N.B. The Manolo’s friend Sarah (who has the new blog!) is back with yet another literary shoe moment which will edify and amuse.
The first shoes I remember wearing were Buster Browns. Every fall my mom would buy a brown pair for my brother, a red pair for my sister, and a blue pair for me. They looked, more or less, like this:
(It was the early 70s. Toddler-aged boys could wear this kind of thing their fathers worrying about some bizarre danger to their toddler-aged machismo. Darth Maul sneakers hadn’t been invented yet. Darth Maul hadn’t been invented yet. STAR WARS hadn’t been invented yet. I digress.)
For very special occasions, like church and birthday parties, my sister and I had patent leather mary-janes, like these.
They had soles so slick that Mom had to put strips of electrical tape on the bottom to keep us from wiping out on our way into the Sunday school room. To keep them shiny and prevent them from cracking, we rubbed them with a thin coat of Vaseline every now and again.
You’ll note that the striking thing about these shoes is their complete and utter tediousness. I suppose they’re classically good-looking, but they did nothing to set my poetic little heart on fire with a deep and abiding passion for the cobbler’s art.
No. For that awakening it was necessary, as it always has been, for me to turn to the revelations contained in a good book.
The book, in this case, was Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl. (I bet at least one of you is already nodding and smiling. I can’t be the only one.) And the scene is this one:
“There’s one thing you must have, and that is, bronze boots,” said Fan, impressively.
“Why must I, when I’ve got enough without?”
“Because it’s the fashion to have them, and you can’t be finished off properly without. I’m going to get a pair, and so must you.”
“Don’t they cost a great deal?”
“Eight or nine dollars, I believe. I have mine charged; but it don’t matter if you haven’t got the money. I can lend you some.”
“I’ve got ten dollars to do what I like with; but it’s meant to get some presents for the children.” And Polly took out her purse in an undecided way.
“You can make presents easy enough. Grandma knows all sorts of nice contrivances. They’ll do just as well; and then you can get your boots.”
“Well; I’ll look at them,” said Polly, following Fanny into the store, feeling rather rich and important to be shopping in this elegant manner.
“Aren’t they lovely? Your foot is perfectly divine in that boot, Polly. Get them for my party; you’ll dance like a fairy,” whispered Fan.
Polly surveyed the dainty, shining boot with the scalloped top, the jaunty heel, and the delicate toe, thought her foot did look very well in it, and after a little pause, said she would have them.
And the picture. Oh my dears, the picture! (Yes, I still have my childhood copy of this novel. And yes, I knew exactly where it was. And yes, I remembered the picture in every tiny detail. It’s my Proustian madeleine, all right?)
Look at those shoes! They beat Buster Browns and mary-janes without even trying. That scalloped top! The curved heel! The instant sophistication! Not to mention the enticing, and to my childhood mind, utterly mysterious descriptor of them as “bronze.” Were they just bronze in color? Were they shiny and metallic like Mom’s fancy dress up sandals? Did they have metal tips on the toes like my tap shoes? What could bronze boots possibly be—beyond beautiful, unattainable, and forbidden?
My desire knew no bounds. It still doesn’t. Looking at that picture again…who wouldn’t want those shoes?
I should, perhaps, be more cautious in my lust. Because there is something about that scene I had forgotten. Because (since An Old-Fashioned Girl is that particular kind of nineteenth-century fiction for girls that, as Alcott put it, “is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period”) our Polly learns a sorrowful lesson after buying her boots.
It was all very delightful till she got home, and was alone; then, on looking into her purse, she saw one dollar and the list of things she meant to get for mother and the children. How mean the dollar looked all alone! and how long the list grew when there was nothing to buy the articles.
“I can’t make skates for Ned, nor a desk for Will; and those are what they have set their hearts upon. Father’s book and mother’s collar are impossible now; and I’m a selfish thing to go and spend all my money for myself. How could I do it?” And Polly eyed the new boots reproachfully, as they stood in the first position as if ready for the party. “They are lovely; but I don’t believe they will feel good, for I shall be thinking about my lost presents all the time,” sighed Polly, pushing the enticing boots out of sight.
Bronze boots were clearly going to lead me immediately down the path of temptation, sin, and financial irresponsibility.
I was doomed.
Happily, I am all but impervious to moral instruction, as my detailed recollection of the boots and complete failure to recall their intended lesson clearly indicates. To this day, I am on the alert for bronze boots, in the hopes of dancing like a fairy and looking perfectly divine.
And I swear I shall keep buying more shoes until I find them.