James Bond’s been, Indiana Jones has been, Charlie Chan’s been, Hetty Feather’s been, Asterix has been, Paddington’s been and caused chaos. Of course he did. A trip to the circus has proved impossible to resist for so many writers and film-makers ever since the cry of “Roll-up, roll-up” echoed from the first big top. I’ve been twice; both my children’s books feature a circus.
“The circus is good for you,” declared Ernest Hemingway. “It is the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”
There is certainly something dreamlike about the circus – though I don’t see that dream as always a happy one – and that is why it holds such appeal for writers. There’s an air of mystery and improbability to the circus, circus people do things others can’t. They don’t keep their feet on the ground.
“Welcome to the magic world of the circus, a world where anything can be,” says Pingali in my new book, The Acrobats of Agra. Or as Katherine Rundell put it in her last book, The Good Thieves, “Vita pushed the door open, and found herself in another country.”
In the Acrobats I use the circus in part as sanctuary. A circus is full of extraordinary people, so much difference, so in 19th-century India it offers a way for a British girl and an Indian boy to be together. Through their adventures across a country enflamed by the 1857 rebellion, Beatrice suggests ways they might find a safe haven together. Bea’s a newcomer to India, naïve to the realities of life for so many Indians under British rule. Pin is her age, but their lives and experiences are as distant as the earth from the sun.
Running away to the circus is a theme that’s featured in stories for children – and adults – since the circus as we know it emerged towards the end of the 18th century. By 1857 the travelling circus was growing in popularity. Philip Astley, a former British cavalryman, is credited as starting the circus when he added acrobats, rope dancers and jugglers to his horse show. An American, Joshuah Purdy Brown, came up with the idea of the Big Top and from there the circus packed its bags. European circuses toured the US, Cuba, South America, China, Russia and India. And as they went they collected people and acts from the countries they visited – plate spinners and acrobats from China for example.
In an era that witnessed a heightened sense of nationalism across Europe, with the great powers scrambling ruthlessly to expand their empires, these circuses were places where different nationalities intermingled happily. Places where difference was, it would seem, accepted more than the societal norm.
Of course, there is another side. “Jacques had the circus in his blood,” Bea discovers in the Acrobats. “He could somersault before he could walk. He knew it was all an act, a pretend world; from the outside magical and fantastical and dazzling and sparkling. From the inside… well, all that glitters is not gold.”
A decade or so earlier PT Barnum had introduced General Tom Thumb – real name Charles Stratton – to Queen Victoria. Barnum wanted to make money; he was an exploiter of his acts and audiences. But was there also some good in what he was doing for his acts, as depicted in The Greatest Showman?
In my first book, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways, Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities is the starting point for the story. Peter collected people with disabilities and made them perform for him and his court, where they were mocked and abused. As was most of the Court. Peter was an extraordinary man, capable of extreme cruelty and great acts of leadership. 18th-century Russia was a cruel place. His Curiosities were often safer and treated better as part of his Court than they would have been outside it. Is that an argument in his favour? History is complicated, rarely cut and dried.
For my characters, Kamal the fire-eater and Jacques the acrobat, the circus is the only home they know. It’s canvas walls protect them, the people within an extended family.
What I love about the circus and acrobats in particular is firstly they are doing something so far beyond my capability and courage. Watching an acrobat makes me feel much as Bea does in the opening to the Acrobats, swept away by the performance, head tipped back in spellbound admiration.
There’s a broader fascination too. This is the circus as an ideal. As a writer it can be used as a place where differences can be forgotten. A place where, in mine and my characters’ dreams, Bea, Jacques and Pin, three children from contrasting worlds can be together in a world of their own and we get to sit in the stands and see how happy they are.
THE ACROBATS OF AGRA by Robin Scott-Elliot out now in paperback
(£8.99, Everything with Words)
Follow Robin Scott Elliot on twitter @RobinScottEllio and find out more at robinscottelliot.com
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