Every time I read or watch something with disability in it, I always think I must post about it here, and I never get round to it! Anyway, I had a random craving to reread this old children's book over the last couple of days. It was written in 1936, has been immensely popular ever since, and it's about three sisters who go to a stage school. I listened to the audiobook this time instead of reading the novel, so the odd detail may be wrong as I can't just flick through and check it.
[Probably not all that spoilerish, but just in case]The story opens with an elderly, absent-minded professor of palaeontology, hereafter known as Great Uncle Matthew (Gum), who brings home three babies from his travels and leaves them to his niece to look after. We have disability right at the start: Gum loses a leg, and is not remotely quenched by this. He just transfers his adventurous spirit to another medium, takes up sea travel, and this is how he ends up finding and adopting the girls. When he reappears at the end of the novel, he is delighted by the idea of moving on to air travel, something far more new and exciting in those days. Other disabilities flit through the novel: Winifred's family is in bad financial straits because of her father's illness (I think possibly injury, or involving surgery?), the French teacher tells an inspiring story (well, one girl finds it inspiring, the other brushes it off) about a famous elderly actress who also had a wooden leg but could bring tears to your eyes by her portrayal of a teenage boy, there's a school fundraising effort for a children's hospital which had helped a very ill young Russian girl. And the novel is surprisingly full of everyday illnesses, flu and whooping cough and colds, and uses them as part of the story. The thing that really impressed me is how cheerfully and casually it does this, without making them anything monstrous, and indeed they often provide good opportunities of one sort or another. One of the thing that really appealed to me about this novel was the sense of a family cobbled together out of unrelated people, since it's based on Gum's niece Sylvia, the three adopted girls, Sylvia's old nanny, the cook and housemaid, and the five boarders who live with them, including a thinly veiled lesbian couple. The couple in question are academics who encourage the girls to be independent and break gender boundaries, so I reckon the novel was probably fairly ground-breaking in various ways, and it's probably one reason why it still appeals. I'm not quite sure why I associate this found-family thing with disability. Maybe it's because, like being LGBT, you often end up having a strained relationship with your family of origin, and then finding that you build a warm relationship with other people who are also LGBT or disabled, so that alienation on one side can also mean a wonderful found family on the other.
Of course, the three girls can only make their progress on the stage thanks to being healthy and attractive, but the novel is very conscious of the fragility of that. It praises hard work and talent while admitting that looks and connections often take precedence in the theatre, it's casually mentioned that actresses are disposable and that ballerinas have a short shelf life, and at one point Petrova, the middle girl, frets that she will fail to get a theatre part because she has a stye on her eye and is feeling self-conscious about it as well. Illness and disability are a real part of everyday life, not pushed out of sight as is the norm in other literature. I liked that.
- Streatfeild, "Ballet Shoes"