Watching Wimbledon on Monday, I suddenly wanted to read Tennis Shoes again, so I did. The book was first published in 1937 and features the Heath family: twins Jim and Susan, Nicolette, known as Nicky, and baby David. The children’s grandfather was once a crack tennis player; their father could have been good if he hadn’t suffered a leg wound in the First World War. Father, Dr Heath, is depressed because English sportspeople used to beat the rest of the world but now they don’t. This is not nationalistic thinking on his part, more sadness at a perceived loss of physical fitness. So he’s keen for his children to become ‘first class’ at something, picks tennis as the most likely sport for the family and starts coaching them. I must say straight away that I dislike Dr Heath, who pressurises the children in quite the wrong way. Conscientious Susan is the last girl who should be pushed to do anything while rebellious Nicky will obviously react against being told what to do.
You could argue that the whole book is really about Susan and Nicky. Some readers have commented that Streatfeild picked the wrong heroine: difficult Nicky instead of good Susan. These people can’t stand Nicky, thinking her even worse than Posy Fossil. My sympathies here are with the ‘bad’ sister. Susan is both pretty and clever and has ‘future school captain’ written all over her. She and Jim form a self-contained unit, David is too young to count and Nicky is the odd one out. No wonder she behaves badly and is insufferable as a sister. Poor Susan fears she will always be letting down the family and disgracing them all. When the children start playing tennis, Dr Heath pins his hopes on Susan, who is happy to work hard. Lazy Nicky pretends she couldn’t care less about tennis. Secretly though, encouraged by Annie (see below) she begins to practise. Here’s a couple of examples of the differences between the two girls and their relationships with their father. Susan plays badly in a match and thinks, ‘Oh, dear, I am being a disappointment to Daddy.’ Nicky plays well in a match she’s really too young for but her father says, ‘My dear Nicky, playing pat-ball at a local tournament, with a lot of kids who don’t know how to hold a racket, is a different thing to joining a club.’ She’s done much more than ‘play pat-ball’ but Daddy wasn’t watching. When it’s Nicky, not Susan, who is chosen for extra coaching at the club, Susan gets a terrible shock. Luckily, sensible Susan comes to realise that she’s happier playing tennis for fun (and for the school), Jim decides he prefers swimming and the family get behind Nicky as the future tennis champ.
Those who’ve read most of Noel Streatfeild’s children’s novels will notice many themes in Tennis Shoes which will be repeated in later books.
1. fatheful nan. The Heaths have two of these. Annie is a former trapeze artist who cooks and bosses the family about. She has the sense to see that Nicky’s selfishness and oddness make her the one most likely to succeed and she keeps Nicky at her practising. The other useful member of the household is Miss Pinn, known as Pinny. This poor soul wears her fingers to the bone making and mending clothes for the children as well as doing almost everything else that needs doing in a house. Mrs Heath, whom everyone considers perfect, seems to spend a lot of time on committees.
2. The irritating (to me) precocious small boy with a single characteristic. David’s is using long words; he really doesn’t matter much in the story.
3. The annoying habit certain characters have of referring to themselves in the third person. Here it’s ‘Miss N Heath’. Later we get ‘Miss Virginia Bell’ (The Bell Family).
4. Comparative poverty. The Fossils really are poor; the Heaths are said to be. They may be short of funds for new tennis equipment, club membership and court hire, but they send both boys to boarding school and the girls to what sounds like a local private school.
5. The use of very short sentences. I truly believe that, although her books are superior, Streatfeild was no better a writer than Enid Blyton and she got worse as she got older.
This all sounds hyper-critical but of course I romped through the book, thoroughly enjoying it, although I’ll never love it the way I do Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up.
There have been several editions of Tennis Shoes, some of them modernised. There’s a comparison on the Noel Streatfeild site here. My copy dates from 1948, so I get the real thing.