 17-year-old ballet dancer who is new to the corps de ballet of an up-and-coming company from the English Midlands. The company is getting ready to tour Italy, and Pippa, as the newest member, doesn’t expect to be invited to come, but she is, at the insistence of Angharad Fullerton, the ballet mistress. Pippa’s friend, Juliette, warns her to beware of Angharad, but since the mistress has only been kind to Pippa, she pays no attention.

Pippa is enchanted at first sight of Venice and disappointed that Angharad expects the girls in the corps to do nothing but work and rest. When the other girls try to get her to go out the first night, she argues that Angharad told them to stay in and is left behind and taunted as Angharad’s pet. But instead, Angharad and the other company leaders take her out when they find she’s been abandoned.

Pippa’s star is beginning to rise with the company, but she has also met a gondolier named Niccolo who fascinates her. The company gives her a solo part after another dancer is injured, and at the same time Niccolo wants her to sing with his band.

I wasn’t as interested in this novel as I have been in the others by Godden that I have been reading. For one thing, it seems absurdly outdated for the 90’s, as Niccolo and his band make a splash dressed like gondoliers and singing such songs as “Santa Lucia” and “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Yet, there’s no indication that the novel is set earlier. Also, although the information about the workings of the ballet company is interesting, I don’t think it was necessary to include pages describing the action of The Tales of Hoffman. And for the 1990’s, Pippa seems far too na├»ve about the intentions of both Angharad and Niccolo, and some readers may understand the novel as slightly homophobic. It’s possible that the novel was written many years earlier, but then there should have been some indication that it was set, say, in the 1950’s, if it was.

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Day 924: Ballet Shoes

Cover for Ballet ShoesNoel Streatfeild was a writer of popular children’s books in the 1930’s. Her first novel, Ballet Shoes, was so popular that the U.S. publishers renamed several of her subsequent books to include the word “shoes,” even though they were not series books.

Ballet Shoes is about three girls, all adopted by Great Uncle Matthew, called Gum. Gum is a fossil hunter, but when his house becomes too full of fossils, his great-niece Sylvia’s nanny makes him give them away to a museum. Gum goes off on another fossil-hunting trip but brings back a baby instead, the unidentified survivor of a shipwreck. Over the course of five years, he brings back two more. These are Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, and he gives them the last name of Fossil.

Gum goes off on another trip, leaving Sylvia and the cook and nanny in charge. Sylvia does her best to bring up the girls, although she is only ten years older than Pauline. But Gum doesn’t return, and the money begins to run out. Sylvia is forced to remove the girls from school and try to teach them herself. Finally, she must take in boarders.

Sylvia is lucky in her boarders, because soon they are all involved in the girls’ education. Two retired university professors undertake to teach the girls at no cost, and Theo, who teaches ballet, gets them enrollment in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, which prepares children for a career in the arts.

At 11, Pauline shows promise as an actress, and none of them have any doubt that Posy will be a famous ballerina. Only Petrova does not feel any particular aptitude, except for her interests in motors and flying, and she is most happy on Sundays, when boarder Mr. Simpson lets her work in his garage.

The rest of the novel follows the girls’ careers as they struggle to make enough money to support themselves and study dancing and theatre.

Ballet Shoes is not a classic because of its writing style or literary attainment, at least in my opinion. The writing is workmanlike, and the narrative arc lacks the highs and lows of other classics. Instead, it is a classic because of Streatfeild’s knowledge of the arts and the details about classes and stage productions. I think this novel would be fascinating for any child interested in the arts, especially ballet. And the plot about the four orphans trying to make it in a difficult world should appeal to most other imaginative children.

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