I picked up a copy of Come to the Circus! at an antiques fair in Waihi, New Zealand. It is not a first edition though, but the 1974 Dean edition (the definition of “antique” at this particular fair was a bit lax!) I really disliked the cover illustration (the children look very odd), but it was one I didn’t think I had read before and so for $5 (about. £2.60) it seemed like a good buy. As always, please be aware there might be spoilers, although I have done my level best to avoid this!
One of my first thoughts about this book was “what, another red-haired, green-eyed orphan?!” I’m not sure why orphans need to have red hair… at least her name is not a variation on the name “Ann”… But I digress.
The story begins with Fenella finding out that Aunt Janet, who she is currently living with, is getting married and moving to Canada. So Fenella is to be shipped off to live with Aunt Lou and Uncle Ursie, who live in a circus! Fenella is a lovable, kind-hearted girl and soon befriends the circus folk and fits into their way of life. She also befriends all of the circus animals, despite being initially someone “who ran away if she saw even a gentle old sheep, and screamed if a dog jumped up at her!” She particularly loves the performing goose Cackles owned by a boy called Willie, who she soon befriends, the mischievous monkeys, and most of all Bobbo the baby bear, one of Uncle Ursie’s troop of performing bears. The action of the novel revolves around the usual incidents that occur in Blyton’s circus books: runaway animals, hot-tempered circus folk and the occasional mistreatment of animals, but of course it always ends happily.
I have always loved all of Blyton’s stories about animals, and the circus ones in particular are always very exciting, and involve unusual animals and circus folk. This despite the fact I have actually never been to a circus – I never had the opportunity as a child and now my views on animal welfare make me stay away from them. The animals in Blyton’s circus book always seem very happy and well cared-for however.
One of the things I like about Come to the Circus! in particular are the development of some very strong, realistic and interesting characters and relationships. Fenella is a bit of a “Pollyanna” character, who I found quite two-dimensional, although she did inspire sympathy in the reader. The two characters I found the most interesting were Fenella’s Aunt Lou and Mr Presto the magician. Aunt Lou is initially a terrifying figure, small and thin and pinched-looking. She is described as wearing her hair in tight bun and “her eyes and mouth looked tight, too. She gave Fenella a thin kind of smile.” She is very, very strict with Fenella and quick to become cross. However, throughout the story you begin to understand how a sad incident in her past might have caused her to become so stern and closed-off emotionally, and it becomes apparent that she does indeed care for Fenella.
Blyton often portrays woman in positions of responsibility as very stern, but caring underneath – for example Jane Taylor in The Boy Next Door, Miss Pepper in the Barney Mysteries, and Miss Grayling in the Malory Towers series to name a few. These women are all stern, but fair. Aunt Lou is different in that she is not always fair (for example always speaking sharply to Fenella, even when she is inwardly impressed with her, and blaming her for things that are not her fault like one of the monkeys coming into her caravan) and although the reasons for her mean behaviour towards Fenella do become apparent throughout the book, the reader can sometimes struggle to feel sympathy for her.
Mr Presto the conjurer is a “tall, thin man, with piercing dark eyes and hair as black as night” – quite the stereotypical conjurer or wizard. He even keeps a big black cat! He is obviously very clever and well-educated, as he is asked to teach the children. I found his character intriguing right from when we are first introduced to him and it is said that he never, ever smiles. Later it emerges that something horrible happened to him, after which he vowed he would never smile again. This makes him all the more intriguing, and the whole book you are wondering two things: what the dreadful thing that happened to him was, and whether he will actually smile by the end of it. Of course, I’m not going to tell you this, so you will have to read it to find out!
The relationships between many of the characters are also portrayed very realistically. Fenella’s relationship with her Aunt Lou, who has her own troubles, develops in a very natural and realistic way. Fenella immediately “hits it off” with her Uncle Ursie, which makes sense considering his cheerful good nature. Willie and his mother have a relationship different to what Blyton would normally portray for her “good” characters – Aggie is very casual and not very house-wifely. However she does care about Willie and Fenella, and is very kind to them both, but more in a big-sister-ish way than a motherly way. Aunt Lou and Uncle Ursies’ relationship is also nicely written, and as the reader’s knowledge of their shared sad past develops, you can understand why they can be so different, and yet still care so deeply for each other.
Because of these somewhat sad and adult sub-plots, and the realistic portrayal of characters and relationships, this book seems more adult. It is certainly more sad, although of course all does come right in the end. Sadness and death are not often present in Blyton’s books, but despite these more adult themes, I think this book must still appeal to children. Perhaps modern children might find the exploration of these themes more familiar – there are certainly many modern children’s books that have darker themes. Although it is often lumped in collections with the three Galliano’s Circus books, it has quite a different “feel” to it, in my opinion. A very interesting book, with well-developed characters and “darker” (well, relative to other Blyton works anyway!) themes, it can be enjoyed both as a child and as an adult.
Note: This book isn’t to be confused with Come to the Circus (no exclamation mark), which is a short picture book also written by Blyton and published by Brockhampton in two slightly different versions.