Beneath the Big Top: the dark side of circus stories

By Kimberley Reynolds (Newcastle University)

My current research looks at the evolution of circus stories for children as a genre, and the way circus settings are used variously to deflect attention from, critique or engage with the worlds of art, performance and politics. Here I consider the contrasting emotions raised by child performers in circus stories from the eighteenth century to the present.

Discipline and punishment

Circuses are hybrid spaces which mingle bodies, languages, sexualities, ethnicities, ages, classes, genres and discourses. Particularly in the past, they also brought together animals and humans, the beautiful and the grotesque, high and low arts, eroticism and glamour. Although today they are often associated with children and delight, early children’s circus stories regularly exposed the harsh lives led by young performers.     

According to Carolyn Steedman, the ‘most referred to, re-presented and transmogrified child-figure of the nineteenth century’ was Mignon, the girl acrobat who features in Book I of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1795–6) (Strange Dislocations,2). Indeed, Steedman claims the androgynous thirteen-year-old acrobat ‘haunted the nineteenth century’ (viii). Although part of a travelling troupe of acrobats rather than a fully-fledged circus, Mignon’s fascinating body, history and the suffering she endured at the hands of her trainers underpinned campaigns to protect child circus artists and other juvenile performers.

Particular anxiety centred on young circus acrobats because of the harsh training regimes used to turn an ordinary child’s body into something extraordinary. These were detailed in studies and exposes such as Ellen Barlee’s Pantomime Waifs (1884), which explains that training began very young because ‘…then alone, before their bones and muscles have attained firmness and strength, before…the frame is knit, can the bones be rendered sufficiently supple to perform the duties required of them’ (27).

The reforming journalist, Henry Mayhew, known for his survey of the working population of London (1851), was another who provided detailed descriptions of the training endured by juvenile acrobats, helping to make the campaign one of interest across the whole of British society. The Acrobatics Bill was brought before the British Parliament in 1872. When presenting the bill, Lord Shaftsbury read from a letter by a seventeen-year-old acrobat whose training began when he was two.

My father trained me into it. He began by twisting my limbs and backbone when I was a little baby. I used to suffer dreadful, and I remember when I was from four to nine years of age, he used to make me twist myself, and remain twisted up, till my bones seemed to come away from each other, and I was often ill from the pain’ (in Steedman, 101). 

That bill was unsuccessful but the campaign continued and finally succeeded in 1879. It is against this background that we must read books such as the anonymously authored The Little Acrobat and his Mother: A True Story (1872), in which a harsh mother subjects her son to just such a routine and also deprives the boy of food to keep his body weight low. There were many others, including Acrobat’s Girlhood (1889), by the best-selling author Hesba Stretton; Frances Stratton’s Nan, the Circus Girl (1898), and a pair of books each called The Runaways by Mrs. O.F. Walton (1873), and Sidney Grey (1884). These books feature children like Mignon, trapped in abusive regimes as circus performers.

Sidney Grey’s book is typical, and as part of an attractive but very inexpensive series published by the Religious Tract Society (RTS), it was intended to reach out to mass audiences and play on their emotions in ways that would encourage them to support reforming legislation.

Cover of Sidney Grey's The Runaways
Front cover of Sidney Grey’s The Runaways (London: R.T.S., 1884), Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

The Runaways tells of ten-year-old Jack and his sister Mags, who is seven, known to the circus-going public as Jacomo and Mademoiselle Marguerite. Despite their exotic names, the two are emphatically identified as British: their mother came from Glasgow and made costumes for the circus after her husband died. While a great many circus children were in fact abducted from other countries, local prejudice was inclined to construct foreign children as sexually precocious and so less in need of aid than British children. Jack and Mag’s Britishness is used as a marker of their purity and a vehicle for arousing sympathy for them, and by extension, for real children in similar situations. For the same reason, and in keeping with the RTS ethos, it is made clear that their education has been as neglected as all their other needs.

The children are illiterate, but instinctively devout. Before her death their mother taught them a few hymns and prayers which they recall on the night they decide to run away. They assure each other that the God their mother believed in loves them and will look after them when they leave the circus behind. The pair have no protector or guide, and are entirely at the mercy of tyrannical and abusive adults. Jack, for instance, is brutally beaten by the circus owner most days.

The children finally decide to run away when the owner kicks and fatally injures their small dog, the last link to their mother. Running away is the extent of their agency, however. In these books circus children are victims who must be rescued by middle-class philanthropists, just as Mignon is rescued by Wilhelm Meister. Mags’ and Jack’s saviours come in the form of a wealthy family whose house they chance upon as they tramp towards London in the hope of finding work for Jack. The family had been to see the circus when it visited their town and they recognise the children. When the reality of the lives behind the gaily dressed young performers they had applauded and in some cases envied (the much-loved and well cared for disabled daughter of the house had longed to be a performer like Mademoiselle Marguerite) strikes home, they and the readers are encouraged to question their own complicity in what has happened to the children. The wealthy household takes the children in, begins to educate them, and helps the children make contact with a long lost uncle in Scotland. The uncle and his wife are childless and happily welcome the children to their home, and since this had been the dying mother’s wish, it is a solidly happy ending.

See no evil

There are many similarities between these British circus stories and those produced in the USA. The best-known American circus story of the nineteenth century was James Otis Kaler’s Toby Tyler; or Ten Weeks with the Circus (1881). Kaler cornered the US market in circus stories, writing a total of seven between 1880 and 1911. Of these, Toby Tyler was far and away the most successful: reprinted seven times in Kaler’s lifetime and several times since, it reached new audiences through a 1960 Disney film adaptation. 

Cover of James Otis Kaler's Toby Tiler
Front cover of James Otis Kaler’s Toby Tiler, or, Ten Weeks with a Circus. (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1937), Wikimedia Commons

Toby (his age is never specified but he is clearly a child) is enticed to join the circus by false promises of food and sweets. An orphan, he is being raised by an uncle who mistreats and overworks him. Toby soon discovers that life in the circus is even harder than it was on his uncle’s farm. When the circus manager decides Toby should become a bareback rider, performing dangerous stunts on horses, his training is as brutal as those for child acrobats in British stories. In desperation he returns to his uncle.

Things turn out well for Toby because his absence has worked a transformation on Uncle Daniel. Toby is now loved and safe; nevertheless, it is notable that the happy endings in the earlier stories involve children escaping from circuses. Though much is made of the beatings and regimes that make the children so desperate, questions must also be asked about what is not said as the children’s bodies are made to fulfil the demands of the adults who control them. This silence may reflect the fact that at the time, the sexual abuse of children was not something that featured in the public consciousness; the term ‘paedophile’ was first used in 1900.

While the terminology may have been lacking, the phenomenon of adult interest in child bodies was not unknown. The early days of circus stories coincided with the rise of spectators who were aroused by watching child acrobats and other juvenile performers. Steedman calls the late nineteenth century, ‘the age of the connoisseur’ (99) for acrobats and aerialists. Children were particularly vulnerable to being preyed on by those who paid to watch them as well as those who trained them. Child performers of the kind featured in circus stories fell outside the usual forms of vigilance then, and arguably this remains the case: in our own time there are many stories of young athletes, skaters and dancers who are sexually abused by the trainers who control their bodies and careers.

Against this backdrop, even the simplest, most cheerful-seeming circus story can be seen as controversial. For instance, Circus Time by ‘Maury’ (1964) appears to be a rags to riches story about two ragged children befriended by the manager of a travelling circus. He gives them lovely clothes and front-row seats for the day’s performance and lets them explore behind the scenes. They are particularly delighted by the young performers they see. The next morning they are invited to join the circus and the last image shows them waving happily from a caravan window.

This can certainly be read as a ‘Cinderella’ tale about kind circus folk who rescue neglected children and give them exciting lives. However, knowing the fate of so many fictional circus children, readers may wonder whether the problems of this pair about to become greater. It is not necessary to read the story as one of entrapment, but once you do, it becomes controversial in several ways since there is no sense in which this is offered as a cautionary tale. Readers are encouraged to feel happy for Jack and Susan, and perhaps even to envy them. This is the kind of story that feeds dreams of running away to join the circus to become glamorous, exceptional, enviable, arguably participating in the procurement of vulnerable children or at least the tendency to assume complacently that the smiling performers are having a splendid time.

The same issues persist throughout the twentieth century, including in non-fiction works. For example, Jill Krementz’s A Very Young Circus Flyer (1979) is made up of photos and interviews with the Farfan family. The acknowledgement reads, ‘What an admirable family – and how proud I am to know them.’ And they are admirable in the sense that they are a hardworking, loving family. There is no indication that Tato, the book’s nine-year-old protagonist, is being beaten or sexually abused by his parents or other members of the circus. His ambition and commitment to learning the family trade seem genuine and are impressive. But what else can he do? There is much in the text that is disturbing at the level of the opportunities and choices available to Tato, the impact on his body, the way he is trained to dress to display his body, and how far his rights to education, safety and the kind of childhood freedom of his non-circus peers are being respected.

Cover of Jill Krementz's A Very Young Circus Flyer
Front cover of Jill Krementz’s A Very Young Circus Flyer (New York: Random House, 1979), Oz and Ends

This is the story of a child for whom the circus is home, school and playground. Tato comes from a long line of circus performers: in this case his father’s family performed in a circus in Chile and his mother in one based in Czechoslovakia. From birth his destiny has been to be a circus performer; he has been ‘flying’ since he was four years old and his five-year-old cousin is soon to make her debut. Although mention is made of doing homework, because they are always on the road (‘We travel about 15,000 miles a year, and last year, and last year we visited fifty-two cities’), there is little in the way of formal education, and when the daily routine is set out, schooling is not mentioned and there seems to be no time when it could actually take place.

Many of the things that concerned nineteenth-century activists about what circus training required of child bodies also apply to this boy: unlike most children, he is not pleased when he is measured for new costumes and discovers he has grown because ‘My Dad is hoping I’ll stay small, to make it easier to catch me’. He rarely gets to watch the other acts as he is required to do long hours of training. In the season they train in the morning, do two shows a day, and then spend two hours training after the evening performance. In the off season ‘…we just have to rehearse from nine to five and then we’re free. It’s about the only time we get to go out at night and do things because after the season starts we have so many evening shows.’ Although the book makes little of the rigours of the training regime, the child casually remarks that his father gets very angry when Tato makes mistakes or has to be told repeatedly what to do and that, ‘I have marks all over my hands where Poppy [his father] catches me but can’t hold on because my wrists are too loose.’

Compared with circus children in the nineteenth-century novels, Tato has a reasonable life, and he seems proud and happy to be a member of the circus. Nevertheless, in Krementz’s book the circus setting makes what is in fact a very hard-working and in many ways a limiting life seem glamorous and attractive.

Fascinating bodies, knowing children

Mignon’s hold over the nineteenth-century imagination wasn’t solely to do with her vulnerability and pathos. Goethe’s account of Wilhelm Meister’s attraction to Mignon is undeniably bound up with the exotic and erotic fascination of being allowed to gaze on her body in public performances where she does what he is incapable of imagining a body can do: ‘Wilhelm could not look at her enough. His eyes and his heart were irresistibly fascinated by the mysterious condition of this being…he kept on looking at her….’ (quoted in Steedman, 25).

A century and a half later, Edward Said, then between nine and ten and living in Egypt, recalls being similarly drawn to the pages in Collins Junior Book of Knowledge about Kalita, a girl fakir in the Bertram Mills Circus whose contortions were captured in ‘tiny, grainy, and blurred photographs’ (5). He is intrigued by her unfamiliar two-piece costume, but particularly struck by the ‘amazing, unimaginable things’ she did with her body (5). Kalita’s behaviour defied the laws of respectability and decency in 1940s Cairo, and many other parts of the world for most boys and girls. Her exploits – including wearing a bathing suit and carrying a fearsome-looking crocodile — excited him. He ‘dreamed of knowing her, being taken into her “caravan,” being shown more …feats’ (5). Just as much as if he were watching a circus performance, the young Said is allowed to gaze on the body of another child whose life is exceptional enough to be included in a children’s encyclopedia but whose deportment and assumed experience are only acceptable in the circus context.

The same is true of Tato. The text reports the kinds of knowledge he has which, like Kalita’s costumes, would be considered unsuitable for most nine-year-olds. His parents dress themselves and their children in the revealing costumes associated with acrobats and aerialists. He wears hairspray and make up and the only cultural reference he seems to have outside the circus is Burt Lancaster kissing Gina Lollobrigida in the movie Trapeze. On his evenings off in the winter training camp, Tato plays arcade games – especially pinball machines. His fourteen-year-old brother rides a motorcycle and hangs out with the showgirls. But there isn’t much time for these activities because there are the other tasks that come with being ‘a professional’: photo shoots, interviews, fan mail, and queuing with the adults to collect the weekly pay cheque. It is not just when they are paid that Tato’s life overlaps with those of the grownups around him; he has no separate world of childhood and finds his friends among the caged animals.

Since the turn of the millennium there has been a wave of circus novels, many of them built around elaborate fantasy worlds. These too normalise and glamorise childhoods that are far from what most would consider ideal. A typical example is Erin Morgenstern’s crossover novel, The Night Circus (2011). The plot centres on a contest set up by two rival magicians between two children, Celia and Marco. Celia and Marco are trained for several years, and though they learn to do astonishing things, the training is isolating and brutal. Marco, for instance, is locked in his room for months on end to read and study. Meals are delivered to his door, but he rarely speaks with another human being, and when his master takes him out, it is always for educational purposes.

Celia is the illegitimate daughter of her master, but he shows her no affection. Indeed, both children are seriously abused, starting with the moment when each is bound to a master magician by a ring that painfully burns through their skin, leaving a vivid scar. Celia’s talent lies in breaking and repairing things, and so her father repeatedly breaks her bone and systematically harms her in other ways to teach her how to mend living bodies. In a scene from early in the book,

Prospero the Enchanter uses a pocketknife to slit his daughter’s fingertips open, one by one, watching wordlessly as she cried until calm enough to heal them, drips of blood slowly creeping backwards. […] Celia’s shoulders fall, releasing the tension that has knotted in them, her relief palpable as she draws herself safely together.

Her father gives her only moments to rest before slicing each of her newly healed fingers again. (28).

Despite these distressing scenes, the book’s paratext includes a great many quotations from reviewers deeming the book ‘enchanting’ and crediting it with bringing happiness. It is as if, in the interests of making them ready to perform in the Night Circus, it is legitimate to treat these children cruelly. As long as the show goes on, it seems not to matter what happens under the Big Top when the audiences are not looking.

Circus stories like The Night Circus rely on positive emotional responses to the illusions, feats, stimulations, smells and tastes of circuses to distract attention from how the lives of children who fascinate and thrill the paying public are presented to child readers. The surface glamour establishes a sense of legitimacy around regimes that have been shown over time to exploit vulnerable children and young people.


Works cited

Anon. The Little Acrobat and His Mother: A True Story. London: R.T.S., 1872.

Barlee, Ellen. Pantomime Waifs, or, A Plea for our City Children. London: S.W. Partridge, 1884.

Grey, Sidney. The Runaways. London: R.T.S., 1884.

Kaler, James Otis. Toby Tiler, or, Ten Weeks with a Circus. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1937.

Krementz, Jill. A Very Young Circus Flyer. New York: Random House, 1979. (No pagination throughout).

Maury. Circus Time. London: Brow Watson, Ltd., 1964.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. London: Hamlyn, 1969.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus.  London: Vintage, 2012.

Said, Edward. Out of Place: A Memoir. Accessed at https://onlinereadfreenovel.com/edward-w-said/page,5,52617-out_of_place_a_memoir.html on 14 August 2021.

Steedman, Carolyn. Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930. London: Virago, 1995.

Stratton, Frances. Nan, the Circus Girl. London: John F. Shaw, 1898.

Stretton, Hesba. Acrobat’s Girlhood. London: S.P.C.K., 1889.

Walton, Mrs. O.F. The Runaways. 1873.


Kimberley Reynolds is Professor of Children’s Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University; and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at UWA.

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