This is a transcription of Episode 12 — The Circus: Found Family and Daring Feats.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to season one, episode 12 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about the greatest show on Earth.
[music plays: Entry of the Gladiators]
David: You’re listening to ‘Entry of the Gladiators,’ which was written by a Czech in 1899. His name was Julius Fučík, and he was a band leader. He had a big bushy mustache that curled up at the ends.
Melissa: Of course.
David: Julius called this piece ‘Entry of the Gladiators’ because he was impressed by a scene in the book Quo Vadis, which is a historical novel about the life and times of Nero.
Melissa: It’s very fanciful music for gladiators.
David: I used to work with a woman who would hum this when things got weird at work. I was never sure if it was a sign or tell.
David: I feel like that would make me really anxious.
David: [laughing] She kind of did it under her breath.
Melissa: I have been looking forward to this episode since we started Strong Sense of Place because I love to go to the circus, and I love books set in the circus. So this is pretty much my ideal episode.
David: We have a lot to cover too.
Melissa: We do. It turns out there’s a lot to say about the circus.
David: There’s so much.
Melissa: I know that some people have a little bit of a negative reaction. So, before we go too much further, I kind of want to clarify. I don’t like the way animals have been treated in the circus either. So, the fact that you know, Barnum and Brothers folded in 2017 because of animal rights is okay with me. The kind of circus I love is the new circus where the circus troupe is using live music and movement and acrobatics and strength to tell a story.
David: One of the most surprising things to me about our move to Prague has been my increase of attendance at circuses.
Melissa: I actually have a page in my travel journal devoted to the different troupes that we’ve seen.
David: And we’ve gone to see them more because the stories, they tell are a lot richer. There’s a story; let’s start there.
Melissa: It’s a form of theater, as opposed to spectacle for spectacle’s sake.
David: Yeah. And they range from just funny and kind of wry — we saw a clown act that was two people a while ago. There’s a circus festival here in Prague. We saw them and they were just lovely. It was just —
Melissa: I mean you say a clown act and I think people imagine big shoes and red nose and curly wigs. This was a sepia-toned tent with two people wearing kind of 19th-century clothes. They didn’t speak, and they acted out a day in the life of a magical tailor.
David: Yeah. And they had a little dog. Little dog was involved with the act.
David: Yeah. It was amazing. It was adorable. And just a hint spooky and really great.
Melissa: You have alluded to what I love about contemporary circus, which is it has an emotional richness to it and it’s a little bit sinister, just slightly — a little off-kilter.
David: It’s theater where it is unclear that things are going to go exactly the way that they’re supposed to go.
Melissa: Yes, and that makes it really exciting.
David: And then we’ve seen other pieces which were like full-on adult theme. There was a circus and the theme of that was basically autobiographical. So it was the circus performers talking about their lives but in a circus way. Right? They were doing clown acts, but they were also doing high-wire acts and balancing tricks and juggling and strength and all of that.
David: One of the acts was about a woman who had lost her partner, and she visualized that for the audience by doing a trapeze act with a partner who did not move. She was just dead weight.
Melissa: She was like a ragdoll.
David: She was like the rag doll. So the one trapeze artist is throwing around and doing things and motioning, and she is not moving at all. And so this one person is carrying the weight of a person who is not reacting at all anymore. And that was an amazing metaphor for me. It was brilliant and fascinating and beautiful to watch.
Melissa: So that’s the kind of circus we’re mostly going to be talking about today. And that’s why I think the circus still has a magical quality. But let’s go back a little bit to the beginning days. Okay. And I want to kind of set the scene. It’s the late 1800s in the United Statesm and you live somewhere rural.
Melissa: Let’s say it’s Oklahoma or Illinois. You work on a farm, and your daily chores are really, really hard. It’s physically demanding work. It’s hot. Maybe it’s dusty. You like the open space, and the freedom. Everything is tan and brown and green and the days are mostly like the day that came before and the day that’s going to come after. Lots and lots of work. And then one day, posters start showing up around town and there brightly-colored, and they have drawings of elephants and tigers and white horses with feathers on their heads, and women wearing leotards with sparkly things on them. There’s maybe a bearded lady. You’ve never seeing anything this colorful in your town before. So for a few months, you’re seeing these posters all over town every day. Then one day, the circus arrives in town. All of the animals — camels and zebras and lions and horses, maybe an elephant — are paraded down the street with clowns dancing around them.
David: That’s a moment that to me is just amazing. The idea that you would have never seen an elephant in person, and then one would be walking down main street of your town. That must’ve been mind blowing, like literally just amazing.
Melissa: Yes, you never seen anything like it before. And so the whole town goes to the show. Everyone you know goes to see that show and has this incredible experience together.
David: And presumably will be talking about it for months after.
Melissa: Before we can get to a giraffe walking down the street in Oklahoma, we have to go back in time and to a different continent. Okay. So first things first: There is a misconception that the circus started in Rome because of the name —
David: Circus Maximus.
Melissa: The Roman circus was actually a racetrack. The only common denominator between that and what we think of as circus is the word circus, which means circle.
David: Right, and the spectacle.
Melissa: So the history that I’m going to cover really briefly — because we could do probably an entire season on the circus —
David: Maybe next season — [laughing]
Melissa: Change of plan! We are just devoting ourselves to the circus now. The history that I’m going to cover today is mostly about the Western modern circus, but there is evidence that there were circus performers entertaining at the Imperial court in China as long as 2000 years ago.
David: Wow. Really?
Melissa: Yeah. The circus was called the Show of 100 Tricks. And it included things like tumbling and balancing and plate spinning and pole-balancing where they would stick a very tall pole in the ground and stand on top of it.
David: Yeah, I’ve seen that act. So Julius Caesar could have seen that act, too.
Melissa: So all of that stuff was happening. But our story is going to begin in the late 1700s in England with a man named Phillip Ashley.
Melissa: He was a former Sergeant-Major in the cavalry and was a very well-known horse breaker and trainer. And after he was discharged from the cavalry, he opened a riding school where he taught students in the morning — and in the afternoon, he performed feats of horsemanship.
David: Wow. Okay.
Melissa: Trick riding was the thing that was becoming more popular and because he was so successful with horses, he decided to try it himself. He performed in a circular arena that he called the circle, but which eventually became the ring as in the ‘three-ring circus.’ The ring was very important for two reasons. One: the audience could see all of the action at once. If you get on a horse and you ride from point A to point B, people are just watching you ride away. So it was really important to have the show happening in front of the audience.
David: Considerably less drama watching somebody ride away.
Melissa: [laughing] Yeah. And second: riding in the circle generated centrifugal force, which allowed the trick riders to keep their balance on the back of a horse that was galloping around. So that’s the secret of being able to stand up and look elegant on the back of a horse is that it’s going in a circle. After two successful seasons at Asltey’s Amphitheater, he was able to dial-down on the personal lessons and dial-up the entertainment, and he actually added more entertaining acts between his trick riding stints. So they were rope-dancers and acrobats and jugglers and clowns that kept the audience hyped up while they were waiting for him to come back and ride on his horse. That was really the beginning of the modern circus where you’re alternating feats of strength and derring-do with clowns and acrobatics.
David: When was that?
Melissa: That was the late 1700s. His amphitheater was so popular that it’s actually named-dropped in stories by famous novelists at the time. Someone you may have heard of named Charles Dickens. Also, James Joyce and Jane Austen. In 1782 he opened the first circus in Paris. It was called the Amphitheater Anglois, and he got his first competitor. So now you know this thing has legs.
David: Wow. He’s spreading out, and he has competition.
Melissa: And his competition was a man named Charles Hughes, who was a former employee of Astley’s company. Circus scandal already!About 10 years later, Charles Hughes was invited to perform in St. Petersburg at the court of Catherine the great and that same year, one of Astley’s students that he had been training at his horse school trained someone else named John Bill Ricketts, and he took the circus to America. So you can directly trace the circus from Astley to the United States.
Melissa: In April of 1793, 800 spectators crowded inside of a walled wooden ring in Philadelphia to watch the country’s first circus performance. That performance included, of course, trick writers, a clown, an acrobat, a rope walker, and a boy equestrian and George Washington, who was president at the time, was in the audience.
Melissa: Yes. Big debut.
David: Big show.
Melissa: Okay. Now we’re going to fast forward a little bit. In 1825, there was a lot of religious revivalism happening in the United States, and in Wilmington, Delaware, the police banned public amusement inside the city limits.
David: No fun in Wilmington, Delaware, which I believe still holds today.
Melissa: Now we’re going to get a hate mail from people who live in Wilmington. A gentlemen named Joshua Purdy Brown was touring with his circus, and he came up with an ingenious idea to get around this law. He put his show inside a canvas tent just outside the city limits.
Melissa: So it looked like a revival show, and that’s how he got around the law and that’s how we got the big top. Another innovation was from a gentleman named Hachaliah Bailey.
David: Wow. Really?
Melissa: Hachaliah Bailey.
David: Oh, that’s so good.
Melissa: The circus has the best names. He lived in Somers, New York, which is just a little bit outside of New York City, and he was a cattle-dealer and for some reason he bought an elephant and he named it Old Bet. He eventually formed the Bailey Circus along with a trained dog, a few pigs, a horse, and four wagons.
David: So on a him he bought an elephant?
Melissa: Yeah, I couldn’t find find specifically why he bought the elephant except that he was a cattle-dealer, and I guess it came across his desk that he could have an elephant, and why not? So Old Bet was very, very popular.
Melissa: Bailey’s neighbors saw how successful he was with his elephant, and a group of farmers also bought exotic animals. So soon there were exotic animals all over Somer’s New York.
David: Keepin’ up with the Joneses. They have an elephant. I want two, I want four, I need an alpaca. How about a panther?
Melissa: Yes. That’s pretty much what happened. A group of 13 menageries — that’s what they were calling these animal-centric circuses — 13 menageries and three circuses formed together and created the Zoological Institute. And they basically cornered the market on the traveling circus business. This was radically different than what was happening in Europe because in Europe it was all family-based and in the United States, it became business-based with businessmen making decisions about how the circus was going to grow. And that was the groundwork for —
[circus announcer shouting] Children of all ages. John Ringling North welcomes you to The Greatest Show on Earth.
Speaker 4: P.T. Barnum created P.T. Barnum’s Museum. Menagerie, and Circus. So he just took all of them. Everything’s going in the title. It’s a menagerie. It’s a museum. It’s a circus. It’s everything you could possibly want. The museum part referred to the traveling exhibition of animal and human oddities. So this is our first appearance of what we would now call the sideshow. And eventually, by 1875, it took 100 wagons to transport the circus. Do you remember our old pal Bailey?
David: Sure. Barnum and Bailey.
Melissa: Exactly. And Barnum and Bailey’s big top grew to accommodate three rings, hence the three-ring circus, two stages, an outside hippodrome track for chariot racing, and audiences up to 10,000 people.
David: Bringing it full circle to the Roman times.
Melissa: Exactly. Okay. We’re going to fast forward a little bit more now. By the early 1900s, the Ringling Brothers were able to buy Barnum and Bailey circus. It’s kind of a sad story. Bailey died. Financial stuff in the United States was terrible. So the Ringling Brothers scooped it up, and formed the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Again with the title, with everything in there. That is the circus that became known as The Greatest Show on Earth. It ran for 146 years, but it closed in 2017 primarily because attendance was dropping because of the animal issues.
David: I think those are two things, right? People are distracted by other entertainments now and also the animal problem had gotten loud.
Melissa: As it should. But we are not without circuses.
David: No. Now we have Cirque du Soleil who have shows on every continent and eight in Las Vegas alone.
David: Yep. One of which has been running for 30 years, as well as an ongoing worldwide circus culture.
Melissa: The thing that’s really cool about Cirque de Soleil is I feel like it is what introduced American audiences to the more European-style of theatrical and storytelling circus with live music. The other thing’s really cool about it is that it’s scalable and so when you go to see Cirque de Soleil, it’s huge over the top in an arena, dozens of performers, but you can also go to a circus festival like we have here in Prague or a small theater like we went to in Berlin where the troupe is maybe six people, and it really creates this cool atmosphere of spectacle and magic, but also storytelling and this intimacy when the show is small like that. You can see their muscles quivering.
Melissa: When we were about to visit a destination that’s new to us, I do three specific Google searches. I look for historical libraries. I look for English-language bookshops. And I look for a circus performance. And that has really paid off for us. When we were in Berlin, we saw a circus troupe from Australia.
[clip of music from Scotch & Soda Circus]
Melissa: It was amazing. They had eight people in the show, and all of them could do trick riding on their bicycles and play instruments. So parts of the show involved them riding in circles on the stage, on their bicycles, playing their instruments, balancing things, juggling —
David: Changing clothes —
Melissa: All while on the bicycle and playing musical instruments. It was amazing and it was a cool theater experience too because it was set up like a 1920s supper club in old Berlin.
David: That’s what I remember about that show. The art direction was just amazing. It had a really 1920s vibe all the way through the whole thing.
Melissa: The menu, the cocktails, the lighting. It was a really magical night.
Melissa: Here in Prague, we have a festival called Letní Letná that takes place every summer. Circus performers from around the world come and put on their shows. It lasts about three weeks, so you can literally go see circus shows every day. It is my favorite time of year.
Melissa: If you are interested in finding a contemporary circus near you or somewhere where you’re going to travel, there is a website called Circus Talk, which I will link to in the show notes, that lists all of the contemporary circuses around the world. Morocco, Tanzania, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Canada, it’s a treasure trove. And there are troupes in the United States, too. There is a very well-respected contemporary circus school in Philadelphia and also another one in Brattleboro, Vermont. So if tumbling and acrobatics are your thing, you can check those out, and I will put links in the show notes for those, too. Always happy to encourage someone to run away with the circus.
David: [laughing] Okay. Are you ready for two truths and a lie?
Melissa: I don’t know — I feel like the circus could be particularly slippery.
David: I don’t know. We’ll see. So, I’m about to read three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is false. Mel does not know which one is true. Here we go. P.T. Barnum read his own obituary.
Melissa: Like, out loud? On the radio?
David: [laughing] He was alive. His obituary was printed in the paper, and he read it.
David: Not everybody gets to do that.
Melissa: Yeah, ‘cause most people are dead.
David: Most people are dead when they’re obituary’s run.
David: Alright. Two: In London, there’s an annual religious service held especially for clowns.
Melissa: That just made me think of that Smokey Robinson song Tears of a Clown.
David: Yeah, a little bit like that. Three: The trapeze gets its name from the Italian acrobat who invented the act: Enzo Trapeze.
Melissa: Once again, you’ve done it. They all sound true. They’re all true. Done. Good night.
Melissa: I think that I read something about the invention of the trapeze, and I think what you said is a lie.
David: You’ve done it.
Melissa: It was a guy named leotard, right?
David: That’s right! The trapeze act was started by a French man, Jules Leotard. Jules Leotard not only developed the art of the trapeze, but also gave his name to the one-piece bodysuit that he wore while performing. He was a law student before he gave up on that and took up the circus life.
Melissa: Interesting. I bet his parents were really pleased with that decision.
David: Well. So, he was the son of a gymnastics instructor who ran a swimming pool and he used to practice his trapeze act above the swimming pool.
Melissa: Cool. So his dad, when he went to law school was like, What are you doing? Put those books down.
Melissa: [laughing] That’s such a cool story. Okay. Someone make a biopic about them.
David: He also inspired the 1867 song The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. He was, in fact, the the daring young man.
[music: recording of the song]
Melissa: That is really cute. Also, we should describe more people as daring. That was a very, very well-constructed falsehood. It had the ring of truth.
David: Thank you very much. The other two — PT Barnum. We need to talk about P. T. Barnum.
David: Yeah. He had an extraordinary life. I don’t know how you fit in as much living as P.T. Barnum fit in. He founded a weekly newspaper before he was 24.
Melissa: Okay. That’s just shutting off.
David: He moved to New York City and he purchased a museum, and he renamed it after himself: Barnum’s American Museum. He was 31.
Melissa: Right on.
David: The museum was right in the middle of Manhattan near where city hall is today. He introduced the American public to the Fiji mermaid, which was a dried monkey sewn to a dried fish, and General Tom Thumb, who was a child dwarf who was presented as if he was an adult.. General Tom Thumb learned how to smoke and drink when he was seven years old.
David: Barnum launched hot air balloon rides from the roof of the Museum, which just thrills me to pieces. The idea people were floating above 1800s Manhattan in a hot air balloon —
Melissa: With Tom Thumb smoking his cigarette. [laughing]
David: What would that look like?
David: At its height, 400,000 people a year visited the museum.
David: Barnum was also an opera promoter. You opened America’s first aquarium. He was also a politician. He was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives. He was mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He helped found a hospital. He was the president of that hospital. He started the first dog show in America. Barnum. Take a breath, man. Holy cow. You think any of those careers would be enough. And that was all before he started the circus. He was 60 when he started the circus.
Melissa: Wow. Do we know what kind of person he was in terms of interpersonal relationships?
David: I don’t know how he was in terms of interpersonal relationships. There are definitely pointers to his politics, and there are some contradictory things that happened during his life. I don’t know how far we want to get into it. One of the very first acts that he had was a slave that he bought — a woman who he presented as being 164 years old. She was actually 84. He drummed up some publicity by arguing whether or not she was authentic in the press both ways. So you would write editorials saying, ‘Yes, she is.’ And then another one saying, ‘No, she’s not. She’s a fake.’ He actually wrote an editorial, at one point, saying that she was a puppet controlled by a marionette, so people would go see her.
Melissa: Oh wow. Yeah. He was just a master of publicity.
David: But then later in his politics, he the campaigned strongly against slavery, but he also had a anti-contraception law that was on the books until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1965.
David: Yeah, so we got some insight to his character.
Melissa: He’s a complicated human.
David: He’s a complicated man. We mentioned P.T. Barnum’s Traveling World Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome And Greatest Show on Earth, which debuted in Wisconsin in 1870. For context, Charles Dickens died in 1870 and it was the year that Christmas became a federally recognized holiday in the United States. Also, personal note, the world’s greatest ice cream Graeter’s was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1870. Barnum also found time to write a few books, and one he wrote many times. The life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself was first released in 1854 when he was 44. And then continuously re-edited and re-issued over the following decades. New additions and appendices appeared on a nearly annual basis, and Barnum helped increase sales by putting the book in the public domain and allowing anyone to publish it.
Melissa: [laughing] It’s amazing, and I really hope that at least one of the covers said The Story of P.T. Barnum ‘by himself.’
David: I think it did. That was the name of the book. He even instructed his widow to write a chapter after he died, chronicling the events of his death. All told, the book sold more than a million copies during his lifetime. So toward the end of his life though,, Barnum talked about how newspapers only printed nice things about people after they died. His health began to decline in 1891, and the New York Evening Sun decided to do something about it. They printed a glowing obituary for him to read while he was still alive.
Melissa: That is very nice.
David: The front-page article was titled: The Great and Only Barnum. He Wanted to Read Hiw Obituary. Here it is.
David: And he died a few days later. He was 81.
Melissa: You can’t say that guy didn’t wring every second out of his life.
David: Fact. I’m sure it was impossible to live with. But he really did. Another important thing to know about Barnam: There is no evidence that he ever said ‘Tthere’s a sucker born every minute.’
Melissa: Good. Because that’s not very nice.
David: Yeah, it’s not.
Melissa: Okay. Clown funeral. Really?
David: Yep. Every year on the first Sunday in February, clowns from all over the world gather to remember the first clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who’s known as the father of modern clowning, and they also remember any other clowns that have passed in the last year. The service is attended by a church full of clowns and full costume and makeup. The account I read made it sound like it’s a combination full of reverence and irreverence.
Melissa: I mean, it would have to be.
David: For instance, one year one of the attendees performed a hymn by squeaking balloon animals. [laughter]
David: The reporter also noticed that there was a banana peel on the sidewalk outside the church.
David: Maybe it was coincidence. We’ll never know.
David: That’s two truths and a lie. You want to talk about books?
Melissa: I do.
David: All right.
Melissa: If I’m being honest, this topic was probably inspired by reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. So I’m just going to grandfather her book in. This is not one of my picks, although it is always my pick. This is one of my top five favorite books of all time. I actually bought my copy in a bookstore when we were visiting Prague in 2011. We were getting ready to leave to go back to the United States, and we went to the Big Ben bookshop, which was really lovely English-language bookshop that doesn’t exist anymore. The Night Circus was on the front display table, and it has that very dramatic black and white and red cover.
Melissa: I just read, I think, maybe, one or two lines of the flap copy and thought, ‘Done. This is my book.’ We got on the plane to fly back to the United States, and I read it nonstop the entire way. The flight just disappeared because I was pulled into the story completely. I’m gonna assume lots of people have read this book because it was a _New York Time_s bestseller for quite a while.
David: Yeah. I also love this book. It’s been a while since I read it. What I remember about it is, well first there’s, it just kind of feels magical, but it also has I think three different romances in that book, and I really enjoyed all of them. They all felt real. One of them is very boy meets girl, and I got swept up in this romantic and dangerous plot, but the other two were not quite that and they were still just really nice to read and watch and unfolded.
Melissa: One of the things I really love about Erin Morgenstern’s writing is that she creates this very rich, magical world, but she doesn’t stop there. She populates it with people who feel real, and it has real emotional resonance. So there’s all of the fun of the circus — and the descriptions of the really beautiful things that happen in this circus. The circus is called Le Cirque des Reves, which means ‘the circus of dreams,’ and it takes place in New York, London, Paris, and Boston in the late 19th century. So prime circus time. It’s a very unusual circus. Like, there’s a garden made of ice and a cloud maze and everything in the circus is black or white or red. So it has this really rich environment, but then the story is very compelling, and you really connect with the two main characters. So if you have not read _The Night Circus yet, you should probably get on that.
David: And in between the chapters, there are little descriptions of the acts, which I thought was a really nice way of doing that.
Melissa: And the book itself is really beautifully put together. There are some really lovely editions of it so you can treat yourself to a beautifully illustrated and bound Night Circus.
David: All that said, I have friends who did not like this book, and I think it’s very big of me to overlook their flaws.
Melissa: That’s The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
David: What’s your real first book?
Melissa: My first pick is Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter.
David: Very similar name. Did you find this when you were looking for the other one? [laughing]
Melissa: I found this because Angela Carter is a big deal. Angela Carter was an English novelist. She died, sadly, in 1992. Her work is really known for blending literary fiction with fantasy and fairytales. She writes really compelling stories, but she’s also making a point in most of them, and it’s hidden by the wonderful story that she weaves around it. Kind of like when parents put broccoli inside of mashed potatoes or something to get their kids to eat it.
David: Yeah. [laughing]
Melissa: She’s really known for using her writing to explore social issues, particularly gender roles and sexuality, and one of her most popular works is The Bloody Chamber, which is a not-very-nice title, but it’s a collection of adult fairytales that she wrote, but we are talking about Nights at the Circus. And this is a big, sprawling over-the-top historical novel about a woman named Sophie Fevvers who is an aerialist in the circus and may or may not be part swan.
Melissa: Yes. Fevvers. Fevvers is dazzling.
David: Fevvers like feathers?
Melissa: Yes, but with a V: Fevvers. Fevvers is dazzling in person. She is six feet two inches tall. She’s very curvy. She has platinum blonde hair, and she has wings that sprout out of her back.
Melissa: It’s 1899 in London and a skeptical American reporter has come to interview her because he wants to get to the bottom of whether she is really part swan or not.
David: I like that the book takes the flyer that it is entirely possible that she could be a swan.
Melissa: It is, yes, it is entirely possible. The first third of this book takes place in her dressing room at the theater, and it is her telling her life story. And it is AMAZING. She claims that she was hatched from a giant egg, and she talks about how her wings sprouted and the first time she tried to fly. I listened to this on audiobook and like you cannot believe the things she is telling you.
Melissa: It’s so much fun. And to say that Angela Carter’s writing is lush would be a dramatic understatement. There are metaphors and visual descriptions. She describes the smells and the sounds and it’s all piled on top of each other and it’s so much and it’s so overwhelming that it’s just the right amount. Like you can visualize the dressing room with the stockings and the paintings and the flowers and the empty champagne bottles and the smell of talcum powder and smoke and London outside the windows and Big Ben bonging, like, the whole thing.
David: So the book is magical realism.
Melissa: It is.
David: Are there any other pieces of magical realism in it or is that the only kind of —
Melissa: Oh yes! Because as fevers is telling her story, she is weaving in stories of the people she has met along the way. And they also have larger-than-life, dramatic experiences. There’s a pet pig. There are Dukes and countesses. There’s a family of trapeze artists. There are, of course, clowns. Very, very angry clowns.
Melissa: There’s a shaman. There’s a monkey that’s called The Professor.
David: I like that.
Melissa: There’s a real life sleeping beauty This is just, like, a massive technicolor fantasy. The way the story unfolds is that there is a third-person narrator that’s basically just setting things up so that Fevvers can talk to the reporter, and she’s telling everything in the first-person. So it’s very compelling because it’s like the literary equivalent of sitting next to an eccentric regular at a bar where they’re just telling you these over-the-top stories, and you’re not quite sure if it’s true, but who cares because it’s so entertaining and maybe they say something and you’re kind of hung up on that for a minute, and by the time you catch back up with them, they’ve moved on to something else, but it doesn’t really matter —
Melissa: Because you’re getting this image of what their life has been like. So it’s kind of like that.
David: That sounds great.
Melissa: Eventually the story moves past Fevver’s dressing room when the circus goes to St. Petersburg, so they travel from London to St. Petersburg and then eventually they go on a train ride across Russia to Siberia. It’s only 300 pages, but it feels really, really epic. I listened to this on audiobook and I really, really recommend that format because listening to Fevvers tell her own story is spellbinding. The narration is done by British actress Adjoa Andoh, who is absolutely amazing. The Fevvers voice is described in the book as like the clanging of a trash can lid, and she combines Cockney slang with references to classical literature, so the narration just really awesomely weaves that into a really believable voice.
Melissa: And Angela Carter also led fascinating life. At one point she won a literary award and she used the cash prize to leave her husband and go live in Tokyo for two years.
David: [;laughing] Wow.
Melissa: She was bold and smart and maybe a little prickly, but she was also really adored by the people who knew her and her work is really well-respected. There’s a really great documentary about her online. It’s only about half an hour long. I’ll put the link in the show notes because it tells you really amazing things about Angela Carter and it has very cool circus inspired stop-motion animation. It’s a really great documentary, so I will link to that.
Melissa: That’s Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter.
David: I’m going to cheat, and I’m going to mention two books.
Melissa: I do that all the time!
David: I know, but the first one I’m going to be super brief about the first book is not for everybody. Really, really not for everybody. I totally get that and I expect that I can say maybe three sentences and you will know whether or not this is something that you want to read. Here’s the pitch: There was a fire at a circus in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1944. It was one of the worst disasters in that state. There’s a fantastic book about that fire and its aftermath. It’s called The Circus Fire. Mel is shaking her head. Not for her.
Melissa: Although I do know that that book was written by Stewart O’Nan who wrote Last Night at the Lobster, and he is a wonderful writer so I can imagine that it’s really well done.
David: So he’s typically a fiction writer, and he moved to Hartford and heard about this story and was wondering why there isn’t a book about this story? And then realized that he had to write it. He was later asked why he didn’t write a novel about it and he said because event deserved ‘the most stringent, very best intentions of nonfiction,’ which I thought was a really lovely way to say that you wanted to tell the truth.
David: The book has a super strong sense of place, both of the circus and of Hartford, Connecticut. And maybe the best thing about it is that it was written long after the disaster, so O’Nan tells you about the stories, some of which unwind for decades, that take place because of the fire. It’s a tough look at a disaster that changed the community forever, and it’s not for everybody, but it’s a fantastic book. It’s called The Circus Fire and that’s by Stewart O’Nan.
David: The book I really wanted to talk about though is called The Circus: 1870s to 1950s edited by Noel Daniel. It’s a Taschen book. I don’t know if you know it: Taschen makes a line of, effectively, coffee table books. This is really big for coffee table book. It is a big photographic journey of the circus, and it’s gorgeous. And if ‘big photographic journey of the circus’ has any sway for you, go buy this book, get your hands on a copy, take a look. But there are at least three versions. The one you really want is the one that’s almost 16 by 11. It opens to about 30 inches wide.
David: That’s the one you want. The one I got was a smaller one. It’s eight by six, almost half the size, about a third of the area, once you open it up. It’s still worth reading, if you can get your hands on that. It’s absolutely worth looking at. I got the smaller one because I wasn’t sure, and I wish I’d gone big. There’s another one, an edit with, I think, just the English text. The other ones have, I believe, French, German and English. It’s about 380 pages long.
Melissa: Isn’t the original something like 800 pages?
David: 900 yeah. There’s close to 900 pages. The book is a spectacle. The editor Noel Daniel went through a reported 300,000 images to get down to the thousand or so that that’s in the book. Most of them have never been seen before. The editor combed through archives and private collections of posters and handbills and behind-the-scenes photos of the American circus, and its heyday and the results are stunning.
David: There are some books you love because they’re like museum exhibitions that you can take with you and this is one of those. There are pictures of circus people practicing, so, like, a clown balancing a hat on his nose backstage and a woman in sequin and feathers posing on top of a cannon. There are close-ups of crowds from different eras. Some of the pictures seem to be taken for the sole intent of capturing the look of a costume, so you get a good look at a woman in sequens and leotards and huge dramatic hats. There are a ton of posters and the poster design is outrageous: huge images of animals and sideshow acts, and acrobats with period fonts and colors. If you know somebody who’s a visual designer, the book is worth getting just for that.
David: There’s a map in there that I love that shows the Ringling Brothers tour in 1939. It’s a hand drawn map that shows everybody, and there’s a little clown in the corner. Really nice to look at. There’s a whole chapter on the sideshow, so you get pictures of knife throwers and sword swallowers and bearded ladies. There’s a picture of a pretty woman with no arms, smiling and holding a cigarette in her foot. [laughing] If you like drawing, it’s a fantastic source book. You can just open it up to anything and just start copying what you’re looking at. And there’s also, of course, images that depict racism and possible animal cruelty and other things that you might expect the circus to have in the early 1900s but there are also images that bring to light how progressive the circus was in certain respects. The circus had women that were strong and beautiful and free and independent and being shot out of a cannon way before the United States was ready to think about things like equal rights.
David: I highly recommend this book. It is a lovely book about the circus. It’s called The Circus: 1870s the 1950s, and it’s edited by Noel Daniel.
Melissa: I just want to take pages out of that book, blow them up, and hang them on our walls.
David: Yeah, or walk through the magically.
Melissa: Yeah, just transport in there for a while.
David: That would be nice.
Melissa: One of the things that you alluded to that I wanted to talk about a little bit is how the circus gave a home to people who were outside regular society.
Melissa: It gave people who felt like outsiders, or who were banished for some reason, it gave them a way to mind their family and to have a sense of community. They traveled together and they lived together and had all these adventures together and worked together and that created, of course, all of the things that you get in the family, which is deep affection but also resentments and grudges and changing alliances.
Melissa: But one of the things that really came through in all of the books I read is how that forged bonds between people and gave them a place where they belong, when the rest of the society was telling them that they didn’t belong.
David: Yeah. Every circus story is a found family story, right? And that resonates for me. I love a found family story, and the circus is nothing about that.
Melissa: Which brings me to my next book, which is called The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. This author was the author of one of my favorite stories in the Haunted Voices collection that I talked about in our Scotland episode. And this book is also kind of set in Scotland, but not really. This is a very poignant, dreamy fairy tale novel about a world that is covered with water. I like my fantasy novels to be grounded in our reality with kind of a little shimmer of magic on top.
Melissa: And this book is probably at the edge of my comfort zone for fantasy, but Kirsty Logan does such a beautiful job of keeping it tethered to something that feels real, even though it’s very fantastical, that I was just sucked into the story right away.
Melissa: So, the waters of the world have risen and literally drowned the continents. All that remains are archipelagos, and they’re controlled by the military and they’re patrolled by revival ships that are painted with murals of the Virgin Mary.
Melissa: And there’s tension between the people who live on the land. They are known as the ‘landlockers’ and the people who are forced to live on the water and they’re called the ‘damplings.’ If you’re not a landlocker, if you don’t own a little piece of this precious land that’s still left, you are forced to live on a boat. And that’s how people spend their lives. The damplings live on the boats.
Melissa: And the land lockers have all of the power. They’ve become like aristocracy. So even though their lives are not all that great, they control the food. They consider themselves superior to the damplings. They have some history and some legacy.
David: Emotional truth coming to you soon.
Melissa: So as you would expect, there’s prejudice and distrust between the damplings and the landlockers, and that drives a lot of the story.
David: But where’s the circus come in?
Melissa: The circus in this story sails on a ship called the Circus Excalibur and our heroine is a young girl named North. Her parents died in a tragic way and now she performs with a trained bear, and he is basically her family.
David: That’s such a sad idea. This, like, girl and this bear on this boat.
Melissa: Clinging to each other on a boat. Yeah. And it’s really uneasy alliance because, of course, she loves him desperately, but he is an animal. She’s completely devoted to him. But his natural aggression is just barely contained by her love and care because he’s a bear. He has an animal nature.
Melissa: We also meet a gracekeeper. The gracekeepers play a significant role in this new society. It is their job to lay the dead to rest in the ocean because you can’t bury people on the land because there’s not enough land. So we meet a groundskeeper and her name is Callanish and she’s living and self-imposed exile after her own tragedy. So the story is tracing the paths of both of these women — one in the circus, one all alone on the water — and eventually they intersect. And that is our story. It’s very gauzy and melancholy. The characters are wrestling with sadness and regret, but there’s also a lot of hope —
David: It sounds like a little bit like metaphorical poetry almost.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really beautiful. I highlighted pages and pages of quotes. It’s just lovely. And the whole thing feels kind of misty, you know, shades of blues and grays. I love it for Strong Sense of Place because in this fantasy world we also get a really rich experience of what it would be like every day in the circus. Because you’re not performing all the time. So you get the backstage view of what it’s like to live on this circus boat with your found family and your half-wild bear and kind of an evil stepmother character. So you really get a be behind-the-curtain look at how thrilling it is to perform and the realities of day-to-day life when you’re not performing.
David: It sounds a little like a quarantine story, too.
Melissa: Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is a little bit and their quarantine quarters are precarious because they’re on a ship that has to keep sailing.
Melissa: This book, no surprise, has a very strong found family element. One of the things that motivates most of the characters is that they’re wrestling with a tragedy, and they haven’t given up hope. They want their lives to be something different. They are not resigned to their fate yet. the story can make quite sad and the overall mood is a little blue, but it’s not overwhelming, and at the end everything’s not perfectly tied up with a bow, but it is very, very, very satisfying.
Melissa: Ultimately, I feel like this story is about mourning, getting over your grief, and longing and how love really is the thing that has the potential to save you. It is the only thing. That is The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan.
David: Okay. My next book is Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus by Bruce Feiler. Bruce Feiler, a Yale graduate, and since he wrote the book, he’s written for places like The New Yorker and The New York Times, and Gourmet, but in 1993, he ran away to join the circus.
David: He joined the Clyde Beatty/Cole Brothers Circus for a year. He told them he was writing a book and they let him come along for the ride. He was a clown. His clown name was ‘Ruff Draft.’ He ended up performing his way through 16 States and 99 cities in eight months.
Melissa: Wow. That’s really cool. Did you know that’d before my mom had me, she was a reporter and she went to the circus and they made her up as a clown and she spent the day at the circus and then wrote an article about it.
David: I did know that. I think I read the article even.
Melissa: It is the cutest, most wonderful thing. Maybe that’s why I’m a little obsessed with the circus.
David: Maybe. So Bruce, over the course of a year, talked to everybody in the circus. It tells us about the great and the horrible. Just in that year, there was a drowning and a trapeze accident. There’s a night when a drunk customer sneaks into the backstage area and scares an elephant who, in the elephant’s surprise, backs up and crushes him.
__Melissa:__Don’t go backstage at the circus!
David: Don’t surprise the sleeping elephant!
Melissa: Everyone, just leave the elephants alone.
David: There are also moments that are just transcendent for me. He writes about seeing the birth of a tiger.
Melissa: Wow. Yeah, that’d be amazing.
David: And what it’s like to be a clown around kids on a good day, which would also be really nice.
Melissa: Although I imagine a bad day is bad.
David: A bad day would be bad. A good day? That’s sweet. It gives you a little bit of the history of the circus. There are so many phrases in the American English that start with a circus, like, ‘Hold your horses’ and ‘Get this show on the road. ‘A dog and pony act.’ I found out that ‘earn your nut’ is a circus phrase. I’d always heard that it means covering your basic expenses. So, ‘I covered my nut this month.’ But I’d always thought it had to do with squirrels somehow.
Melissa: Yeah, that sounds reasonable.
David: What happened was in the early days of the circus, the local sheriff would take the lug nut that attaches the horses to the wagon from one of the main wagons and when the circus had paid everyone locally, they would have earned their nut. The sheriff gives them back their nut, they attach up the horses, and off they go.
Melissa: Nice. Keeping them honest by taking their nuts.
David: Yup. Feiler explains the historical development of the circus and its different acts and about how the different performers feel about each other.
Melissa: Because there’s a little bit of a hierarchy in the circus.
David: Oh, there for sure is. Absolutely. And some circuses are different than others, but yes. He also gives you a little bit about the circus has a business. For instance, there’s a part where he’s talking about how the circus deals mostly in small bills and it travels. So, sometimes they have hundreds of thousands of dollars in small bills in various parts of the wagon and the security they have because of that. And that just made my palms sweat
Melissa: They just put all the money in with the tiger?!
David: He also talks about what it takes to run a circus. Its marketing strategies and its day-to-day operations and the amount of food that it takes to feed that many people and animals and all that. But more than anything else, he reveals the lives of the people who work that circus. And it’s an interesting crew. They are part-worldly by their rights that the circus is a microcosm of America, a diverse group of 200 people representing different ethnicities and religions and nationalities, but they’re also part-Walmart-and-go. They are normal people in a dangerous occupation and they’re just trying to make it work. They are misfits and adventures. And as a result you get to here the things people usually go through there: their romantic heartache and the weariness and the grind of doing the work.
Melissa: Well, it’s physically demanding, too.
David: Yeah. One of the details that I thought was interesting — he’s talking about… there’s a generator, it goes with them and it powers the circus and the trailers that the people stay in. And it turns off at midnight and back on again at 9:00 a.m. because it’s loud and expensive. And Feiler was talking about how he’d be mid-shower and the lights would go out or microwaving a burrito and suddenly, ‘Nope.’ And that’s just one of the little, tiny details that goes into something you wouldn’t think about making this thing work. The book was a fun read, but I also found it bittersweet. Both because of what was happening at the time and also because I knew that it folded in 2016. The Clyde Beatty/Cole Brothers Circus was one of the last big tent shows.
David: As far as finding out about what that life was like and who those people are and what it’s like to have a year on the road, it was great book.
Melissa: It sounds like I would really like that book.
David: I think you would do. It’s Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus by Bruce Feiler.
Melissa: My last book is a love letter to circuses and to books. It is called The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler.
David: You love this book.
Melissa: I do. This is one of my all-time favorite books. I have put this novel into a lot of people’s hands. I’m just going to give some data points before I jump into the story.
Melissa: Because I think it’s really easy to tell if this book is right for you or not. There are two librarians, carnival performers, a traveling circus, mermaids, family secrets, and an antiquarian book that drives all of the action.
David: Thank you. And good night.
Melissa: The first line of the book is, ‘Perched on the bluff’s edge, the house is in danger.’
David: I think that’s all we need to say about that book.
Melissa: Let me expound.
David: All right. If you must.
Melissa: So, in the present we meet Simon. He is a librarian. He lives alone in his family’s house on Long Island Sound. Both of his parents are dead. His mom was a circus mermaid who performed by holding her breath, but she drowned just off the beach below their house.
Melissa: Yes. His younger sister, in the aftermath, took off and she is a tarot reader for a traveling carnival. One day, he gets the mail and a fragile, water-damaged antique book is there, and it’s a log book from a traveling circus in the 1700s and there’s curse that’s described in the book and it seems to have something to do with Simon’s family, specifically the women who may or may not be mermaids.
Melissa: So the story travels back and forth in time as we see what’s happening in Simon’s life now and the adventures and misadventures of the circus in the past. And there’s the sense of increasing tension because Simon is just a few weeks away from July 24th, and this is a very significant date in his family’s history. There’s a little bit of a clock ticking. I’ve read this book three times in the last five years. I really feel bewitched every time I read it. It’s just completely engrossing. I get sucked into this world. I care about the characters. It’s very fantastical, but it also feels very real. Simon has a real life with kind of mundane problems, like, his house is literally crumbling around him and he works at a library and there are budget cuts and he’s really worried about his job. So you have this kind of real life stuff that’s not romantic in any way.
Melissa: But then there’s a lot of whimsy and sort of sinister aspects to the story of the past, and then those two storylines converge. It’s really about how the past shapes our lives, but we don’t have to be beholden to it.
Melissa: The writing is really lovely. It’s just beautiful. And there’s a really sincere affection for books and what they mean to people: the physical objects as well as the stories within them.
Melissa: The kind of comfort you feel when you hold a book in your hands and how special it is to hold a particular volume. Because in the case of this log book in the story, it’s the only book like this one in existence. It is special, it’s old and fragile, and the information in it doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Melissa: So this story has big adventure and everyday realities and lots of big emotions, but they are also really sweet and funny moments, too. The relationship between Simon and his sister is really adorable because they’re sarcastic with each other and they’re painfully honest with each other and watching them kind of work out their relationship is really fascinating. There are a heavy parts of this book, but the book does not feel heavy overall. It’s got a nice tone to it, and the ending is perfect. It’s very dramatic and it’s perfect.
Melissa: That is The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler.
David: I know a poem about the circus. Do you want to hear it?
Melissa: Of course I want to hear a poem about the circus!
David: I learned this from Daffy Duck. [in a sing-song voice]
She was an acrobat’s daughter. She swung by her teeth from a noose. But one matinee, her bridgework gave way, and she flew through the air like a goose.
Melissa: [laughing] Daffy Duck put the word ‘bridgework’ in a poem.
David: He’s smarter than you give him credit for.
David: Those are five books we love set at the greatest show on earth. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about the blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I’m very excited about the blog posts that go with this episode. Number one: I want to talk about the book Miraculum for a nanosecond. It’s by Steph Post. It’s a fantastic book about circus life. I’ve already written about this book in Weekend Getaway, so that post exists on our site right now. Pick it up. You will love it. Two: We have a recipe for easy homemade caramel corn coming in Food+Fiction on Wednesday, plus my super-awesome tip for making perfect popcorn on the stovetop every time.
David: We have to talk about homemade caramel popcorn because you made that for me once. I was just sitting there minding my own business. Mel was, like, ‘Would you like some popcorn?’ And she came back with caramel popcorn, and I don’t know if you’ve ever had a moment in your life when everything was perfect. That was that moment for me. One of many. But still, that was a really good one. I highly recommend making some caramel popcorn for yourself or anybody else you love.
Melissa: We also have a photo essay of circuses around the world because why not travel around the world via circuses right now? And coming soon, this will not be on the site this week, but coming soon, I will have a blog post about more books set in the world of the circus. To prepare for this episode, I read more than 15 and I really enjoyed a lot of them. It was hard to narrow it down to the ones I talked about today, so there will be more coming in the next week or so.
David: For more on the circus, including books we discussed today and more book recommendations, because we have a ton, visit our website. It’s strong sense of place.com. Be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book- and travel-related things. You will also get the fantastic Reading Atlas free. Just leave us your email address, and we’ll give it to you. It’s 30-plus pages of excellent book advice —
Melissa: And really beautiful travel photos —
David: And beautiful travel photos. And please follow us on Instagram for photos and illustrations and short book reviews and whatever else we can think of. We are @strongsenseof. We’re also on Facebook you can come by there — strongsenseofplace.
David: If you enjoy the podcast, please rate it, review it, and tell a friend and don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss an episode.
David: This is the last episode of our first season.
Melissa: We made it.
David: We’ve done it —
Melissa: With your help. Thank you so much for listening.
David: Yeah, the response has been just fantastic.
Melissa: Our plan is to take a little break to prepare for Season Two and to do some upgrades to our website that we’ve had in mind since we launched. And to gather feedback from all of you on how we can make this show serve you even better. And then we’ll be back with Season Two with 12 new destinations.
David: In the next couple of weeks we’re going to produce a survey. We will put that link on our website. We’re going to email people about it, and I believe we’re going to produce a mini-episode to just say, ‘Hey, tell us how we’re doing.’ It would mean the world to us if you could take that survey and tell us how we’ve done on the last 12 episodes, so we can do even better on the next 12. We are also planning to do a couple of mini-episodes while we’re away, so we’re not completely radio silent.
Melissa: If there’s something you would like to hear us talk about while we’re on our little break, send us an email and let us know. Otherwise you’re just going to be victim to whatever we feel like chatting about. [laughter]
David: Thank you so much for listening to the first season of Strong Sense of Place. We are excited to go work on Season Two now. Thanks for all the good wishes. Thanks for everything. It’s been a pleasure to receive your feedback, and we will talk to you in a bit.
Melissa: We’ll be back after we recharged our batteries and planned our next 12 adventures.
David: Thanks for listening.
Top image courtesy of Library of Congress.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is ©2023 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.