Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Shoes in Literature












Today’s entry appears on the Guardian books blog and looks at the role and importance of shoes in literature. I didn’t even have room for all the examples I found, and the commentators came up with more of them. I was sadly lacking in male examples, so would be particularly pleased to welcome any references you can think of.

This is part of the piece:



Let's start with some little girls: the Fossil sisters from Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes (and it's noticeable that many of her other books have been retitled and re-packaged to form a "Shoes" series). They have ballet shoes, white kid slippers, and tap and character shoes in patent leather with ankle straps.

This sounds twee, but it's not: the girls need to work and earn money, and these shoes are kit – even if there is a little sentiment involved in the way Posy cherishes her mother's ballet shoes.

In Judy Blume's teen classic Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, the heroine is nearly 12, and is told that if she wants to be one of the cool girls at her new school she has to wear loafers with no socks. Her mother thinks this is ludicrous, and Margaret gets blisters, but she does end up in a secret club. 
That was in 1970 - shoe-based intimidation and anxiety have been around longer than you’d think.

Keeping your shoes clean is important for Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. She and her friends have to be carried across a puddle by Angel Clare 
on the way to church, to save their best shoes. But later on, when she is trying to re-connect with him, she changes out of her boots, then has to watch the Clare family find them and carry them off in disgust, seeing them as trash – could it be more symbolic? As Tess 
thought of her dusty boots she almost pitied those habiliments for the quizzing to which they had been subjected, and felt how hopeless life was for their owner. 
In Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince, Julian, who is in her mid-20s, meets up with the much older author Bradley – she's the daughter of his friend and rival. He meets her in the street outside a shoe shop: she is barefoot, she borrows his socks, he buys her a pair of purple boots. "Julian's delight was literally indescribable", and Bradley feels "a ridiculous and unclassifiable sort of glee". Shortly afterwards he realises that she had "gone away still wearing my socks". You might have to be a philosopher like Murdoch to unpick the multiple meanings of that scene. 





From the piece, you can find Virginia Woolf’s Kitty in The Years, with large feet and tight shoes, in the entry here, while Vivian and her ‘hand-carved walking shoes’ are here on the blog

And there are plenty more examples: Rebecca Gowers recent novel When to Walk had important shoes in it (well, it would with that title) including the patent boots  and red high heels above. 

Sara, in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, has a terrible time, living in the attic because her father died leaving her penniless, but the hardest moment in the whole book (should have been in the tearjerker post) is surely where her old downtrodden shoes cause her to slip in the mud: when she gets home she starts screaming at her doll, a scene that resonates whether you read the book when you are 10 or 40.

Javier Marias, in his lovely novel All Souls, here on the blog, has this to say about the shoes of the narrator’s mistress:
the sight of empty shoes always makes me imagine them on the feet of the person who has worn them or might wear them, and seeing that person by my side – with their shoes off – or not seeing the person at all upsets me terribly.




I ended the piece with what I think is the most beautiful shoe image in literature: from Cider With Rosie, it involves what were probably cheap rough boots. Laurie Lee is taken in hand by Rosie, they disappear under a wagon for a short perfect page of pleasure, and halfway through:
She took off her boots and stuffed them with flowers. She did the same with mine.
On the way home, 
Rosie carried her boots, and smiled. 
Perfect. 

18 comments:

  1. Not a foot fetishist I'm afraid so I have drawn a blank.

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    1. Good getout! I'd have thought there might have been some men in cowboy boots stomping around as they shoot people in some of your books?

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    2. I can picture footwear in films, mainly westerns when the dude hits the saloon with the swinging doors and the camera pans up from boots to gun to grizzled chops with stubble and obligatory cigar.
      Nothing iconic or memorable from my reading though. Perhaps I don't notice a lot of peripherals in my reading.

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    3. And I thought I was training you up to notice exactly those peripherals!

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  2. Moira - Men's footwear plays an important role in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And now you've got me thinking about footwear in other crime fiction too. A lovely Guardian piece, and thanks for the 'food for thought.'

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    1. Great point Margot - I thought of One Two Buckle My Shoe then left it at that, but I'm sure there are other good ones - actually there's a Josephine Tey where shoes play a vital role too. Shoes are always good because if you impersonate, or swap clothes, shoes are a big issue because they have to be right size. Can we hope for a Confessions blogpost on this topic...?

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  3. Moira, I'm with Col, though I wonder if Cinderella's glass slippers would count. I did think of cowboy shoes in western novels but they all appear the same to me. Fascinating post!

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    1. Thanks Prashant, glass slippers are a perfect example - especially with the plot device of trying the lost shoe on every woman in the kingdom. It doesn't do to have too many stereotypes, but I think noticing shoes probably is more of a female thing.

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  4. Congrats on appearing in The Guardian - best I ever managed was the letters page!

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    1. Thanks Sergio - it makes me very happy, because the Guardian really is my spiritual home. Still an achievement to get on the letters page - what was your letter about?

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  5. Shoes are not my thing; I can appreciate their beauty, but mostly I like sturdy, low-heeled shoes. I do like athletic shoes, which is strange because I am not athletic at all. But they are comfortable and sometimes look very cool and the only type of shoe I can wear with my problem feet. Oh well.

    I can definitely understand how shoes could be symbolic and I like your favorite example.

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    1. I had some great shoes in my time, but now I go for comfort and flat heels. And although I did love finding descriptions of fancy shoes, Cider with Rosie really was the best one...

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  6. Yes, comfortable shoes. The battle of those with beautiful shoes. Oh, aging ... another acquiescence to it. I try to wear nice-looking shoes that are comfortable, and which won't contribute to tripping or falling!

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    1. I used to wear very high heeled-shoes for work, in a very active job. Now I can scarcely make it through a social evening in them...

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  7. Oops, want to add in the truth is stranger than fiction category on shoes: A woman in the States was convicted a few weeks ago of stabbing her spouse to death with 5 1/2" stilettos. Hasn't this been a murder weapon in some mysteries?

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    1. You'd think someone must have used that... especially as I believe stiletto heels are named after a kind of knife?

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  8. Those pulp cover artists in the 1950s sure had a thing for depicting femmes fatales in high heels, but the only example I can think in which shoes play a part in the story if Richard Marsten’s The Spiked Heel, a novel nefarious doings in the shoe industry.

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    1. Great contribution thanks, and great title! I just looked it up, it sounds like a winner. Femme fatales in cover drawings can of course wear very high narrow heels, they don't need to be able to walk...

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