Welcome to Haxby’s Circus, a world of wandering, of pitching the big top on bare paddocks beside some small town, then of trailing off again on the long dusty roads that lie between the harvest fields… Also a world where a young woman is able to discover herself as a person, and to triumph in adversity.
Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), a great Australian novelist, wrote 13 novels and 4 volumes of poetry. She researched Haxby’s Circus (1930) while travelling through the countryside with Wirth’s Circus.
The dedication in the front of this book reads:
To my good friends of Wirth’s Circus in memory of our time together and their ‘assistant lion tamer.’
I didn’t take a whole lot of notice of this dedication in the beginning and it wasn’t until I got about three-quarters of the way through this novel that I revisited this dedication and realised the full import of it. Katherine Susannah Prichard must have at some point immersed herself in the life of Wirth’s Circus, and while I can’t know this for sure without consulting her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, the level of anecdotal evidence included within the pages of Haxby’s Circus lend it an authenticity that is evident in only the very best of novels.
This is truly a wonderful work of fiction, a piece of Australian history that is quite timeless in its retelling and accessible to all generations in its language. Written in the 1930s, with the exception of the odd turn of phrase, Haxby’s Circus is entirely modern in its depiction of humanity and is more than worthy of that illustrious title of ‘classic literature’.
I’ve always been partial to stories about the circus and over time my expectations have risen as I approach each new circus story. That Haxby’s had escaped my notice for so long is a true mystery, but now that I’ve read it my literary life has been well and truly enriched.
While not a long novel, it’s only about 280 pages, it has a sweeping saga aspect to it, in that it begins when Gina Haxby, daughter of Dan Haxby, proprietor and founder of Haxby’s Circus, is eighteen years of age and the shining star of her family’s small but successful show. From this point on, we are treated to the ebb and flow of everyday life within a travelling circus, the highs and the lows, the desperation and celebration, right up to the point where Gina is approximately fifty years old at the novel’s close, now the owner of what has become an extremely successful and quite large circus that barely resembles the one she grew up in.
I’ve never read any other Prichard novels so I can’t attest to what her usual style was, but with this novel, she tapped right into her characters at the deepest level, weaving a story that is absorbing as much for its human aspect as it is for its interesting historical aspect. Readers need to bear in mind though that this novel was written in 1930 and is consequently a reflection of Australian society, particularly the rural landscape, of that era. It is not politically correct, discrimination is evident for several marginalised groups, and the treatment of circus animals is frank and at times distressing. But because it was written back then as a modern text, it is a fascinating sociological study of a certain way of life that no longer exists.
There is a particular passage later in the novel that documents the animals purchased by Gina while on a buying trip to Singapore. The bargain prices she was able to secure are noted and celebrated:
A hundred pounds for the young Bengal tiger, forty pounds for the leopards, fifty for an orangutan family, father, mother and baby, ten for wolves, six pounds for a pair of Malayan bears and from one hundred and fifty to two hundred for the elephants, a pair of Capucin monkeys she had got for next to nothing and brought a silver gibbon as a present to Max. The animals stood the journey well, with the exception of the elephants, two of which died on the way.
The easy acquisition of these animals stunned me, yet once again, the era in which this novel was written, coupled with the dedication at the front of the novel, testifies that this was par for the course. No wonder the animals of our planet are nearing extinction. When you think about how many circuses around the world would have been purchasing animals for their menagerie, how many zoos would have been doing likewise, it really becomes a depressing notion to contemplate.
Haxby’s Circus is a novel that quietly moves you. Prichard is not given to dramatics, nor is she one to waste words. Perhaps that’s why she was able to cover so much ground without using too many pages!
There are two significant times that her simplicity reduced me to tears, and both of those times involved Gina.
The first was when we learned of the true depth of Rocca’s feelings for her:
“The most perfect soul I ever met in my life’s wandering.”
And then, from Bach, this note to Gina accompanying the bag containing his precious gemstones: “For you, my dear, who were the most precious of them.”
I know there are quite a lot of readers looking to expand their reading to include more Australian classics. I encourage you to add Haxby’s Circus to your list. You won’t be disappointed.
Haxby’s Circus is book 9 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.