Sam was proud of Andrew. He had natural gifts, but they had been fostered by careful training. Season after season Sam had engaged aerial acts, often more expensive than he liked, so that the artists could give Andrew lessons. On the ground he knew Andrew did not seem much, boys of 16 were often shy, and there were times when, if you didn’t know Andrew, you might think he was lacking in wits, but in the air he was wonderful. Sam had not the words to say what Andrew in the air meant to him. He would never get his tongue round “poetry in motion” or “inspired”, but watching Andrew work he knew complete artistic satisfaction.
commentary: Perhaps Noel Streatfeild knew comparable artistic satisfaction from this book. It is much the best of her novels for adults that I have read (children’s books are another matter: obviously, nothing matches Ballet Shoes and Wintle’s Wonders, the all-time great blog favourites). It is a strange story – complicated to explain the setup. Simon Hilton is an old man living in a bomb-damaged house in London with a manservant, Henry. He has a large family of nieces and nephews: the eponymous Clara is the only unmarried and childless one. She is deeply religious, looked after her parents until their death, and is much put upon by the rest of the family. When Simon Hilton dies he leaves all his money and possessions to her, with some obligations and duties and people and animals to be looked after. The rest of the family are horrified, and wonder how they are going to get their hands on some of the money - either now or later.
Clara moves into Simon’s house, to be looked after by Henry. She sets about the list of duties Simon left her: the main one is to find some young circus people whose mother he knew long ago - this is Andrew the trapeze artist above, and his less talented but beautiful sister Julie. They end up moving in with Clara and Henry, at first just for a holiday. The young family solicitor, Charles, takes a keen interest in Clara’s activities, and soon enough in Julie.
The story jumps about all over the place, and often a plotline is dealt with in a strange way. Streatfeild shows a remarkable and impressive knowledge of circuses (which we knew from her children’s book on the subject), of greyhound racing and the possibilities for scams therein, of horse-racing, and of why containers of flowers are taken from graves (because someone is short a jamjar in which to make marmalade).
Henry the manservant uses far too much Cockney rhyming slang, but while it is very annoying, I was intrigued to hear a new one on me: Jane Shore = whore. Jane Shore was the mistress of Edward IV in the 1470s & 1480s, and isn’t a well known figure in British life – she’s no Anne Boleyn, I bet most people wouldn’t recognize the name. It seems surprising she should have been picked out in this way. (There’s a blog entry that includes her here.) There is a theory that her first name was lost in the mists of time and ‘Jane’ picked at random for her centuries later: I don’t suppose anyone really thought the Cockney rhyming slang went back to the 1400s…
None of this is as soft and chick-lit-y as it might sound: it is clear that Simon was a fairly dreadful old man, who was having a mean joke on Clara – he wasn’t at all trying to do good or sort out his mistakes. The rest of his family (at least Clara’s generation) are irredeemable, too. Henry is a nice old cove, but has a realistic view on life. Charles the posh young solicitor is something of a fool.
Often while reading I was expecting something much softer and sweeter, more like Streatfeild’s Susan Scarlett books (which I once said ‘make Ballet Shoes look like a model of social realism’: plenty of them on the blog). This has fairytale elements, but is much more rooted in real people and real behavior. There are some fairly robust jokes about sex, prostitutes and gay life, some of which would not be acceptable today. But the author does not shy away at all from some of the hard sides of life.
Everyone has to learn something in the book: Clara, while a very good person, has to learn that drinking and dog-and horse-racing are not the worst things in the world. Her religion is gently teased: ‘Miss Clara was a shocker to move when she started on her guidance talk.’ Although the outcome of the final dog-race really surprised me… I watched a film made from the book (more about this in a future post) and this dograce was one of the items very much smoothed out for the cinema. What was acceptable in a book was not so much on film.
I heard of the book over at Heaven Ali’s blog: her post on it is recommended. And I am delighted to be able to say that the book is going to be republished in paperback and for Kindle by those nice people at Bello in September.
There is a surprising number of blog entries featuring circuses and trapezes on the blog - click on the two labels below. But be warned, in Paul Gallico's Mrs Harris book, the trapeze is a much more Clothes-in-Books dress shape...
Top picture is Two Trapeze Performers in Red by Charles Demuth, from the Athenaeum website.
Second picture is The Trapeze by Walter Sickert, same source.