Katharine Susannah Prichard’s seventh novel, Haxby’s Circus: The Lightest, Brightest Little Show on Earth (1930), is a portrait of a circus family across a couple of decades and the transformation of the central character, Gina Haxby, from an agile, innocent acrobat to a world-weary and overweight middle-aged clown.
The circus wanders around Australia, right up and down the eastern states, into the small inland towns as well as the cities, and even across to Perth and then Geraldton. The narrative itself wanders as well, and any particular direction it has taken is often veered away from or even completely doubled back on. This is no weakness, but comes to be part of the novel’s charm. An example: in the first half of the novel, the antagonist is Dan Haxby himself, the patriarchal head of the family and circus. He seems too hard and too cruel, driving his wife and children to extremes. Gina breaks her back in a fall, and resolves to save her mother and her younger siblings from Dan. When she succeeds in escaping with her pregnant mother, they live in hiding to bring up the child, Maxine (Max), whose life will not be ruined by the circus. Yet years later, Dan comes to the same town and the family are reunited, the circus reformed and Gina’s resolve wavers. Over the rest of the novel, Gina’s relationship with her father softens, and he becomes slightly more reasonable; Max becomes an acrobat and it seems Gina’s fears and determination may even have been unwarranted. In this subtlety of character, it rings true with life for me. (Interestingly, the transformation from tyrant to a somewhat gentler man is the opposite of Hugh in Coonardoo, the novel KSP was writing in the same period.)
John Hay astutely calls the novel ‘episodically tragic’, but judges it the lesser work next to Coonardoo, and notes that it received little critical acclaim. Coonardoo is a more concentrated tragedy, with a smaller cast of characters and the profundity of tackling race relations in a more progressive way than contemporaries. Yet Haxby has the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in KSP’s work, scenes of beauty, darkness and insight. The most profound is in the final chapter as Jack confronts Gina, asking why she is ‘running amuck’, hitting the drink and sleeping around. Gina responds ‘I want to know if there’s anything in this business of living, I think.’ She goes on to remember what Billy had said years earlier:
‘Billy was right after all. He said to me once: “Life’s a three volume novel, Gina. The first’s the book of ideals and illusions ; the second’s the book of realities and noble resolutions; the third’s the book of the senses and breakdown of the will.” I think he was right, Jack. It’s the third book I’m up to now.’ (312)
This cannot be KSP’s own philosophy; she lived her whole life in the book of ideals, perhaps with some noble resolutions from the second volume. Jack’s response is more in line with how KSP lived her life; it echoes a similar line in the autobiographical Wild Oats of Han: ‘I’d like to crock up and run off the rails. It’d be a relief somehow; but I won’t let life beat me that way. I’ve got to stand up to it, somehow.’ (314) Out of this existential scene, Gina finds the will to live meaningfully again; but, perversely, it’s by transforming herself into a clown, restoring the circus by humiliating herself.
KSP wears her politics more lightly in this novel. There are no Communist characters who turn up to challenge the system. Interestingly, when Gina inherits a fortune and finances the expansion of of the circus, she tells Dan ‘it must make a profit’. Yet all the family now have a share in the circus, and it’s this communal ownership which gives a taste of KSP’s politics. The other taste comes in the fact that again in this novel she successfully depicts a community, something few other novelists have done as well. There is a sense of the dignity of all the characters, and the goal Gina is striving for is not her own personal freedom or benefit, but the benefit of all in her circus community.
Haxby is in print in the Angus and Robertson Classics series, available both in print and as an ebook. I was fortunate enough to find a 1932 edition in the Florin Books series by Jonathan Cape at Robert Muir Books in Nedlands; Florin Books are, the ad says ‘the right size for all times and the right price for these times’ – at two shillings, that is. I liked my copy so much I didn’t write in it, and thus I have no annotations.
I won a copy of this book as an English prize while at high school, and still have it on my book shelf. I hadn’t heard of Katharine Susannah Prichard until then, but remember being swept up by the story and romanticising about belonging to a circus for some time afterwards.
Nathan Hobby said:
You had an excellent English teacher to be giving out KSP books. It’s a novel as full of the hardships of the circus as the glamour, but I suppose it’s the glamour that wins really.
From memory, and it has been a long time, I think the appeal of Haxby’s circus for me was the community, which you mention, and to some extent a sense of adventure.
But perhaps I will need to reread the book to see how my perceptions and interpretation may have altered over twenty five years!
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