Wise Children by Angela Carter

published 1991

‘Why are they called Pierrots?’ asked Nora outside the Pier Pavilion.

‘Because they do their stuff on piers.’

I love the artificial dark of the matinée, the same, exciting dark you get when you draw the curtains after lunch to go to bed. The sea was swishing back and forth beneath the Pier Pavilion and it was moist and warm, inside, and full of holiday scents of Evening in Paris and Ashes of Violets mixed with dry fish, that is, fried, from outside, and wet fish, that is, dead, from down below, and hot tin, from the roof, and armpits. Nobody there to take a ticket; the first half of the show was nearly over so we sneaked in at the back.

The Pierrots were standing around in their white frills, looking spare, and there was a comic up on stage halfway through his act.

. . . The Pierrots, all turned pink themselves, formed groups reminiscent of posies and nosegays and sank to their knees for the throbbing finale. You couldn’t get away with that sort of thing, these days, not unless it was what they call ‘camp’.

observations: An end-of-the-pier story for high season at the British seaside.

The history of the Pierrot is complex and artistic – he is part of the Commedia dell’arte and an existential figure, as well as being the classic clown hiding his tears.

But not in an English seaside town in the first half of the 20th century – there, the pierrots, male and female, form a concert party, all in together in your big frilly collars, just like JB Priestley’s Good Companions, just like this group in the picture (who are Irish, not English).

Nora and Dora, the twins at the heart of this book, are having a wonderful day at the seaside, even though things will go slightly wrong later when they meet their father. He is one of the old glamorous actor-managers (we do like them in a book) and is a big part of the book’s splendid theatrical setting, covering every kind of act, show, theatre, play, performer, film imaginable. By the time we’ve had Midsummer Night fairy costumes, film-making and jumping beans – well it seems like there’s a whole dose of Noel Streatfeild in there somewhere. No, that’s a good thing…!

Links on the blog: This book before. These events take place in Brighton which has featured before, one way and another.

The picture (don’t you just have to stare at it) is of an Irish entertainment troupe, and is from the National Library of Ireland.


  1. Moira - I was going to comment on that picture. It really does pull you in. And there's something about that seaside setting - there really is. Thanks for sharing that about Pierrot - history I didn't know.

    1. Thanks Margot - I do love this picture, I wish I could find out about the people in it. The National Library of Ireland has - and shares - some truly wonderful pictures, they are a great resource for me.

  2. The only thing I knew about Pierrots was from The Boy Friend (the movie version with Twiggy) in the song "Poor Little Pierrette" and the costumes of a Pierrot and Pierrette. We have watched that movie many many times. I enjoyed all the background here.

    1. I am fascinated by pierrots, the different ways they appear. They crop up at the edges of Agatha Christie books too, along with the harlequin, I think she was quite intrigued by them.

  3. Didn't Lord Peter Wimsey dress up as a Harlequin or a Pierrot in Murder Must Advertise and jump off a fountain? Its been a while since I read it, but something is there...

    1. Here you go -
      https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2013/09/murder-must-advertise-by-dorothy-l.html I love the picture I found for this. In fact I am slightly obsessed with harlequins and they feature in many blogposts. Apparently harlequin was the standard goto costume for men attending fancy dress balls in the mid 20th century - at least according to crime novels of the era!


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