In the running for the 1936 Carnegie Medal was Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus. Unlike the other highly commended book of that year, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, Sampson’s Circus hasn’t stood the test of time: it’s out of print, and few people now remember Howard Spring as a writer for children. As a result he isn’t among the writers that I encountered as a child, and I was curious to see how Sampson’s Circus would compare to the two more famous books in the running that year. The answer is… not well.
In terms of genre, Sampson’s Circus is a kind of hybrid of the other two books. It features two adoptive brothers: Jo, and his Belgian foster brother Jack, the orphaned son of a Belgian refugee. At the start of the book, they set off on a caravanning holiday, a device which sets the book in the ‘camping and tramping’ genre alongside Ransome’s and lots of others of that period, and wind up travelling with a circus, which provides some of the artistic flavour for which Streatfeild was known (indeed, she was to win two years later with a circus novel). This plot is spiced up by the addition of a mysterious stranger bound on kidnapping Jack, who turns out to be the heir to a fortune in Belgium. It also shares some of the same concerns as Pigeon Post: there’s a real affection for the rural landscape (descriptions of the countryside are the best writing in the book) and the theme of belonging is even more explicit here. When Jack discovers the existence of his inheritance, he rejects it and insists on his British identity, something which the reader is clearly supposed to accept and approve of.
From the vantage point of 2016, it’s hard to believe that this book was ever considered a serious contender: it lacks the nuance and characterisation of Pigeon Post, and is far less realistic or ground-breaking than Ballet Shoes. It feels much more dated than either book, more similar in tone to nineteenth century boys’ adventure stories. (Having said that, it’s also not unlike Enid Blyton, who was just getting started at this point, so it wasn’t that out of step.) The plot itself is muddled: living with the circus could have been a story in itself, and the kidnapping theme adds a lot of complication without ever really paying off in terms of creating tension or threat. There’s a fairly sympathetic portrayal of a working-class character, although the fact that he’s named ‘Charlie Chaffinch’ and Spring’s phonetic transcription of his Cockney accent are quite painful. Much worse than this is the racism: I wasn’t thrilled by the first mention of ‘n- minstrels’ among the circus characters, but wrote it off as an unfortunate period detail which you might easily edit out of a modern edition. When we actually meet a black character, though, it’s not possible to shrug off the problems with his portrayal: unlike Charlie Chaffinch, Buzack never really comes across as a real person. Spring has him speak in pidgin English which resembles faux ‘Red Indian’, and describes him as constantly grinning, then ramps things up to eleven by having Jo and Jack disguise themselves by blacking up and wearing the same costume because it will be ‘impossible’ for anyone to tell the difference between the three. Oh, and they cheerfully refer to themselves throughout a large portion of the rest of the book as ‘Three Little N- Boys’. The book is deservedly out of print, and I like to think that even in 1936 some of these factors weighed against it with the Carnegie Committee.
Despite all this, there are some good elements of the book. The opening description of the Belgian refugees fleeing their home country is genuinely powerful. I enjoyed the competence of Charlie Chaffinch: there’s a running subplot about his desire to have an act in the circus and the ring master’s resistance to this based on the fact that Charlie is so good at runnnig the circus (it’s Charlie himself who explicitly makes this claim, but nothing in the text actually contradicts him). I also very much enjoyed the curate who shows up towards the end of the book, beats Charlie in a boxing match, and proves to know how to pick locks. He achieves all these feats while maintaining a very mild-manned demeanour and constantly muttering about how staid the vicar is. Spring went on to write novels for adults, and I’d be interested to read them: he has the feel of an author for whom the genre of children’s fiction proved a constraint rather than an inspiration. However, I’m definitely glad that the inaugural Carnegie Medal went to Pigeon Post and not to Sampson’s Circus.
My overall rating: 4/10
Themes: Adventure, circus, home, camping and tramping
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Illustrator: Steven Spurrier