Everyone has a favourite pair of shoes. For me it is a pair of shoes I got married in – black patent with black and white spotted bows on the front. I know, they may not be to your taste, but shoes are very individual things! You can tell a lot about a person, or a character, by their shoes. My novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in the seventeenth century, is about the wild flower of that name, but also about shoes. Ella the maidservant is fascinated by her mistress’s footwear. Accustomed to wearing heavy clogs, Ella sees Alice’s butter-coloured slippers as representing everything she cannot afford. The silken slippers with their embroidered roses speak of a life of luxury and leisure.
So why are shoes such a potent symbol for me? It is partly because they’re a metaphor for a mode of transportation and transformation. Look at Dorothy in Frank L Baum’s The Wizard of Oz – her silver slippers (miraculously turned to glistening ruby in the film) are able to take her home with a click of her heels.
Similarly Cinderella is one of the most common folk stories in the world, and her shoes transport her to the ball. Ask anyone about Cinderella, and the image most associated with it is the single glass slipper, probably originally a fur slipper (verre is French for glass, vair is French for fur) which became a symbol of Cinderella’s beauty, leading to the Prince’s search for its pair – the holy grail of footwear!
Shoes take us places literally, but also a change of shoes can bring about a change of personality. Put on a different pair of shoes and you become suddenly someone else. As a child I read the terrifying The Red Shoes by Hans Andersen. Nearly everyone knows the tale where the shoes take on a mind of their own. Vain Karen is horrified to discover that she cannot remove the shoes as they are welded to her feet. Worse, they continue to dance on against her will. Even when she cuts off her feet the wilful shoes continue to dance their macabre polka.
I discovered the origins of this story go back to an incident Andersen witnessed as a small child. By all accounts his father was sent a beautiful piece of red silk by a rich lady to make a pair of dancing slippers for her daughter. He used fine red leather and the lady’s silk for the lining, and worked lovingly on the shoes, only to have the customer tell him he had done nothing but spoil her silk.
But the oldest shoe in the world is not at Northampton. It is a sagebrush bark fibre sandal in the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It was found in Fort Rock Cave in central Oregon in 1938, and is probably 10,500 years old. Most likely it was worn by a native North American who lived in caves during the winter months and hunted in marshes in summer. Tom Connolly, the museum’s research director says of the sandals, “the charred pinpricks on the toe flaps allow you to put yourself at a fireside.”
And for me shoes are objects that reflect not only the aesthetic and fashionable concerns of the day, but also the practical. Looking at them you sense the foot of the wearer, but also the terrain on which they stood.
But one of the oddest thing about old shoes is that they were often concealed and hidden in old buildings. Nobody knows why, but it was supposed that a shoe trapped the spirit of the wearer, and some 1,700 concealed shoes have been found—not just in Britain, but in Germany, Australia, Canada and the United States. More information here.
These have been recorded in a registry by June Swann, Curator at the Northampton Shoe Museum, who according to a National Geographic article, “doesn’t just read books for plot. She reads them for shoes. Madame Bovary’s lover gave her a pair of pink satin shoes trimmed in swan down. Jonathan Swift mentioned wood-soled shoes in Gulliver’s Travels.”
And I am proud to be a follower in her footsteps.
Here’s the synopsis:
It is 1660. The King is back, but memories of the Civil War still rankle. In rural Westmorland, artist Alice Ibbetson has become captivated by the rare Lady’s Slipper orchid. She is determined to capture its unique beauty for posterity, even if it means stealing the flower from the land of recently converted Quaker, Richard Wheeler. Fired by his newfound faith, the former soldier Wheeler feels bound to track down the missing orchid. Meanwhile, others are eager to lay hands on the flower, and have their own powerful motives. Margaret Poulter, a local medicine woman, is seduced by the orchid’s mysterious herbal powers, while Sir Geoffrey Fisk, Alice’s patron and a bitter enemy of Wheeler, sees the valuable plant as a way to repair his ailing fortunes and cure his own agonizing illness. Fearing that Wheeler and his new friends are planning revolution, Fisk sends his son Stephen to spy on the Quakers, only for the young man to find his loyalties divided as he befriends the group he has been sent to investigate. Then, when Alice Ibbetson is implicated in a brutal murder, she is imprisoned along with the suspected anti-royalist Wheeler. As Fisk’s sanity grows ever more precarious, and Wheeler and Alice plot their escape, a storm begins to brew, from which no party will escape unscathed. Vivid, gripping and intensely atmospheric, “The Lady’s Slipper” is a novel about beauty, faith and loyalty.