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Wintle's Wonders

Wintle's Wonders was first published in 1957. The US edition was released in 1958, and entitled Dancing Shoes. It is still available in the US, but appears to be out of print in the UK.

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


Rachel and her adopted sister Hilary live with Rachel's mother. Rachel's father, a film star, died when the girls were seven, and because he had not been a film star long enough to save money, there is very little to spare. However, Rachel and her mother are determined that Hilary (whose real mother was a dancer) will have ballet lessons. Hilary has talent at ballet, but she is not really interested in it.

When the girls are ten - just before Hilary's audution for the Royal Ballet School - their mother dies, and they go to live with their Uncle Tom, his wife, Aunt Cora, and their cousin Dulcie. Aunt Cora is better known as Mrs Wintle, and she runs a dancing school for girls to perform in pantomimes, musicals and reviews - "Mrs Wintle's Little Wonders". Dulcie, who is the same age as Rachel and Hilary, is very attractive and a talented dancer, but also very spoiled by her mother.

Mrs Wintle had originally only been willing to take in Rachel, and had planned to send Hilary to an orphanage. However, when she sees Hilary dancing, she realises that she would make a splendid Little Wonder. Rachel is determined that their mother's dream to see Hilary as a ballerina will be realised. She is horrified by the type of dancing taught at Mrs Wintle's school, and is determined that Hilary will continue with her ballet (which is also taught at the school, although only to a small number of pupils). However, Hilary prefers the tap and acrobatics that are the main stock-in-trade of the Wonders, and Rachel can only make her concentrate on ballet by bribing her with pocket-money.

To add to Rachel's problems, she is also to be trained as a Wonder, despite a total lack of aptitude or interest. Although she works hard, she gets no pleasure from it, and does not improve much, remaining a "bottom of the barrel" Wonder.

Mrs Wintle's school does not offer ordinary lessons - only dancing - so Rachel and Hilary learn with Dulcie and her governess, Mrs Storm. Rachel likes working with Mrs Storm - especially when she starts giving them elocution and acting lessons.

Connections to Other Books

Wintle's Wonders/Dancing Shoes has no connections to the other "shoes" books.


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

Like Noel's earlier children's books Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up, Wintle's Wonders is set in a stage school. However, it is not a high-class establishment like the Children's Academy. Rather, Noel returns to the somewhat second-rate establishments of her adult works The Whicharts and It Pays to be Good, where "children in cutely infantile outfits cartwheel and kick their way into pantomime troupes" (Bull, 1984: 213). Madame Fidolia's students learn acting (both in English and French), ballet, tap and character dancing, singing and fencing. At Mrs Wintle's school, everyone learns tap, musical comedy, acrobatics and singing, and a small number of children also have ballet lessons. Essentially, Madame Fidolia's objective is to prepare children for a variety of careers on the stage, whereas Mrs Wintle is "famous for her troupes of dancers. Sometimes she got an engagement for a child as a principal, but it was unusual. ... So the aim of the school was to teach all the pupils to dance alike" (Wintle's Wonders, 1957:63)

However, there is some overlap between the two schools. Petrova's experience as a jumping bean in Jack in the Beanstalk (with twenty three other girls from the Academy, and a matron who organises games for them) seems very similar to the life Rachael dreads, and Hilary desires, as a Wonder. Furthermore, the degree of total professionalism shown by the child performers is the same in both books. The big difference is that Madame Fidolia and her students have higher ambitions than being jumping beans - not just in the "quality" of the productions (Shakespeare and ballet), but in aspiring to fulfilling individual careers. The Wonders, however, seem quite content to spend the rest of their lives in troupes.

In spite of this, Wintle's Wonders still has more in common with Noel's books for children than with The Wichards and It Pays to be Good. The cheap, shoddy atmosphere of the adult novels has been reworked into somthing softer. The girls in Mrs Wintle's school are all dedicated, professional and well cared-for. They also thoroughly enjoy their lives as Wonders. There is nothing in the way of jealousy, bitterness or scheming against others for better roles. Even the less successful - such as the Look Up and Smile group who are talented but either "the too tall, too fat or too plain sort for the best shows" (Wintle's Wonders, 1957:106) - accept their fate sadly but with resignation. Like Noel's other children's books, Wintle's Wonders takes a much more optimistic, romantic view of the world, and the more sordid aspects of life in the theater are totally excised.

Nancy Huse points out that a "crucial question raised by the novel is whether to value the training provided by the Madame Fidolias of the world ... over the showy entertainment offered by Wintle-trained performers" (1994:114). She feels that "it is unfair to describe this preference [for the training provided by Madame Fidolia over that of Mrs Wintle] as Streatfeild's unqualified view of the arts. Rather, Streatfeild conveys the multiple needs for entertainment rightfully claimed by a diverse public" (1994: 114). Angela Bull, on the other hand, argues that this simply results in confusion, as "instead of finding a proper solution, Noel muddles herself and her readers. Because Hilary has been labelled 'nice', she cannot be condemned outright for her choice of cartwheels and high kicks, yet Noel clearly despises them ... The result is a chaotically shifting viewpoint" (1984:213). I would suggest, however, that another, less confusing, reading is possible. Certainly, the sense of the book is that pantomime and musical comedy are a lower form of performance art than ballet and Shakespeare. However, in spite of their lower artistic standards, all of the Wonders are "nice" girls (an effect of the romantic approach Noel takes in her children's books), and their professional dedication - regardless of its environment - is to be admired.

Bull also feels that the "once subtle dissection of character is lost" (1984:214), and agrees with a critic for The Times Literary Supplement that Wintle's Wonders is simply a replica of Noel's early works. Certainly, there are similarities to earlier works, particularly in the minor characters - Pursey is the ubiquitous Nana type, while Uncle Tom, Mrs Wintle and Mrs Storm are closely related to Uncle David, Aunt Claudia and Goldie from White Boots. However, Noel's gallery of minor characters had been developed over many years, and the vast majority of her books have at least one or two characters from it, so it is not really fair to claim that Wintle's Wonders marks a sudden lack of originality.

Furthermore, I would argue that Rachel and Hilary are not, as Bull suggests, "paler versions of Harriet and Lalla" (1984:214) - or, indeed, of any of her other characters. In fact, Rachel is probably closer to Sorrel Forbes, as both of these girls are thrust into a strange environment, in which they initially feel inferior, but ultimately blossom as actresses. In addition, both Rachel and Sorrel spend much of the book with their ambition focussed on a sibling - Rachel with her determination that Hilary shall go to the Royal Ballet School, and Sorrel with hers that Mark will enter the Navy. Rachel is, if anything, more driven than Sorrel in this regard, in that she takes positive action to ensure her goal is reached, while Sorrel feels overpowered by the adults. Rachel also spends much more time trying to be something she is not, and does not want to be - a Wonder - whereas Sorrel's talent is far more readily recognised and accepted. Thus, although the characters are similar, the differences in their circumstances mean that they are presented rather differently.

Similarly, Hilary is not the same as Lalla. Both characters have charm in abundance, but while Lalla is fiercely ambitious and cannot accept not being the centre of attention, Hilary is unambitous, and likes being part of the crowd. The Rachel-Hilary relationship is also quite different from that of Harriet and Lalla. White Boots was Noel's most detailed examination of the ups and downs of friendship. Rachel and Hilary, by contrast, are perhaps her strongest example of a sibling bond. Although Rachel's attempts to force Hilary down a path she does not wish to follow are misguided, and lead to disputes between the sisters, her absolute commitment to her sister is never in doubt.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

Wintle's Wonders was first published by Collins in 1957, with illustrations by Richard Kennedy.

In 1967 it was reissued as a Collins Evergreen Library hardcover, still with the Richard Kennedy illustrations.

Hodder & Stoughton Children's released a paperback edition, using the US title of Dancing Shoes, in 1995.

US Editions

In 1958, it was released in the United States by Random House, as Dancing Shoes, with illustrations by Richard Floethe.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were a number of paperback and trade paperback editions by Random House, and their subsidiary Bantam Doubleday Dell and Alfred A Knopf, Inc. Bullseye Books.

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

Still in Print

The Hodder & Stoughton paperback edition of Dancing Shoes may still be available in shops. However, it is no longer listed on the Hodder Children's Books website, and can therefore be assumed to be out of print.

In the US, Dancing Shoes is available as a Random House Books for Young Readers trade paperback, with illustrations by Diane Goode.


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© 1957 Noel Streatfeild

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