The Circus is Coming (by Noel Streatfeild)

In between reading new books, and women’s fiction I have previously enjoyed, I like to re-read some of my favourite children’s books. Noel Streatfeild was someone I discovered when I was about seven or eight; she’s best-known for the classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, but wrote quite a number of other books which I have managed to collect, over the years. One of them, which I acquired in 1996 (though I’m fairly sure I had read it as a child) is ‘The Circus is Coming’.

I last read this book in 2009, and didn’t have particularly good memories of it. I recalled it as somewhat disappointing; not a bad book, but a bit dull. However, Streatfeild’s books aren’t particularly long and I knew it would make pleasant enough light reading for a couple of evenings.

The story, set in the 1930s (when it was first published) is about the orphaned Peter and Santa, who have been brought up by a rather snooty aunt. They have been educated at home, rather badly, by various tutors, and taught all kinds of maxims by their aunt. They don’t have any friends as they’re not allowed to mix with other children, so they’re quite close to each other.

When their aunt dies, several somewhat twittery family friends try to establish what to happen, and the only option seems to be an orphanage. Or, rather, two orphanages, as they were apparently single-sex only in those days. Peter and Santa are devastated at the thought of being separated. However, they remember their aunt having received Christmas cards from her brother Gus, although she won’t talk about him. Rather than asking their local friends to get in touch, the two decide to run away…

Gus, it turns out, is a trapeze artiste and clown, working at Cob’s circus. He seems remarkably unfazed when the two eventually turn up, and takes them into his caravan. Most of the book is taken up with their gradual adjustment to ‘tenting’, and their growing relationships with other children and some of the adults in the circus. Peter is quite self-centred and snobbish at first, and they are both surprised and ashamed to learn that they are very ignorant academically.

However, they are accepted on the whole, and learn a lot about the circus, and also about themselves. The book covers about six months when the children travel with the circus to many different towns around the UK. It’s character-based; there’s a fair amount of description of circus procedures, practices and performances, but seen from the eyes of one or other of the children.

As with many circuses of the era, there are many animals on show, including some lions; they are all treated well, but even then it was somewhat controversial. Dogs and horses, it was felt, thoroughly enjoyed what they did in the ring, and liked to be applauded. I felt sorriest for the elephants, kept in small quarters when not in the ring, although they, too, are shown as liking what they do.

As with many of Noel Streatfeild’s books, the final chapter is quite abrupt. The end of the tenting period approaches, and Gus has made a decision about what will happen to the children in future. Then something dramatic happens, and everything changes. It’s quite a satisfying ending, on the whole, and while i’d have liked another few pages, most of the ends are tied up neatly.

Overall I liked it better than I had expected. My edition is falling to pieces, but it has been reprinted several times; recent editions have been re-named 'Circus Shoes'. Recommended to children who like Streatfeild’s writing, or adults collecting her works; or to anyone interested in the circus of the 1930s. While it's clearly dated in the lack of technology, and some of the animals in the circus, it doesn't come across as old-fashioned in style or conversation.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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