The Circus is Coming

Noel Streatfeild returns to the Carnegie with a story of circus life.

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Having missed out on the Carnegie Medal in 1936, Noel Streatfeild got her win in 1938 with The Circus is Coming (now commonly published as Circus Shoes, which annoys me no end as there is no shoe theme or link with Ballet Shoes *grumps*). This year also marks the beginning of some vocal disagreement about the Medal: only a handful of the committee turned up to the award meeting, a fact which was strongly criticised by the pioneering children’s librarian Eileen Colwell. Not unjustly, Colwell felt that the Medal should be awarded by people with a strong interest in children’s books (at this point it was still not awarded by librarians with a specific expertise in this area), and at the very least a full committee. I’m not sure whether she actually disagreed with the choice of The Circus is Coming, or just the rather slapdash way it was chosen. Certainly, Streatfeild’s book isn’t the most famous children’s book published that year (The Sword and the Stone also appeared in 1936, for example) and this isn’t one of Streatfeild’s own best-known titles.

Interestingly, this book combines some of the qualities of Ballet Shoes with the other commended title for 1936, Sampson’s Circus. We have the circus setting of the latter, but with more of the career focus of the former. The book opens with orphans Peter and Santa contemplating the problem of where they will live following the death of their aunt Rebecca, who has taken care of them since the death of their parents in a railway accident.Having been told that they will be sent to orphanages, they recollect the existence of an uncle Gus, and figure out (via postcards he has sent their aunt) that he is part of a circus. Naturally, they decide to run away to the circus, and the majority of the book is dedicated to their life there, their growing understanding of the circus world, and their gradual assimilation as they gain circus skills. The book culminates in them saving the circus horses from a potentially devasting fire (an element which I realise as I write gives this book an element of Pigeon Post as well as the other two 1936 titles) and being accepted as permanent members of the circus.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book sounds as if it would be pure wish fulfilment, but ends up being soomething much more substantial. In a lesser novel of this genre, Peter and Santa would turn out to be circus prodigies almost as soon as they arrived in the circus. However, not only does Streatfeild resist this route, she gives us protagonists who for most of the book aren’t really good at anything. The first chapter introduces us to Peter and Santa’s rather peculiar background: we’re told that ‘Being lady’s maid to a duchess has made Aunt Rebecca suppose that only dukes and duchesses, and perhaps kings and queens, could be right’. Aunt Rebecca accordingly does her best to bring Peter and Santa up in the way that the duchess had recommended for children, an effort which is considerably hampered by her very limited income. As a result, they’ve been tutored by an odd assortment of unqualified tutors rather than sent to school, dressed in ‘best’ clothes all the time, and become generally rather secluded and timid. They’ve been encouraged to think of themselves as rather special, so it’s a shock when first the people they meet when running away, and later the circus people, find them both odd and rather dull in their lack of any ‘useful’ knowledge. I’m a little ambivalent about the way this is set up: there’s definitely a classist element in the way Aunt Rebecca is implied to be trying and failing to ape her betters, and it’s not insigificant that one of the turning points in the way Peter and Santa see themselves is their discovery that their parents and grandparents were ‘quite simple people’ – all domestic servants. On the other hand, all the working-class characters in the book (which is most of them, if we class circus performers as working-class) are portrayed with complete respect and realism, and Gus is shown to be proud of his family. More importantly, the theme of the book as a whole centres around the value of work: everyone in the circus takes it for granted that working hard is important and is baffled by Peter and Santa’s rather passive attitude. Work is explicitly presented as an opportunity to shape your own destiny: one character tells Santa  ‘I don’t understand you kids. If I wasn’t any good at my books, I’d start practising up for something I could do. I wouldn’t want to be pushed into some job just because I hadn’t worked at anything special’. This is a theme which is present in Ballet Shoes, but comes back even more strongly here: we never get to see Peter and Santa shine at their circus skills (haute ecole riding and acrobatics respectively), but we do get the satisfaction of seeing them work and gradually improve.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book is shaped by Noel Streatfeild’s own experiences: she travelled with Bertam Mills circus for several months in preparation for writing the novel. This really shows in the portrait of circus life, which has a specificity which is completely absent from Sampson’s Circus. A lot of attention is paid to the different acts, for example, and the proper terminology for each: there’s a Risley Act (involving juggling people), haute ecole riding, clowns and augustes, and different types of trapeze work. Having spent a short time with a circus, I was intrigued by how many details were the same: for example, Streatfeild mentions the clogs worn by performers on their way to the tent (nowadays more likely to be Crocs!). All of this is what really makes the book live.

The Circus is Coming isn’t quite as readable and accessible as Ballet Shoes, not least because Peter and Santa are not necessarily very likeable characters. They’re very believable, though, especially in their interactions with one another: Streatfeild does a good job of portraying children who fight realistically but also have a genuine bond with one another. In fact, all the characters are well-drawn: I liked the fact that we’re allowed to see their uncle’s point of view, and Streatfeild is frank about the fact that he finds them something of an inconvenience and not all that easy to get on with, especially at first. The foreign characters are all well-drawn, too; although she’s sometimes a little heavy-handed on the bad English, there’s a sense that this is masking real people and real cultures  who just can’t necessarily express themselves completely. It helps that Peter and Santa are not particularly admirable, as this means that when they judge the other characters we tend to feel that they are the ones who are wrong, rather than allying ourselves with their point of view. Interestingly, this is the third book in this project so far which features a ‘foreign’ character asserting their Britishness.

As I’ve established previously, I love Noel Streatfeild and I really enjoyed this book. It’s less overtly radical than Ballet Shoes, but in asserting the value of work and the value of the people who work hard, I think it does have a somewhat progressive stance. I personally would pick this over The Sword in the Stone, though clearly Streatfeild and I are on the wrong side of history in this regard. Perhaps this is the first of the Carnegie Medal winners to get the award that ‘should’ have gone to an earlier book by the same author, but it stands up in its own right.

 

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 8/10

Plot: 7/10 (There’s not a huge amount to the plot, and it’s really more about the characters and the setting)

Characterisation: 8/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, work, performance, circus

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier

 

 

Ballet Shoes

Not a Carnegie winner, but certainly an enduring presence in the world of children’s literature: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes.

The third book to be highly commended for the inaugural Carnegie Medal was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Obviously, unlike Sampson’s Circus, this book is very much still in circulation today. In fact, in terms of an actual child readership I’m fairly sure it’s stood the test of time rather better than Pigeon Post: the fact that the latter is now being published with its original jacket design suggests that it’s really targeting the adult nostalgia / scholarly market, whereas the edition of Ballet Shoes  currently available on Amazon  sports a lurid pink cover with a photo of ballet shoes which is clearly intended to appeal to a certain type of contemporary child reader. (I like to think that the charming Ruth Gervis illustrations from the first edition would still appeal to children, but hey ho.) It undoubtedly holds a more prominent place in popular culture than Pigeon Post (and maybe even than Swallows and Amazons), with its latest TV adaptation in 2007. Possibly this proves that the Carnegie Committee did have some instinct for popularity as well as prestige (or it may have just been luck).

I didn’t read this book as a child (otherwise I might have been more receptive to the ballet lessons my mother insisted I take) but I can’t claim to be coming to this book without any preconceptions. Coming to Streatfeild’s books at some point in adulthood, I gobbled them up as if they had been childhood favourites, and I can still reread any of her books with blithe disregard for the weaker bits. She does tend to recycle quite a lot, hitting the same narrative beats and sometimes even repeating dialogue, but this doesn’t diminish my enjoyment in the slightest. So, fair warning that I don’t necessarily have a lot of critical distance from this book.

For those of you who have inexplicably missed out on Ballet Shoes, it’s the story of three orphans – Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil – who are ‘collected’ like Fossils by an eccentric elderly gentleman (Great Uncle Matthew – or Gum for short) who finds them during his travels around the world and essentially dumps them on his niece, Sylvia. They aren’t blood sisters and all have quite different backgrounds: Pauline is the survivor of a shipwreck, Petrova the daughter of a Russian soldier who Gum meets in hospital, and Posy the child of a ballerina who doesn’t really care for children. Being eccentric, the same day he acquires Posy, Gum disappears on a 5-year journey which turns out to last more like 10. As a consequence of Sylvia’s money running out due to his extended absence, the three Fossil girls end up training at a ballet school in order to ensure they have some prospect of earning money. The majority of the plot concerns their training and careers. There’s a degree of wish fulfilment in this, particularly in the case of Posy, who turns out to have a natural gift for dancing and becomes the protégé of the owner of the school. Really, though, this is a career novel, and Streatfeild is a lot more interested in the hard work involved in the performing arts than in the fantasy of the novice who turns out to be magically better than everyone else. This is probably partly a reflection of Streatfeild’s own background in the performing arts – she trained at RADA and worked as a professional actress for over 10 years – but I think that it also reflects a wider cultural preoccupation with the value of work. Pigeon Post is also very much a book about hard work (the earlier Ransome books are interested in play; the events of PP are explicitly contrasted with these when Nancy comments that the prospecting is ‘serious business, with no pretence about it’), and this is a theme we’ll come back to in some of the books to come.

Although Ballet Shoes shares this theme with Pigeon Post, in every other respect it’s very difference. Where Ransome’s book is about preserving heritage, Streatfeild’s is about radical change. At the start of the book, we’re introduced to Great Uncle Matthew, his habit of collecting fossils, and his house:

Collecting fossils, he naturally needed somewhere to put them, and that is how he came to buy the house in the Cromwell Road. It had large rooms, and about six floors, including the basement, and on every floor, and in almost every room, he kept fossils. Naturally a house like that needed somebody to look after it […]

Sylvia, his niece, is the person who ends up looking after the house, and she seems to be largely responsible for keeping it as Gum likes it, bar the occasional tussle over disposing of a few fossils when he collects too many. This is backstory, though, and by the time of the novel Gum has collected a different sort of ‘Fossil’: the three girls, who adopt this as their shared surname because they have been collected just like the fossils. Of course children are not fossils, though, and so both they and the rest of the household grow and change. When money starts to run out, Sylvia starts to take borders in order to earn money, despite her conviction that Gum wouldn’t like them. She ceases ‘keeping’ the house and starts making ‘a lot of alterations’. Her boarders also bring a lot of alterations: they include a dancer (who suggests the ballet school option for the girls), two female literature professors (who are surely gay, and gloriously self-fulfilled with their joy in Shakespeare and their delicious hot drinks which are heavily implied to be laced with spirits), and a couple who arrive with a motor car (of which more anon). The message runing throughout the book is that it’s not possible or even desirable to try to keep life just as it’s always been: when faced with change it’s better to roll with the punches and work hard to make something good out of your new circumstances. The book pushes back against the idea that the performing arts are not ‘respectable’ (much is made of how carefully regulated child performers are), and we’re given a beautiful alternative family made up of all these unrelated women (the three Fossil sisters, Sylvia,  and their nurse Nana) with the boarders as a kind of extended family.

The idea of change is most important to Petrova. Notwithstanding the great significance of the performing arts to this book, it’s really Petrova’s book. She’s the only one of the three sisters who doesn’t take to performing: she’s competent, but she finds it all a bore, and is really interested in mechanics. Streatfeild doesn’t typically linger on characters’ internal lives, but when she does delve into feelings it’s usually Petrova who she’s focusing on.  Petrova struggles the whole way through with her conviction that her desire to work with machines is unattainable, both because she’s a girl and because the family can’t afford for her not to make money on the stage. By the end, though, she’s able to pursue this dream (Gum returns and is very pleased with the idea of Petrova training as a pilot) and it’s vindicated as a really important thing for a girl to do. The Fossils have instituted a vow that they’ll put their name in the history books, but Pauline and Posy see their success in the performing arts as closing off this possibility (though I think the novel sets us up to feel that they’re wrong). The responsibility therefore devolves onto Petrova:

‘You’ll go into history books. That’ll put Fossil there all right; it doesn’t matter about Pauline and me.’

Petrova looked puzzled. ‘How will I?’

‘Flying, of course.’ […]

‘Would that?’ said Petrova.

‘Of course.’ Pauline spoke eagerly. ‘Don’t you see? It’s sort of exploring, like Frobisher, or Drake. Amy Mollison and Jean Batten will be there, but not as important as you. The books will say: “The greatest explorer in the middle of the twentieth century was Petrova Fossil, who found routes by which goods could be carried at greater speed and less cost, and so she revolutionized trade.”

The mention of Amy Mollison and Jean Batten works to emphasise that this is an achievable feat (both were notable aviators). The reference to exploring also fascinates me: I’ve suggested that Pigeon Post is all about valuing the British landscape, something which seems to me to be part of the response to the unravelling of Empire. Here Petrova’s future is framed specifically in terms of exploration: something which fits her into the imperial narrative. In one sense I suppose this is regressive, but it’s also incredibly radical: Petrova, who is both female and foreign-born, is presented as someone who can potentially step into the shoes of Drake. There’s a notion here, I think, of reinventing Britain’s identity through radical innovation.

Petrova’s character also provides the one thing Streatfeild’s book has in common with Sampson’s Circus: both books present British identity as something which can be completely and successfully assimilated. Like Jack in Sampson’s Circus, Petrova has been born as a foreign national but brought up in Britain from early childhood. When the ballet school put on a performance to raise money for a Russian hospital, it is seen as especially fitting that Petrova should have a role, but ‘Petrova thought to herself, that though of course she was very glad to help the hospital, it was not because she was Russian; for she was British by adoption, and had taken a British name, and felt very British inside.’ A topical and rather cheering statement in 1936.

Why didn’t this win in 1936 instead of Pigeon Post? The Carnegie committee stated at the time that one reason was that PP would appeal to both boys and girls, whereas Ballet Shoes and Sampson’s Circus were more likely to appeal to just one gender. I think there’s plenty here that a boy might enjoy, though to some extent it is a story about girlhood (especially when you come to Petrova’s narrative). I think Streatfeild’s characterisation isn’t quite so nuanced and fine-grained as Ransome’s, although in part this is a function of this being a stand-alone book rather than part of a series. Compared to Swallows and Amazons, there is considerably more character detail. As we’ve established, I love Pigeon Post, so while I think Ballet Shoes would have been an equally worthy winner, this isn’t a case where looking at it with the benefit of hindsight makes me think the Medal went to the ‘wrong’ book.  Ballet Shoes would have set a very different tone as the first Medal winner, though: less nostalgic, more radical; much more urban in its concerns; and much more concerned with change. You get the sense, in Streatfeild’s book, of shaking off the Victorian age briskly and cheerfully, with none of the urge to look back and reclaim British heritage which is such a central feature of Ransome’s. This says something about the Carnegie as part of that heritage-building project, a theme to which I suspect I shall return in future posts.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10

Plot: 10/10

Characterisation: 9/10

Themes: Ballet, performing arts, modernity, family, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis (Streatfeild’s sister, though the publisher didn’t realise this when she commissioned the illustrations. You can see Gervis’ original illustrations at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books).

 

Sampson’s Circus

One of the first books highly commended for the Carnegie Medal proves to be justly consigned to the dustbin of history.

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

Plot: 3/10

Characterisation: 4/10

Themes: Adventure, circus, home, camping and tramping

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier