Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2017

Haxby’s Circus (1930), by Katharine Susannah Prichard

I’d been meaning to read a novel by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) for a long time.  I’d read about her in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (Ed. Nicholas José);  the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (Ed. Wilde, Hooten & Andrews), and also in Jean-Francois Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel.  Harry Heseltine writes about her extensively in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton).   I’d had various prompts, from Sue at Whispering Gums and from Nathan Hobby who is writing Prichard’s biography.  I’d read her plays Brumby Innes and Bid me To Love in preparation for a workshop at The Script Club at the Arts Centre,  and for quite a while I’d had a copy of Coonardoo that I found in an Op Shop.  But it wasn’t until my father wasn’t very well and I needed a book I could read for long, tense hours by his bedside, that I dug out the much-neglected Kindle from my handbag and chose Haxby’s Circus from 1930.  I could read the Kindle one-handed, you see, while I held my father’s hand in the other.

So my experience of reading Haxby’s Circus is bittersweet.  It was a good book to choose because there are no fancy authorial tricks to cause confusion when my reading was, inevitably, interrupted by doctors and nurses making sure that there was no pain.  It’s a straightforward social realist novel, chronologically coherent, and with an ordinary third-person narrator showing us different points-of-view.  But it was also a good choice to take my mind off things a bit, because it’s an absorbing novel, shining a light on a way of life that still persists in pockets around Australia, though there are now many more rules and regulations surrounding circuses than there were in Prichard’s day.

And that’s a good thing.  Prichard shows in this novel that the cheap entertainment that audiences expected involved dreadful conditions for the caged wild animals, and held grave risks for the performers.  Haxby’s Circus traces the tragic transformation of Gina Haxby from a lithe and confident bareback rider to a life crippled by resentment and disability.  Her father, Dan Haxby is devoted to his circus at the expense of his family, and this is shown in many ways, from the risks to Mrs Haxby and her babies with annual pregnancies and no access to hospital care as she gets older, to the risks faced by the performers asked to undertake ever riskier acts because audiences had come to expect the frisson of danger alongside their expectation of skilled athleticism.  It’s not enough for a dancer to wear glitter and bling, it’s not enough for her to be graceful and svelte, no, she must dance in a cage with lions in order to titillate the audience with the fear that the lions might turn on her.

Max, who had never met a woman so exquisitely finished and fascinating as Lois, worshipped her with school-girlish rapture.

‘Oh, can’t we put her on, Dad?’ she pleaded. ‘She is so sweet … and there’s nothing as beautiful as her dancing in the show.’

Dan, who had watched the dance in the empty tent, with only a few of the artists practising and ring-hands going about their jobs, had nothing but admiration for the dance and dancer.

‘But this is a circus, Max,’ he objected.

‘It’s not enough for work to be beautiful and graceful,’ Gina said, bitterly. ‘It’s got to be hair-raising somehow, freakish, startling or dead funny, for us to put on. The public wouldn’t understand, if we gave it something just beautiful to look at.’

‘That’s right,’ Dan agreed. ‘If she’d do that dance in the lions’ cage now, there’d be something in it.’

‘Dad!’ Max explained. ‘You’d never suggest such a thing!’

‘By God, it’s an idea—’ Dan declared enthusiastically. ‘I’ll see Bach about it. We want to get something new and sensational for Melbourne.’  (Kindle Locations 3839-3847). .

The novel also shows the entrapment of the performers.  The children in a family circus travelling about all over Australia don’t get an education so their employment options are limited.  When Gina decides to earn the money to get her mother into hospital for yet another pregnancy, she has no saleable skills.  She ends up telling fortunes, and when she needs an income after an accident caused by exhaustion brought on by her father’s neglect, she has to do back-breaking housework and laundry – the worst possible work she could do after an injury to her spine.  Worse than her own hardships is her fear that her father will pressure her small siblings into dangerous stunts too. And worse than that is that when eventually Gina takes over the management of the circus from her father, she becomes as driven and uncaring as he was.

I liked the way Prichard represented the clown, Rocca.  Rocca is a dwarf, a highly intelligent, sophisticated and dignified man, who in those unenlightened days has no option but to earn his living as a clown.  There is a wonderful scene where he finally loses his temper and hurls abuse at the audience – but the multilingual Rocca does it in a foreign language so that the audience has no idea what he’s saying and just think it’s part of the act.  It’s significant also that it’s not on his own behalf that Rocca loses his temper.  He is livid because Gina has had a terrible, preventable accident.

There might have been some shame and pity in the laughter which inundated him; but Rocca never caught those notes. He was made to be laughed at, and lived on the laughter he stirred, though he cursed laughter and hated the crowd that laughed, as all men hate the gods whose puppets they are. His face was a suffering mask, under its paint, on nights like this when the hardworking country folk laughed themselves to hysterics and tears. He was Life’s joke at itself, he believed. His mind as fine and straight as the bodies of these people. Their minds as deformed, childish, undeveloped, paddling soft and helpless as his limbs.

But that night as he saw the faces he loathed, blurred and boiling together with laughter across the ring, beside himself with rage and grief, Rocca shrieked and screeched at them in all the languages he had ever heard, one of those tempests of insane fury to which he was liable, shaking and overwhelming him.

‘Is she dead or dying?’ he howled. ‘What do you care? Does it matter to you? You laugh. Devils … mean devils … worms of devils. May you roast in hell! Boil in everlasting damnation. God Almighty blast your putrid souls!’ And the crowd rocked with laughter, roared and yelled at the fury of the little man. It was titanic; but his arms and legs so absurd as he ran about shouting and spluttering.   (Kindle Locations 511-521).

Prichard’s gift for vivid description shows us the Australia of small towns, where people travel in from the farms for the rare opportunity of live entertainment, and where ticket prices must fall when drought bites.  The isolation of the circus lifestyle means that Gina spends many months in hospital miles away from her family, with Rocca as her only visitor.  It was a tough lifestyle, with few rewards other than the sense of community amongst the performers and their pride in putting on a good show.

From what I can gather from Heseltine’s summary of Prichard’s fiction in The Literature of Australia (Penguin 1976), Haxby’s Circus is unlike her other novels in that it doesn’t wear a heavy weight of social protest.  In general Heseltine thinks that Prichard’s political beliefs about socialism directed the resolution of her plots and the reactions of her characters.

Where Prichard goes wrong, it is because she makes her characters behave the way she thinks they should rather than the way they would, granted the whole context of their past, present and actual environment.  (p. 211)

This is true up to a point.  After her accident, Gina spends years and years in drudgery, toiling away for her mother and succumbing to inertia about her own appearance and the possibility of friendships or romance.  Today we might say that a character like this was suffering from depression, but Prichard’s portrayal suggests rather that it is stoic acceptance that her life has been ruined and the only thing that matters now is her love for her mother and her little sister Max.  So in this part of the novel Gina comes across as a bit of a martyr and too selfless to be true.

But whereas apparently in other novels (e.g. Working Bullocks and Black Opal) Prichard’s characters organise in pursuit of better pay and conditions, any solidarity the circus workers feel expresses itself in the way they work together to make the circus a success.  They might gripe a bit, but they don’t agitate for better pay and conditions.  None of the characters are socialists, as far as I can tell.  Gina herself enjoys becoming an employer and a hard taskmaster in the latter part of the story.  Her one attempt to improve things for the circus workers by setting them up as joint shareholders in the business backfires because it doesn’t make any money when there is an economic downturn.

Nathan Hobby in his review discusses this aspect of Haxby’s Circus too.

Update 10/1/19 See Theresa Smith’s review here.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: Haxby’s Circus
Publisher:  A&R Classics, Kindle Edition,  An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2013
First published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, London in 1930
ISBN: 9780732297244 (pbk.) ASIN: B00C4M3SHO
Source: Personal library, purchased from Amazon.

Available from Fishpond: Haxby’s Circus (A&R Classics) and as an eBook from the Harper Collins website.



  1. My impression about circus performers is that it’s hard, near impossible to leave the life once you’re rooted in it. Hence the job shifting within the system.


    • We once had a child at our school who came from a travelling funfair family. There are rules today about correspondence classes for kids like these, but he was completely illiterate and although a nice kid, not well socialised either by the time he came to us in year 3. We pulled out all stops for the 8 weeks we had him: he had daily reading lessons one-on-one but it was not as effective as it might have been because (a) he was always restless to get back to ‘his work’ and (b) he got no support from home. And he knew there was no point in making friends or getting used to things because he would soon be gone again. We lent him books to practise with at home, but they disappeared and were never seen again, so (because those little take-home reading books are expensive) after that we *made* books for him, with made up stories about his life with the funfair. But at the age of 8 or 9 he had given up on learning to read. I often wonder what became of him.


  2. I thing K. S. Prichard was interested in all aspects of life in Australia particularly the ordinary folk. The novel came about on seeing a young woman at her brother’s surgery arrive with a broken back from a circus nearby. It’s a lovely intro to Katherine’s writing. A much neglected writer in this country unfortunately.


  3. What a splendid review – you’ve helped me see Haxby’s Circus in new light and refreshed my memory of it. Do you mind if I reblog? Fay mentioned the origin of the novel in the incident in Katharine’s brother’s surgery – strangely enough, I was just writing about that this week. It was 1917, right in the middle of the second conscription referendum debate. The novel had a long gestation.
    There’s surely a little truth to Heseltine’s claim about politics misdirecting some of Prichard’s novels, and the burden of social protest. (Her final novel, Subtle Flame, is heavygoing.) Yet it’s amazing how many it isn’t true of – Pioneers, Coonardoo, Wild Oats of Han, Intimate Strangers (the problematic ending had a different cause) as well as Haxby’s Circus. And then the political aspects generally work well in Working Bullocks (the sudden appearance of the unionist character aside) and perhaps Roaring Nineties.


    • Hello, Nathan, I knew you would like this, but I am flattered that it offers a ‘new light’ on the book:)
      I’ll be thinking of Heseltine when I read more of KSP but I’ll also be conscious that he was writing during the Cold War when anything and anybody espousing socialism was automatically suspect. I would expect that most people of that era reviewing her work would attend to her socialism and then criticise her work for it, as Heseltine also goes on to do about other authors who had similar political leanings.
      Have you got this book by Dutton? I can copy the relevant passages and send them to you if you like, but it’s probably worth reading the chapter, to get the context…


      • Thanks Lisa – I have the Dutton book, so no need to copy. It’s certainly a key element of KSP’s work which needs addressing, but as your comment about the Cold War suggests, a fairer, less partisan assessment of her work is more possible today when there’s a different battlefront politically and culturally.


        • #Musing…
          I wonder if we who review books today have blinkers of a different sort, we are all prisoners of our time in a way…


          • Absolutely! We just don’t even fully know what the blinkers are.


  4. I read Haxby’s Circus many years ago and remember not liking it, perhaps I’d better give it another try. I’ve also worked in a circus – Ashton’s in 1972 – the casual hands, of whom I was one, just came and went, but the regulars were in many cases people, men mostly, who were a bit damaged and found a refuge in the family atmosphere – we got bed (a berth in a caravan), board (stew mostly) and $25/week, but I enjoyed it for the short time I stayed. Education for the kids seemed to be taken seriously, they had a governess and correspondence lessons. Everyone was expected to be multi-skilled, my partner would help out with the kids during the day and wear a tutu in the ring each night.
    As for Prichard’s communism, there are plenty of mainstream writers who expect us to accept their militarist and pro-capitalist, or even their wishy-washy liberal values and who don’t get criticised. I find her writing a bit stilted at times but she is excellent at analysing/presenting the problems/oppresion of working people (and of Indigenous people in Coonardoo).


    • I agree, I think that it was KSP’s politics that sent her off the public awareness radar, and really, she should have been included in school reading lists as a genuinely Australian author writing about the real world of her era. If she were alive today she would be writing about life in housing commission flats and rural unemployment…
      it’s only now when we can see the big picture in the world of unrestrained capitalism that we realise that socialism (as distinct from dictatorships) acted as a restraint to some extent.

      I must get to Coonardoo soon!


  5. I don’t have any problems with K.S.P’s communism. In fact her willingness to stay committed to what she believed is quite amazing given some of her circumstances. The best fiction surely must have a historical context somewhere but maybe I am one eyed. Anyway so pleased to hear of Nathan’s progress with his biography. And as always Lisa your commentary most interesting.


    • Thank you, Fay:) I love books like this, and I’m going to read more from this era. Bill (The Australian Legend) has helped me out with some titles to seek out to fill the gaps in my reading for this period. (If you look right down at the bottom of the RH menu you can see that I’ve been noting the publication year of my Aussie books, and there are quite a few years missing between 1900 and 1950).


  6. […] Hill of ANZ Litlovers has reviewed  Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel, Haxby’s Circus (1930). It’s a sympathetic […]


  7. […] books have all been great reading, and interesting to me is that all three – The Custodians; Haxby’s Circus and now An Accidental Terrorist  are from the backlist.  In a way it should not be surprising […]


  8. […] Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), has been on my radar since I read Haxby’s Circus (see my review), so I was pleased to stumble on it at my local library.  Prichard’s third novel, Black […]


  9. […] century that I was prompted to read by Nathan Hobby who is writing a biography of its author.  Haxby’s Circus, by Katharine Susannah Prichard is great reading with its unforgettable central character Gina and its vivid descriptions of the […]


  10. […] This month I’m writing the circus chapter of my Katharine Susannah Prichard biography, chapter 24 in the current structure. It’s focused on the writing and reception of her novel Haxby’s Circus (1930). The novel was written at the end of her five year creative peak from 1924 to 1929 and is usually regarded as one of her better novels but less accomplished than the other two novels of this period, Working Bullocks (1926) and Coonardoo (1929). Whatever its flaws it’s an engaging and moving novel. I reviewed it in July 2014, writing that it ‘has the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in KSP’s work, scenes of beauty, darkness and insight’. More recently, Lisa has reviewed it on ANZ Litlovers. […]


  11. […] Vernay also notes in passing that Haxby’s Circus (1930, see my review) might be an exception to a body of work emphasising many significant aspects of Australian life. […]


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