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Curtain Up

Curtain Up was first published in 1944. The US edition (1945) was entitled Theatre Shoes; or, Other People's Shoes. A US edition is still available, but it appears to be out of print in the UK.

Story | Connections to Other Books | Background | Thoughts | Editions and Availability


Sorrel, Mark and Holly Forbes have no mother (she died when Holly was a baby), and their father has been declared missing by the Navy. When Grandfather (Father's father) dies, they have to go and live with Grandmother (Mother's mother) in London. They are surprised to learn that Mother came from a theatrical family: Grandmother has been an actress, Uncle Henry is a film star, and both their aunts have married actors. Mother had been an actress before marrying Father.

Grandmother arranges for the children to go to the Children's Academy for Dancing and Stage Training (familiar to readers of Ballet Shoes). When Madame Fidolia hears that they do not have a lot of money, she tells the children that Pauline and Posy Fossil have just decided to give two scholarships to the school - one for an actress and one for a dancer. She awards these scholarships to Sorrel and Holly. Petrova Fossil, when she is told about the Forbes children, immediately provides a scholarship for Mark.

Sorrel is concerned about Mark attending the Academy: he is supposed to be going into the Navy, and she is not sure that the Academy will give him the right training. However, she is told not to worry.

At the school, the children meet their two cousins - Miranda, who is very unpleasant but a talented actress, and Miriam who wants to be a dancer. At first, the Forbes children struggle with the work, but Mark's beautiful singing voice soon gains attention, and Sorrel gradually realises that she has inherited her mother's talent for acting. Holly proves to have little real talent for dancing, but her imitations make everyone laugh.

(The M'audition Pieces article gives details of the speech Sorrel performs at an audition.)

Connections to Other Books

The Forbes children do not appear in any other books by Noel Streatfeild. However, because Curtain Up features the Fossil family, and the Children's Academy, it has connections with a number of Noel's other books.

The most obvious of these is Ballet Shoes, Noel's first book for children. It is in this book that we first meet Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil (who, in Curtain Up, give scholarships to the Forbes children). When they attend the Children's Academy for Dancing and Stage Training, they meet Madame Fidolia and Miss Jay. Winifred, who appears as a teacher in Curtain Up, is a fellow student of the Fossil girls.

Other books featuring the Fossil girls, and the Children's Academy, are The Painted Garden and Apple Bough . They also appear in two short stories: "What Happened to Pauline, Petrova and Posy" and "Coralie".

It has been pointed out to me [thank you Rebecca Harrison] that there is a possible additional connection between Curtain Up and The Painted Garden. Early on in The Painted Garden, there is a passing reference to another ballet student at the Academy called Miriam: " 'I bet you get chosen. You and, of course, Miriam and Sylvia, Frances, Audrey and Annette.' The six were all small and considered in the school exceptionally promising" (The Painted Garden, 1949:26). It is possible that this is meant to be the Forbes' cousin Miriam, who is 8 in Curtain Up and would therefore be about 12 or 13 in The Painted Garden.

Aside from this, Curtain Up/Theatre Shoes has no connections to the other "shoes" books.


Noel often received letters from readers wanting to know "what happened next" to their favourite characters. Although at this time she was not interested in writing direct sequels, such letters may well have inspired her to revive the Academy in a wartime setting, and to show how the Fossil sisters were managing with the changed circumstances.


(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have not read the book.)

Curtain Up, like The Children of Primrose Lane, is firmly placed in its wartime setting. Although the children never suffer through air raids, they do see the effects when they arrive in London. The difficulties of wartime rationing also permeate the book.

Angela Bull describes Curtain Up as Noel's "most detailed look at the serious theatre" (1984:182). Certainly, it gives a fascinating picture of a theatrical family that consists of "an amusing gallery of theatrical types, with their speech and mannerisms acutely pinpointed" (1984:183).

Bull feels that despite its many good points, the book falls well below Noel's highest levels, and that this is due to a failure in presenting Sorrel, whose "personality remains colourless" (1984:183). She compares Sorrel to Susan Heath (of Tennis Shoes), arguing that Susan was unsuccessful as a tennis player "through her lack of star quality, and the same lack is clearly apparent in Sorrel" (1984:183). Bull further argues that "the reader, who is expected to dislike Miranda [Sorrel's unpleasant cousin], cannot fail to see that her determined egotism will get her a good deal further in the theatre than Sorrel's gentleness. This confusion over the exact roles of the characters throws the whole book slightly out of gear" (1984:183).

Nancy Huse does not entirely agree with this position, pointing out that Sorrel is "not necessarily unappealing in her concern to act maternally [to Mark and Holly]. Furthermore, she is not immune to feelings of jealousy and competitiveness towards them and toward Miranda" (1994:78). I would further suggest that Sorrel does not have the same internal impediments to success that we saw in Susan. Susan, although talented, does not play well under the pressure of spectators. Sorrel, on the other hand, even though she is often shy and nervous, invariably rises to the occasion:

It seemed queer to Sorrel to hear her voice in that great big place and the first few words left her mouth in a very wobbly condition. Then all of a sudden the audience's friendliness came to her like a hug, and she spoke directly to it as if it were an old friend. (Curtain Up, 1944:150-151.)

It was altogether so odd that just at first the queerness of everything overawed Sorrel and she could not bring Titania to life. ... The lines came out of her mouth, just nicely rehearsed words, but meaning nothing. Then suddenly the studio was not there; she was in a wood ... and she was speaking in a proud way to Oberon. (Curtain Up, 1944:226.)

Certainly, the implication of the book is that Miranda will be a success. She is an exceptionally good actress, and she has enormous determination: "I'm always going to think about me and nothing but me, that's the way to get on" (Curtain Up, 1944:260). However, Noel shows that she does not believe this is the only way to succeed. Pauline Fossil did not have this attitude, and Sorrel has at least as much in common with Pauline as she does with Susan.

Furthermore, Sorrel is not without drive herself. The difference is, for much of the book she puts this into supporting her sister and brother - doing her best to see that they are happy, and do not cause problems at the Academy, while at the same time not losing sight of the fact that Mark is to go into the Navy. However, by the end of Curtain Up, Sorrel's focus has shifted to herself. Although she does not lose the ties with her family, Mark's desire to leave the Academy and be trained for the Navy becomes much less immediate when she is preparing for The Tempest. "Sorrel was crouched on the floor practising how, by moving her shoulder blades, she could keep her wings continually on the move. She gave Mark only half her attention." (Curtain Up, 1944:270-271). Sorrel, like Pauline (and unlike Miranda) is unselfish, and committed to her family members: if necessary, she would probably be willing to make a sacrifice like Pauline's at the end of Ballet Shoes. The difference with Susan is that she lets everyday events come before her tennis career - such as playing at school, even though the standard is low, because it is expected of her. She can support Nicky, and push her into working when she is feeling lazy, but in the end she cannot transfer this drive to herself. Sorrel, on the other hand, proves that she is able to do this, and Noel clearly feels that this, together with her talent, will make it possible for her to succeed on the stage.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

Curtain Up was first published in 1944 by J. M. Dent & Sons. The illustrations in this edition were by D. L. Mays.

This edition was reprinted in 1946, 1948, 1953 and 1956. From 1948 onwards, the text is slightly amended. This edition has a "PS" at the end of the "About This Book" introduction: "This is a new edition. I have made some small alterations so that those of you who do not remember the war years will find this book easier to understand."

In 1963 Dent's reissued it (with the amended text) as a "Pennant Books" hardcover, and 1977 as a "Dent Dolphin" paperback, both with the with the original D. L. Mays illustrations. However, the"About this Book" introduction is removed, complete with its note about alterations to the text.

Puffin Books released an unillustrated, abridged edition in paperback, in 1983. The small changes from the 1948 Dent edition are still present, but there are a number of larger ones as well: for example, the description of Grandmother receiving Christmas presents from Aunt Lindsey and Aunt Marguerite is cut out. Perhaps the most significant alteration is the entire removal of Chapter 9, "An Audience". Although this chapter does not advance the plot much, it does demonstrate the professionalism of the Academy children, and is thus an important step in Sorrel's development as an actress. (In due course, I will provide a more detailed listing of the changes in this edition.)

US Editions

It was released in the United States in 1945, by Random House. It was titled Theatre Shoes; or, Other People's Shoes, and was illustrated by Richard Floethe.

In 1973 there was a new hardcover release by Delcorte Press.

It has been re-released twice by subsidiaries of Random House. There was a paperback in 1983 by Bantam Dell Doubleday, and another in 1994 by Alfred A Knopf, Inc. Bullseye Books (with illustrations by Diane Goode).

As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text was in any way amended.

Still in print

Curtain Up is apparently out of print in the UK. Even though the current Puffin paperback edition of Ballet Shoes shows Curtain Up under "Read more in Puffin", it is not listed on the Puffin website, nor in online bookshops.

However, in the US Theatre Shoes is still being published as a Random House Books for Young Readers trade paperback, with illustrations by Diane Goode.


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