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The Circus is Coming

The Circus is Coming was first published in 1938. The US edition (1939) was entitled Circus Shoes. It is now available in the UK as Circus Shoes, but is out of print in the US.


Story | Connections to Other Books | Background | Awards | Thoughts | Editions and Availability

Story

The Circus is Coming tells the story of a brother and sister, Peter and Santa, who have been brought up by their Aunt Rebecca. When Peter is twelve and Santa eleven, their aunt dies, and there are plans to send them to orphanages. Peter and Santa do not want to be separated, so they run away to their only other relative - Uncle Gus, who works for a Cobb's Circus.

Due to the somewhat strange way they have been brought up by their aunt, Peter and Santa are both very naive, and also rather unyielding in their views of the world. During the summer they spend travelling with the circus, they mature, and find places for themselves within the circus community.

Connections to Other Books

The Circus is Coming/Circus Shoes has no connections to the other "shoes" books.

However, in The Children on the Top Floor, Thomas visits Cob's Circus. Although he does not meet any of the performers personally, we learn that the circus still has many of the same acts: the Elgins, Maxim Petoff's Liberty Horses, Schmidt's Sea-Lions, Kundra's Elephants and The Whirlwinds. (At the end of The Circus is Coming, we were told that the Elgins had finished their contract with Mr Cob, and they were going to Paris, and then America. After the Second World War, they must have returned to England, and rejoined Cob's Circus.)

Background

After completing Tennis Shoes, Noel spent a holiday in America. When she returned, Mabel Carey (of J. M. Dent & Sons) suggested that her next book could be about a circus. Although there is no evidence, it seems not unlikely that the idea may have been sparked by Noel's creation of Annie, the trapeze artist/cook in Tennis Shoes. To prepare for the book, Mabel arranged for Noel and Stephen Spurrier (who was to illustrate it) to travel with Bertram Mills circus.

Having gathered her material, Noel decided to travel on a slow cargo boat to California, and write on the journey. She remained in America for seven months, during which time she completed The Circus is Coming. In spite of her tour, Noel found there were still many gaps in her knowledge, so she decided to write the book from the perspective of two characters who were also ignorant about the circus world.

The Circus is Coming was released for Christmas 1938, and "[m]ost reviewers praised it warmly" (Bull, 1984:153). There were, however, some dissident opinions: the Time and Tide reviewer thoroughly disliked Peter and Santa, wishing that Noel had "killed them off, instead of trailing them through the book and nearly spoiling her excellent material" (quoted in Bull, 1984:152).

Awards

1938 - Carnegie Medal.

1948 - Listed by the Library Association as one of a number of "books which should always be in print".

Thoughts

Fundamentally, The Circus is Coming is about personal growth: as a result of their experiences, Peter and Santa change and become nicer people. This is not one of Noel's common themes in her children's writing - the only other novel in which it is central is The Growing Summer. (It is present, but not the major driving force, in The Painted Garden, and, to a lesser degree, Gemma.) Even more than Nicky of Tennis Shoes, Peter and Santa are not the typical hero/heroine of children's books of the 1930s. Angela Bull feels that "Peter in particular is a most subtly developed character" and that Noel makes the children's progress "absolutely convincing, demonstrating, as she did with Nicky, that heroes and heroines can be carved from the most unpromising materials" (1984:152). Bull is also very impressed by the character of Gus, "a touchy, self-sufficient man, with no wish to assume responsibility for two children who will only get in his way. ... The relationship is dissected in an uncompromisingly adult way, untouched by easy sentiment, or any wish to make the reader comfortable" (1984:153).

This makes The Circus is Coming one of Noel's most challenging books, and for this reason some children may find it less appealing than her earlier works. However, this difficulty is to a large extent counterbalanced by the fascinating picture of circus life she draws - less fairy-tale and more interesting than that of Enid Blyton's Mr Galliano's Circus (which was published in the same year). The Circus is Coming demands a slightly more sophisticated reader than Mr Galliano's Circus, but it is ultimately a far more rewarding experience, both as a character story and as a tale about circus life.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

The Circus is Coming was first published in 1938 by J. M. Dent & Sons, with illustrations by Stephen Spurrier. There is a publisher's note saying that owing to serious illness, Stephen Spurrier was unable to complete the finished drawings; so instead the rough sketches, made while travelling with the circus, have been used.

This edition was reprinted a number of times. The 5th printing (1948) had a revised text, and was illustrated by Clarke Hutton.

In 1956, Puffin Books released a paperback version of the revised edition, with the Clarke Hutton illustrations. It seems possible that the revisions to the text were made by Noel herself, and that the 1956 edition may have been further revised from the 1948 printing: the copyright notification in the Puffin reads "Noel Streatfeild, 1938, 1956".

I have not been able to compare the first and fifth printings, but based on the Puffin edition, the changes do not affect the plot or characters, nor do they seem to reflect changes brought about by the Second World War (except that a sea-lion, named Hitler in the original edition, is renamed Sigfried). Instead, there are numerous adjustments to the writing style, and cuts to small pieces of extra detail. As examples, some of the changes from Chapter One are listed below:

1938 (first) edition

Peter and Santa were orphans. Their father and mother were killed in a railway accident when they were babies, so they came and lived with their aunt.

1956 edition

Peter and Santa were orphans. When they were babies their father and mother were killed in a railway accident, so they came and lived with their aunt.

Lord Bronedin went to a preparatory school and was down for Eton. Aunt Rebecca had never seen either, but she knew the duchess's views on education, and so would not send Peter to an ordinary school. Instead she got him a tutor. Lord Bronedin went to a preparatory school and to Eton. Aunt Rebecca could not possibly afford either, but she would not send Peter to an ordinary school. Instead she sent him to be taught privately.
She learnt the violin. Not because she was musical, but because Lady Marigold learnt to play one. There could not really be a more stupid reason. She learnt the violin, not because she was musical, but, of all silly reasons, because Lady Marigold had learnt to play a fiddle.
Partly because Miss Fane always had colds and was too ill to teach, and partly because she could not teach anyway, Santa never learnt much. She would not have learnt much even if she had an aptitude for playing the violin, which she certainly had not. Partly because Miss Fane always had colds and was too sniffy to teach, and partly because she could not teach anyway, Santa never learnt much, and would not have learnt much even if she had had an aptitude for playing the violin, which she certainly had not.
They were more ignorant even than you would expect from their comic education They were more ignorant even than you would expect from their dreadful education
Peter would not have minded going to school, but deep inside him he felt it would give the school a bit of a lift if they were lucky enough to get him. Peter would have liked to go to school like other boys, but he supposed Aunt Rebecca was right not to let him.
Aunt Rebecca obviously could not put Santa into riding clothes in Battersea, so she took the London angle and dressed her smartly. Matching hats and coats and always gloves. The same London dressing happened to Peter. Lord Bronedin had looked a perfect disgrace in the country, but he had good clothes in London. Peter had fairly good suits and overcoats, and he always had to war gloves. So it was that they really had none of those sorts of clothes which you can do anything in becuase it does not matter what happens to them. The result was that they played games to suit what they wore. Quiet, gentle games, where nothing could get torn. Aunt Rebecca took the idea of smart clothes in London very seriously, and dressed Santa as well as she could in nicely tailored coats, a matching hat, and, what Santa hated, always gloves. The same London dressing happend to Peter. Lord Bronedin had looked a perfect disgrace in the country, but he had good clothes for London. Poor Peter was never allowed to wear old lclothes, but always well-brushed suits, and in winter a good overcoat. So neither of them ever knew the glory of putting on the sort of clothes which you can do anything in because it does not matter waht happens to them. Their clothes, of course, affected everything they did, including the games they played. You cannot play anything but quiet games, in clothes that have to be thought about all the time.

What with one thing and another Peter and Santa were rather queer. They lived shut up in the Battersea house feeling rather smug and better than their neighbours; doing their lessons with their odd teachers; playing old-fashioned games. They made scrap-books, taking great care not to get any paste on to their clothes; they played spillikins with an old ivory set that had belonged to the duchess; they played solitaire with a board Lady Vansittart had given one Christmas. But they never played anything that was even mildly rough, and they had never put their noses out of the front door without their gloves on.

What with one thing and another Peter and Santa were becoming rather odd children.

The paperback was reprinted a number of times throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

US Editions

In 1939 the US edition, retitled Circus Shoes and with illustrations by Richard Floethe, was published by Random House.

There have been at least two more recent US editions, including a 1981 large print edition (with the Richard Floethe illustrations) by Gregg Press Children's Literature Series, and a 1985 paperback by Dell Publishing Company.

As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text was in any way amended.

Still in print

The Circus is Coming is out of print in the US.

In the UK, Hodder & Stoughton Childrens currently has a paperback edition, although, somewhat oddly, it has the US title of Circus Shoes. From the website, it is not clear whether this is the original text, or the 1956 revised edition.

 

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