Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Trip To The Circus: Female Performers and their Impact on Society.

Sanger's Coronation programme, 1953
It was in the Victorian period that circuses rose to the commercial popularity we associate them with now. With more exciting and skilful acts being added each show, crowds would flock with a shared taste for spectacle, in hopes of being entertained. At first, the young Queen Victoria’s open love of the circus calmed people’s reservations in regards to how attendance would reflect on them individually and for a long while the circus existed seemingly loved and revered by all. They would gather with ready eyes and ready pockets to appreciate the likes of trick riders, animal tamers, acrobats, jugglers, sword eaters and of course clowns. It was a travelling hub of entertainment, enchanting audiences with a combination of the magnificent and the bizarre. The sexual glamor, daring stunts, and athleticism of the female performers were particularly fascinating for a Victorian audience. And the rise of rail transport meant that circuses could perform near enough all year round, travelling greater distances and reaching a wider variety of places and people.
However, it was in the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign that certain incidents occurred, prompting people to question the respectability of such an event. In Charles Dickens novel Hard Times (1854), he writes of how Thomas Gradgrind, a respectable man defined by his strict belief in rational thinking, walks past the circus: “pass(ing) on as a practical man ought to pass on.” Gradgrind likens the circus performers to “noisy insects” and thinks of “consigning them to the House of Correction.” Although at this point in the novel Dickens is adopting a mocking, ironic tone towards his character, playing on the idea that the man’s ‘practical’ ways keep him from enjoying his life, and in this instance the “hidden glories” of the circus, the negative opinion of circus folk being assigned to Gradgrind was soon to become a reality for many of the nonfictional company that Dickens kept, and even somewhat the writer himself. Issues were beginning to be raised in the Victorian society concerning both the danger and modesty of the circus acts, with a specific focus on the female acrobats.

Photo of the letter from Her
Royal Highness to the Mayor of
 In July 1863, thousands gathered in Aston Park in Birmingham only to be horrified to watch a female trapeze artist, named Selina Powell who was eight months pregnant at the time, fall to her death. Powell’s death was one of the first events to generate public outrage towards the precarious nature of some of the acts. Dickens mentions the incident in one of his ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ articles posted in the journal All Year Round, in which he says “an appalling accident consequent on a shamefully dangerous exhibition.” In the increasingly commercialised and competitive business of circus, Powell’s condition and safety was overlooked, due to her remarkable talent and rising fame. As a result of Powell’s death, the Queen wrote an open letter to the mayor of Birmingham explaining her horror “that one of her subjects, a female, should have been sacrificed to the gratification of the demoralising taste unfortunately prevalent for exhibitions attended with the greatest danger to the performers.” This letter lead to performance safety becoming the subject of parliamentary debate for the next three decades and eventually resulting in the creation of two laws, one in 1879 and one in 1897, prohibiting young children from take part in the more daring stunts.
Selina Powell being carried by her husband,
mid 19th century
Sketch 'Amusement for the People!' from Tomahawk.
Mocking women who chose to take part in the circus
 in spite of the obvious dangers (July 1868) 

Once Powell’s accident had begun the discussion on whether or not the circus was a respectable place, it was hard to silence the critics. People began to speak out about the costumes of the female acrobats, labeling them vulgar and promiscuous.  These women, with their athletic, muscular bodies draped in spangles and sparkles, often appearing to be wearing nothing more than leotards, were the living embodiment of individualism. Some embraced the idea behind the image, that the women, and all performers for that matter, when performing, were to be treated as spectacles. They were to be gazed on and appreciated as a talent, separated from the crowd and in that moment, from societal conventions. In Browning’s poem Fifine at the Fair (1872), he seems favour this idea as he likens the female trapeze artist to a fairy:

“Next, who is this performs the feat of the Trapeze?
Lo, she is launched, Look – fie, the fairy! –
how she flees
O’er all those heads thrust back, - mouths,
Eyes, one gape and stare, -
No scrap of skirt impedes free passage through
the air,
Till, plumb on the other side, she lights and
laughs again,
That fairy-form, whereof each muscle, nay,
each vein
The curious may inspect”

However, many disagreed and the women’s scantly clad uniforms moved the Lord Chamberlain to release a warning to all places of public amusement stating “there is much reason to complain of the impropriety of costume of the ladies… now… that the question has been taken up by the press and public opinion… (I feel) compelled to call it to the serious attention of the managers.”

The issue of female performers being made to look indecent, came to a head when posters of the famous female acrobat Zaeo were released prior to her performance with the Barnum and Bailey circus at The Royal Aquarium (a building that once stood in Westminster, built to be a place of amusement and entertainment). The poster was seen by some as improper due to the amount of Zaeo’s skin visible in the image, and as the posters laced the streets of London, people that did not support the circus or its apparent exhibition of women were forced to take part in the spectacle in their day-to-day lives.

Poster of Zaeo, from The Life of Zaeo, 1891
However, another argument that surfaced was that the images of this proud, and visibly strong woman, acted as a symbol of female vigour. It introduced the idea of women as not needing to be delicate and girlish, instead muscular and athletic. One journalist, after seeing Zaeo’s performance in 1898 labeled her the “new woman.” Early feminist responses to the poster were plentiful; one woman when comparing Zaeo to the more ‘proper’ profession of a shop assistant who in her words was “cribbed, cabined and confined during the day,” explained that the pictures of the acrobat demonstrated “the grace, stateliness and strength which may all be acquired by bodily exercise.” Zaeo herself defended her profession in an interview claiming that being an athletic woman “is the very best thing in the world.”

Grand International Cirque Programme, 1884-1885

Both Powell and Zaeo had an enormous impact on the world of the circus and its place in society. Though it could be argued that Powell was as careless as Zaeo was enlightened, her death set in motion the safety measures that allowed the circus to continue, with fewer injuries, eventually becoming the much safer likes of what we would enjoy today. Zaeo on the other hand, prompted people into a state of New Age thinking. Though it cannot be said that her influence changed the world, and many never ceased to view her as anything more than an inappropriate figure, to convince even just a few people that women could be more than just delicate flowers, concealed behind layers of petticoats, is undeniably a worthwhile feat. The female acrobats’ were constantly pushing both physical and cultural boundaries. And in spite of the harsh judgments that were cast by many, at a time of industrialised growth and increased urbanisation, thousands of people continued to visit the circus for a much-needed release, and, the uninhibited, free-moving performers, scantly clad in sparkles and spangles, continued to earn the appreciation of the crowds below.


Assael, Brenda. The Circus and Victorian Society. University of Virginia Press. June 2005

Browning, Robert. ‘Fifine at the Fair’ from The Complete Works of Robert Browning. Ohio University Press: 2007

Dickens, Charles. ‘All Year Round’ from Uncommercial traveller (Google eBook), Interactive. Accessed 20/11/14.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Wordsworth Editions. London: 1995.

David, Tracy. ‘The Moral Sense of the Majorities: Indecency and Vigilance in Late-Victorian Music Halls’ from Popular Music. p39-52. Accessed 21/11/14.

Victoria and Albert Museum. Victorian Circus. Webpage. Accessed: 20/11/14.

Zarrilli, Phillip. Theatre Histories: An Introduction. Taylor & Francis: 2010

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea that the circus was so prevalent and popular during Victorian times! And the Powell incident is incredibly shocking! Thanks for sharing; this post has definitely been enlightening and has challenged my views of the Victorian period as such a strict, "no nonsense" time.