I have come across a wonderful memoir of a Victorian clown, James Frowde. He was born in England in 1831 into the Hengler circus dynasty, the very stuff of an Angela Carter fantasy. A forbidding stepmother, and a father he never had enough of. (‘How I used to long for a time to speak or touch him’, he writes). His grandfather and beautiful dark-haired aunt were rope-dancers, and his younger brother became the Modern Hercules in Hengler’s Circus during the 1860s.
Frowde’s great grandfather worked a trick horse in the ring with a coldly commanding air, dressed in a stiffly braided frock coat with the whip ever-ready at his side. More extraordinary was Frowde’s great-grandmother, who possessed ‘an European fame as a pyrotechnic’, and was blown to pieces when fireworks exploded in her workshop in 1845.
The glimpses into Victorian provincial life, circus culture and familial intimacy come fast as a juggler’s displays in this memoir. Impossible to keep up with them, especially given that Frowde writes in a dashingly impressionistic style, with little hare-brained darts in odd directions and back again. Check one of his early passages, in which he relates seeing an organ-grinder with a monkey as a child, and mistaking the monkey for a man –
I remember a journey, some straw, a great jolting, finding myself in a strange house and people and a formidable-looking gentleman with a shock of curly black hair and a mouth covered with hair… he spoke a queer language.
The only shame is that the memoir is constantly chopped up by the editors (Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone), with bits omitted and annoyingly profuse interjections, as well as long footnotes positioned distractingly close to the text. Their introductory chapters about circus life are really fantastic: I will be working over them for some time yet. But all the way through the memoir I kept wishing they would say less. Let the man speak for himself, I kept thinking, trying to shut out their interruptions and hear his voice undisturbed. I guess there’s a tension there, between the value of the memoir as a literary piece, and its function as an historically useful document. Hard, as an editor, I’m sure, to balance the two.