Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: Hilary: Standing up to bullying


Warning: Spoilers.  This is a continuation of this post: Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: an exploration of bullying

On one level Hilary is a totally unbelievable character. By the age of 10 she has lost two sets of parents: her birth parents in a convenient hurricane when she was six, her adoptive father in a plane crash and her adoptive mother through a fall down the stairs.  Her response to the death of her adoptive mother is depicted by Noel Streatfeild as a “normal reaction” – floods of tears, followed two days later by dancing merrily round the garden waving tea towels. This is the last we hear of her reaction to their deaths; she certainly shows no sign of missing anyone.

On this evidence Hilary comes across as a sociopath, whose talent for attracting fatal accidents to those close to her would not be out of place in The Omen…

However, setting this aside purely as a plot device, Hilary becomes a much more interesting character; she is the only person in Dancing Shoes who is prepared to confront bullying.

It is Hilary who refuses to allow Dulcie to get away with laughing at Rachel when she looks comic in her audition dress.  Slapping her in the face may not be the best response, but Hilary is a child surrounded by ineffectual adults.  When confronted with the bullying Mrs Wintle, Hilary is prepared to stand her ground, explain her reasons and point out that Dulcie’s response was unkind. The consequence of this is a rare moment when Mrs Wintle asks Pursey for advice, and more or less follows it.

In contrast, the other characters response is to keep away and never engage (Uncle Tom), avoid confrontation until it is inevitable and then offer resignation (Pursey and Mrs Storm), and freeze in fear (Rachel).  Pursey is even deceitful on occasions – buying orange material for shorts to convince Mrs Wintle that she has cut up Rachel’s beloved dress and encouraging Hilary to take part in a talent show without Mrs Wintle’s knowledge.

What is it that enables Hilary to stand up to bullying?

Firstly she has a very clear sense of who she is and what she wants.

Hilary has spent years resisting pressure to turn her into something that she isn’t.  Her adoptive mother, her ballet teacher and her sister Rachel all want her to work hard and go to the Royal Ballet School.  Rachel is obsessive about this to the extent of bribing Hilary with pocket money to get her to work at ballet.   Although Hilary goes along with this, the reader is always aware that at some level she knows it isn’t going to happen. This may be what others want for her; it isn’t what she wants for herself.

She also has an ability to make friends easily and create a strong support group.    Noel Streatfeild shows Hilary (disapprovingly) as someone who is naturally lazy and lacking in ambition; she has the talent but not the drive.  But this is unfair to Hilary, who is an extrovert and prefers to work as part of a troupe rather than in a solitary role.  As the antithesis to Noel’s solitary heroines, she is far better balanced and untroubled by angst.

Hilary has an awareness of others, she “gets” people and situations.  She understands that no amount of training will turn Rachel into a successful Wonder, something that the adults refuse to recognise or do anything about.  It is Hilary who makes it clear to Mrs Wintle that Rachel is not jealous showing that she is not only self aware, but aware of who Rachel is.

Perhaps it is key that Hilary insists on working out her own morality.  Her mercenary attitude (shared by Noel Streatfeild herself as a child) grates. Rachel and most of the adults consider Hilary to be immature and irresponsible. (At the start of the book the “thoughtful, caring” doctor tells Rachel, but not Hilary, that her mother is going to die. This has always baffled me, but it is indicative of the way Hilary appears to others.)

But the upside of this is that Hilary’s morality is grounded in reality.  Mummie’s dying wish, that she carries on with her ballet, does not bind her as it binds Rachel; she simply dismisses it. Following it would mean compromising her own integrity and force her to be someone that she is not. It takes years for Rachel to understand what Hilary has known all along.

It never occurs to Hilary not to confront the bullies in defence of Rachel.  This, in her morality, is what sisters do.  She not only acts while others hang back, but is prepared to accept the consequences of her actions.  In some ways, she is the most mature character in the book.

Dancing shoes by Noel Streatfeild – an exploration of bullying


Warning: Spoilers.  A link to a synopsis of this book is at the end

I first read this book (then entitled Wintle’s Wonders) as a child in the 60s. As the author intended, I identified with Rachel, the lonely, misunderstood protagonist, who eventually has her happy ending when her acting talents are recognised at the expense of her spoilt and conceited cousin Dulcie.

Re-reading it as an adult is a far more chilling experience.

Rachel’s Aunt Cora (Mrs Wintle) is a bully.  Her bullying of Rachel is overt – constant criticism of her looks, her personality (described as “spiteful and jealous”), her insistence that despite a lack of interest and talent Rachel has to be trained as a Little Wonder and dance in pantomimes and musical comedy.

As with many bullies, few people are prepared to stand up to her.   Her staff at the dancing school simply accept that she will be the person making the decisions, while her husband Tom avoids confrontation and keeps out the way.  When Pursey (the nanny figure) and Mrs Storm (the children’s teacher) do actually make a stand for Rachel, neither has any skills with which to engage her; both go straight to offering their resignation.  The only person to stand up to her verbally (and actually come off best) is 11 year old Hilary, Rachel’s adopted sister.

But far more damaging than her overt bullying of Rachel, is Mrs Wintle’s bullying of her daughter Dulcie.  Rachel spends little time with her aunt and is surrounded by supportive adults – Mrs Storm, Pursey and her Uncle Tom – who all appreciate Rachel for the person she is.

Dulcie however is with her mother: morning, noon and night.  Mrs Wintle treats her as an extension of herself – Dulcie, pretty and talented, will be the stage success that she never was herself.  She even talks to her in this manner addressing her as “Mum’s Little Leading Lady”.

Dulcie does not go to school and has no friends – in fact the other Wonders hate her and make fun of her even though she is unaware of this. She imitates her mother’s patronising manner towards the Wonders, and has no insight into how she comes across.

The adults in Dulcie’s life seem completely unaware of the damage that her mother is inflicting upon her.  Pursey and Mrs Storm tolerate her (preferring Rachel and Hilary), the dancing staff refer to her as “Mrs W’s Little Horror”.  Her father Tom has no connection with her at all.  Rachel, his niece, spends hours in his studio or out sketching with him; he suggests a way to do her hair and designs clothes for her.  But we see no interaction between him and his daughter, he has handed her over to her mother and washed his hands of her.

Noel Streatfeild seems to have little sympathy for Dulcie, in effect blaming her for her self-centredness and conceit.  We are meant to rejoice at her downfall – and because it is actually her mother’s downfall, we do. Although the end of the book hints that she will have a glowing future in musical comedy productions, it seems likely that she is too damaged by her mother’s bullying to be able to have any meaningful relationships or decide for herself who she wants to be.

Although extreme, this situation comes across as believable.  This is how narcissistic bullies treat people.  Dulcie, the victim, is isolated and unaware. She has no one to speak up for her…

Synopsis here: Wintle’s Wonders by Noel Streatfeild