Pirouette by Susan Scarlett/Noel Streatfeild

published 1948

Pirouette 1

There is something about a first night from the point of view of the artist that no-one but the artist can eve know. Judith arrived early at the theatre. Le Spectre de la Rose was the second item on the programme….

The stage showed a bedroom. On the left of the stage was a wide open window through which gleamed the night sky. The critics in the bar had been right when they said that a revival of that particular ballet was a doubtful project for, owing to the dancing of the two originals, it was almost a legend…

However a quality in Judith was essentially right. She was still so young and still had the mystery of youth clinging to her. Danoff had not the poetry or the romanticism to give, after his first spectacular entrance, complete satisfaction to the balletomanes. But in his dance with the sleeping girl, because of the right quality in Judith, the two of them achieved great beauty. When Danoff finally leapt out of the window leaving her in her chair and she woke, the expression on her face as she went over the dream in her mind, and the virginal smile as she lifted the rose to her lips, brought sighs of pleasure from the audience. When the curtain fell there was a pause. Then, like a crack, applause swept through the audience.

commentary: The picture above IS the original couple: Nijinsky dancing in Le Spectre de la Rose, with Tamara Karsavina, from the NYPL collection. This may be a legendary dance production, but here on the blog we are even more impressed that this was the role that inspired Cedric’s costume at the grand ball in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate: there is a full entry on this here, with links back to previous posts (we also researched his costume as Doris Keane in Romance…). Wonderful blog commenter Ken had given us the detail that:
His costume was covered with silk rose-petals that were touched up with a curling iron every night
- one of the best clothes-facts I have learned since I started the blog.

Noel Streatfeild is revered for her children’s books: her adult novels like this one, written under the name Susan Scarlett, can be more problematic. Pirouette is no Ballet Shoes, but it has some surprising points of interest. It is about young women who have been training for the ballet their whole lives, and are reaching the point where they will find out if they have what it takes. It is laid out pretty clearly: Judith, our heroine, is starting to get better parts, but has also fallen in love. She has a very pushy stage mother, who is neglecting the rest of the family, so perhaps it isn’t Judith who really wants to be a star.

Meanwhile Judith’s friend Nadia fears the worst – she is talented, beautiful and hard-working, but she is also quite tall. She speaks very eloquently about the waste of giving training to many young women for many years when only a small proportion of them can ever succeed. She says she wishes someone had warned her of that possibility, and that the ending when it came hadn’t been quite so harsh. She is bitter, but also positive. She also


proposes to the man she loves, with great honesty and admirable straightforwardness. She wants to get married, she has a clear idea of her new future, and she makes sure she gets what she wants.

Judith is more conflicted: It is hard to think of Streafeild’s child heroines being so ambivalent about the career/marriage choice. Petrova in Ballet Shoes didn’t want to dance, but she wanted a quite different and very proper career, and marriage didn’t come into it. Hilary in the superb Wintle’s Wonders – full of talent but happy to be in the chorus and looking forward to having children – is the nearest example, but she is much more entertaining and fun than Judith, who is rather tiresome.

It is not anything like Streatfeild’s best book, but the descriptions of the older life in ballet school, and London in the late 1940s, are interesting. Judith’s love interest is much more upmarket than she is, and there is this passage when he takes her to a posh hotel to eat. She says
“I haven’t got gloves or anything, do you think I ought to put my hat on?” 
Paul thought restaurants were there to serve you and what you saw fit to wear should please the restaurant. Of course there were the few who flapped around saying nobody could come in except in evening dress, but he could not believe that any girl needed advice as to whether she should put her hat on or not.
A strange mixture of proper feeling, common sense, and a complete lack of empathy with his companion: one should not pretend that those things didn’t matter in 1948.

Later Paul is unhappy and ‘looks like food poisoning on toast’, an excellent expression.

Judith’s final decision, and the comments on women’s roles, housewives, mothers and the routes to true happiness – well all these things were very much of their time. They can seem quite shocking to modern readers, but there is no denying that they probably did represent many women’s views at the time.

Reading this book did take me back to the ballet school stories of my youth – with results that will appear in a different entry.


  1. I was just thinking how interesting the description of ballet education must be, Moira. It sounds as though you thought so, too. And where would we be in a story like that without a pushy stage parent? I ought to do a post on that trope in crime fiction, actually... I like books with a solid sense of place and time, and it sounds as though this one has that.

    1. Oh YES, please do pushy parents in crime! Great topic for a blogpost, and the kind of thing you do so well. Yes, the book was far from perfect (and wouldn't be for everyone, though no book is...) but fully of the kind of details that I really enjoy.

  2. I adored Streatfield's books when I was a kid. Her adult books haven't impinged on my consciousness much. Not sure if I'm that interested now that they have. Kind of a shrug, I guess.

    1. I am a huge fan of the children's books, and wasn't really aware of the adult books until very recently. I think I read them more for completism than anything else - I enjoy them, but they do not compare with the likes of Ballet Shoes.

  3. I wasn't really paying attention to the photo at the top, and at first I thought that it was from a performance of PETER PAN. Ooooops.

    Must say that I've never seen a movie/TV show where the world of Ballet didn't make a meeting of the Mafia look like tea at the Women's Institute. Not really much of a surprise that the most recent movie about the art, BLACK SWAN, is full of murder and madness. Mind you, there's a bit of dialouge in Billy Wilder's PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, where the great detective meets a retiring ballerina, that I've always loved:-

    ROGOZHIN: (Madame Petrova has) been dancing since she was three years old, and after all, she is now thirty-eight.

    HOLMES: I must say, she doesn't look thirty-eight.

    ROGOZHIN: That is because she is forty-nine.


    1. Oh, way to lose your artistic credibility! Old ballet productions do always look weird. I can get lost in them when I'm looking for blog photos, I have to pull myself away. My favourite is the Denishawn Company, modernish dance from early 20th century, and the company Louise Brooks danced for. There is a collection of photos which has me gawping - have used several on the blog.
      And yes, you are right, it is hard to think of any fictional representation that shows ballet personnel in a charitable light...

    2. Ooo, I have tons of Ruth St. Denis pics in one of my Pinterest boards. She always wore the PERFECT costumes.

    3. Oh, another fan! I should've known. I love those pictures so much.

  4. Ballet? Gymnastics? I expect something on synchronised swimming very soon. No need to confirm my thoughts on this one, but in case there's any doubt - avoid.

    1. Yes, slim pickings for you lately, I'll have to try to find something darker!

  5. I was just waiting for Col Colman to say he was going to avoid it.....lol I am off to buy it...

    1. Yes, it is part of the tradition! Hope you enjoy, it is an entertainment.


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