The Enid Blyton Society
Come to the Circus!
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Book Details...

First edition: 1948
Publisher: George Newnes
Illustrator: Joyce A. Johnson
Category: One-off Novels
Genre: Circus
Type: Novels/Novelettes

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Review by John Lester
Further Illustrations


Wraparound dustwrapper from the 1st edition, illustrated by Joyce A. Johnson

Title Page from the 1st edition, illustrated by Joyce A. Johnson
When Come to the Circus! first appeared in Sunny Stories in February 1947, readers must have anticipated a further instalment of the successful Mr Galliano trilogy. Those books have some psychology in them — indeed Circus Days Again, the third in the series, is almost a treatise in man-management at times — but Come to the Circus! (the exclamation mark in the title distinguishes it from the previous book of that name) is altogether more profound. Unusually for Enid Blyton, the shadow of a death pervades the book and not till the end is the ghost finally exorcised. In many ways the story is an essay in psychology.

At its heart is one of the most lovable children Enid ever produced, the orphaned Fenella, 'ten years old, small for her age, with a little pointed face, green eyes and a shock of wavy red hair' (p.9). The settled sheltered life she has been leading with Aunt Janet comes to an abrupt end when her aunt marries and moves to Canada, leaving the little girl in the care of Uncle Ursie and Aunt Lou at Mr Carl Crack's Circus. To Fenella the prospect seems 'very frightening indeed':

But the circus! That was quite a new world — a frightening world to Fenella, who ran away if she saw even a gentle old sheep, and screamed if a dog jumped up at her. Whatever in the world would she do in a place where elephants and bears, monkeys and dogs roamed about all the time? She couldn't go there. She couldn't. (p.11)

Here then is the first theme of the story. Fenella, 'a shy little girl,' has to face up to new challenges in life, which will mature her and make her a stronger personality. Her most precious asset is her helpful character and her abilities are quickly stated: 'Fenella was a marvel with her needle. She could make anything! She knew how to use a sewing-machine, too, and was really a clever little girl' (p.12). Not surprisingly, therefore, she is a neat and tidy child and this, initially, prejudices her against her uncle:

Fenella nodded. She didn't like the look of Uncle Ursie to-day. He looked so dirty and plump and clumsy. He grinned widely at her and his little eyes almost disappeared. He held out a very dirty hand. (p.18)

Uncle Ursie, though, is kind — a far more important attribute — and is quickly contrasted with his wife, 'a small neat woman, dressed in a dark blue cotton frock with red spots and a red belt. Her hair was screwed up in a tight bun at the back, and her eyes and mouth looked tight, too. She gave Fenella a thin kind of smile' (p.19).

Fenella may disapprove of her uncle's appearance but it is he who has the wide grin and Aunt Lou the 'thin smile.' Aunt Lou — the single syllable makes the name seem tight too — does the sewing for all the circus folk and her dislike for Mrs Connie and her monkeys is quickly established. Fenella, though, looks forward to helping her aunt with her needle.

Soon after she is frightened by the fearsome Mr Carl Crack, who takes her for a trespasser and orders her out, but her immediate decision to run away is changed when she meets Willie, 'a boy of about twelve' (p.23), who imitates bird songs and has a pet goose called Cackles. To Willie Fenella confides, 'I haven't got a father or mother. They died when I was little' (p.25)

As a side issue, it is interesting to see how many orphans there are in Enid Blyton's stories, especially those series that began during or just after the war. In the 'Adventure' books Jack and Lucy-Ann are orphans and Mrs Mannering is a widow. Snubby is another orphan and Barney's mother has died, leaving Barney to seek his estranged father. Many children, like myself, would have lost a parent (usually a father) to the war and would thus feel some empathy with the characters. Fenella is impressed with Willie Winkie, 'the most wonderful boy she had ever met. What twinkling eyes he had! What a lot of freckles — and what funny little dimples!' (p.30). One senses that a few years down the line romance could be budding here! Mr Carl Crack is friendly to Fenella second time around and she decides to stay.

She soon discovers that Mrs Connie is as antagonistic towards Aunt Lou — 'Mean selfish woman,' (p.39) — as Lou is to her but Fenella soon overcomes her early fear of the circus and its animals and settles in. She even cuddles Bobbo, a baby brown bear, and proclaims that 'I'd like to take him to bed with me at night!' (p.41). Aunt Lou, though, remains 'such a cross kind of person' (p.49), though Uncle Ursie recalls that she 'used to be such a sweet-tempered girl' (p.45). Why this should be is now hinted at when Fenella brushes her hair:

Aunt Lou watched her.

"You've nice hair," she said. "I had a little girl once with hair like yours. It used to shine like that when I brushed it."

"What happened to your little girl?" asked Fenella. "Did she die?"

"Yes," said Aunt Lou. "She fell ill, and I couldn't get a doctor in time. Now you get into bed quick!

Having opened the subject, Aunt Lou abruptly closes it again and when, next morning, Uncle Ursie says, 'you let her keep her nice ways and good manners, Lou. Wouldn't you have wanted our own little girl to be like that?' (p.49), it is recorded that 'Aunt Lou said nothing.' Nevertheless here is the first sign of the mask slipping and Aunt Lou uses 'a nicer voice than she had used to Fenella so far' after the little girl has helped with the housework (p.51).

It is still a rare event, though, and once Fenella has thrilled to watching her first circus performance from behind the curtains, especially enjoying Willie and Cackles, the following day sees one of Mrs Connie's monkeys bounding into the caravan and dressing herself in Fenella's doll's clothes. Aunt Lou is furious, blaming Fenella (unfairly) for the monkey being there, and sends her niece off with a rude message to Mrs Connie. When Mrs Connie responds in kind and Aunt Lou overhears the outburst, the antagonism escalates, with Lou refusing to make any more things 'for those smelly monkeys of yours' (p.79).

Meantime, education arrives in the form of Mr Presto, the conjuror, who is to teach Willie and Fenella. Now another mystery is introduced: Presto never smiles because 'Something dreadful once happened to him' (p.106). Fenella is good at her lessons but Willie's reluctance is explained by the fact that he is effectively illiterate. Just as Fenella has come to terms with the circus and (antagonisms apart) is loving the whole experience, so Willie, circus bred, has to accept that a part of Fenella's existence (literacy) is necessary for him. Presto warns him, 'you have a good and quick brain, and . . . if you use it well and train it, you will go far. . . But if you do not train it, it will not be of much use or pleasure to you. Only you can choose' (p.97).

Fenella, indeed, is now fully part of the circus and 'everyone agreed that the little girl was very useful. Aunt Lou began to feel rather proud of her.' Significantly, 'She didn't say so though. She was still as sharp-tongued as ever' and when this troubles Uncle Ursie, Aunt Lou tells him not to interfere (p.102). She mellows, however, once they are on the road and Fenella has tidied up:

"I've done it, Aunt Lou," she said, and climbed up beside her aunt. "Isn't this lovely? I do like going on a journey like this, don't you?"

"Well, I've done it so many times that I don't really notice it," said Aunt Lou. But all the same she seemed to like the peaceful jogtrot of the horse, and looked round at the buttercup fields with pleasure.

"My little girl used to like those," she said, with a nod of her head.

Fenella wanted to ask her about her little girl, but she didn't like to. So she said nothing.

Nevertheless, when Fenella, thrilled at being able to drive the caravan, asks Aunt Lou if she can have her doll, Rosebud, beside her, 'for once in a way Aunt Lou smiled and gave Rosebud to Fenella through one of the little front windows' (p.114) — another chink in the armour!

Fenella's generosity is shown next when she spends the three shillings she has on ice-creams for Bobbo, Willie, Aunt Aggie (Willie's mum), Uncle Ursie and Aunt Lou. Aunt Lou looks pleased, though she advises Fenella to save as well as spend. Fenella now blunders, forgetting to lock the cage so that Clump the bear gets loose and startles two ladies. She owns up at once to her mistake (another endearing characteristic of hers) and when Aunt Lou is about to stop her travelling in a little golden carriage Willie is driving, Uncle Ursie persuades his wife to say nothing. Fenella goes off 'filled with delight' and is likened to Cinderella (p.121). The analogy is not inappropriate. Fenella is a kind of Cinderella, metaphorically going from rags (lonely and unloved) to riches (accepted and loved by all).

Aunt Lou's spectre acquires a name soon after, when Fenella claims she would go without supper if she thought Bobbo was hungry:

Uncle Ursie heard her, and was touched. He gave Fenella a hug.

"Why, if you're not a proper little circus kid already, Fenny! That's the way to talk! Did you hear that, Lou? That's the kind of thing our Carol would have said, isn't it now?"

Aunt Lou said nothing to that, but pursed up her lips a little. Fenella couldn't tell if she was angry or sad. But she wasn't angry, it was clear, because she gave Fenella the kind of sausage she liked best of all, rather burnt, and burst a little at one side. . . .

"You'll grow as fat as Bobbo!" said Aunt Lou, in an unexpectedly pleasant voice.

Significantly, perhaps, we aren't told that she isn't sad.

With Aunt Lou apparently mellowing — in deeds if not in words — Willie starts to sour, annoyed at Mr Crack's instruction that he should attend lessons. Fenella offers to help and also to teach Willie to swim. She asks her aunt for materials for a bathing-dress. There is an unexpected development:

"No, I've nothing that will do," said Aunt Lou. "Nothing at all."

She saw the little girl's disappointed face, and rose suddenly. She went to a little trunk at the back of the caravan and opened it. She delved down into it, felt about for a moment and then brought up a beautiful little bathing suit in pure white, with a shiny belt of bright red.

"You can have this," said Aunt Lou, and gave it to Fenella. "You've been a good girl to help me so well this afternoon."

She did not wait to be thanked but went out of the caravan at once.

Uncle Ursie is surprised:

He looked up — and then his face wrinkled up in astonishment. He stared at Fenella. "Where did you get that suit?" he asked at last.

"Aunt Lou gave it to me," said Fenella. "Why do you look so surprised, Uncle?"

"Well — that suit was our little Carol's," said Uncle Ursie. "Why, Fenny — your aunt must be fond of you to lend you that! But don't you let her see you in it, or she may be sorry she's lent it you, and want it back."

More mellowing, then, and the references to Carol are increasing. She can almost be regarded as a character in the story and, indeed, Sunny Stories did provide a picture of her.

Unfortunately the mellowing dissolves in crisis. Jimmy the monkey escapes and loses his clothes in the sea. When Aunt Lou refuses to make replacements, Mrs Connie complains to Mr Crack — and we finally discover what happened to Carol:

"She used to be nicer," he said to Mrs. Connie. "Perhaps that was before you joined us, Connie. She changed when she lost Carol. That was her little girl, you know — the cleverest little thing you ever saw! She had a mane of red hair like Fenella's."

"What happened to her?" asked Mrs. Connie.

"Well, Carol was a fine swimmer," said Mr. Crack. "In those days Ursie used to have performing seals, too, and Carol used to go into their tank with them, and do all kinds of tricks. Clever as paint, she was! She could even stand up and ride on a seal's back — and that's a slippery trick to do if you like!"

"My, she must have been clever," said Mrs. Connie.

"Well, Carol got a chill one day," said Mr. Crack, "and instead of keeping her warm in bed and fussing her a bit, Lou let her go to the show as usual, and swim in the seal's tank. The water was cold. The child fell very ill afterwards, and she died. People blamed Lou very much for it, and she changed after that, grew bad-tempered, and never let anyone mention Carol's name."

Mr Crack now issues an ultimatum: if Lou doesn't make the clothes, she and Uncle Ursie (and Fenella) will have to leave. Aunt Lou remains intransigent but Willie suggests that Fenella should make them secretly. Aunt Aggie approves:

"Well Willie," she said, "I like old Lou, for all her sharp tongue. She's a sad woman under her grimness and scolding. She loved that girl of hers very much and blamed herself for her illness. (p.155)

She is filled with admiration for Fenella, able to 'cut out that little coat — and listen to Willie reading at the same time and put him right when he goes wrong,' and, when Fenella offers to help Aunt Aggie to read, too, Aunt Aggie repeats what we were told at the beginning — that Fenella is 'a very clever girl' (p.156). This time, though, she is told it to her face 'and the praise was sweet to Fenella, for she got very little of it from her Aunt Lou.'

Fenella causes a minor panic when she falls asleep with Bobbo in her arms and Uncle Ursie enlists help to find the baby bear. Before they rouse the camp, however, they discover the sleeping pair. Fenella's readiness to apologise is well received by the men who were called out. As Mr Wriggle says, 'It was nice of you to come and say you're sorry. . .Not many people do that, you know' (p.163).

Her closeness to Bobbo makes it likely that the little girl and little bear can join in with Willie's act with Cackles and causes Uncle Ursie to reminisce about his seals — and his daughter:

"She was a marvel with Flippers and the others. . . The things she could do! You know, Fenny, though you're not really one of the circus folk, you fit in so well that you might have been with us for years — and you do remind me of our little Carol, the way you get on with the animals — especially my bears."

"I know I can't make up to you for your own little girl," said Fenny shyly. "But I'll try to make up just a bit."

He warns her, 'don't you tell your Aunt Lou I said you reminded me of Carol. She wouldn't like it.'

The last phase begins with a nice surprise: twenty pounds for Fenella sent by Aunt Janet. When she offers it to Uncle Ursie, he refuses to touch a penny of it, claiming that 'you earn your keep and more by your needle' (p.179). She decides, instead, to buy a sewing machine for Aunt Lou but a series of crises ensues. Willie tries to avoid lessons and blames Fenella when he gets into trouble with Mr Crack because of this. Fenella, because of looking for Willie, is late for Mr Presto who accuses her of being ungrateful. Lastly Mrs Connie thanks Aunt Lou for making her monkey's clothes (which, of course, Fenella has made) and Aunt Lou is furious. Uncle Ursie tries to help and again the ghost of Carol is invoked:

"She only did it out of the kindness of her heart, so that you wouldn't have to, and so that Mr. Crack wouldn't turn us all out for your defiance," he said. "I wonder you can't see that, Lou. Would you have said the same if our little Carol had done it? No — you'd have thought she was a clever, kind little kid, you know you would. You've changed, Lou. Carol wouldn't know you for her mother if she was alive now."

Aunt Lou was horrified to hear such a thing from kindly old Ursie. She took a quick look at herself in the glass. She saw her grim face, the hard, thin-lipped mouth and the cross-looking eyes. No, Carol wouldn't know her, now!

"Fenny's so like Carol," said Ursie. "She's like her in looks, with that mane of red hair, and she's like her in other ways. Look at the way she gets on with the animals, and yet she was never in a circus before. Mark my words, Lou, you won't keep that child long if you treat her harshly. She'll be writing to her aunt in Canada to take her away, and I don't blame her. But I should miss her now."

Aunt Lou began to feel most uncomfortable. There was a lot of truth in Ursie's words. Then her temper rose again and she spoke spitefully to him.

Despite her aunt's scolding and feeling that 'she's horrid and mean,' Fenella decides to go ahead with buying the sewing machine. She also improves relations with Mr Presto, giving him an embroidered mat for Cinders, his cat. Presto is pleased by her kindness and proud of her because 'You do not sulk or bear malice when people scold you' (p.193). Willie, though, continues to sulk. He is secretly pleased with the bonnet Fenella has made for Cackles but refuses to say so.

Fenella now sets off to buy the sewing-machine but Aunt Lou has taken her money and she has to borrow it from Mrs Connie. She catches the bus and off she goes. When she hasn't returned by seven o'clock, Uncle Ursie and Aunt Lou start to worry. Uncle Ursie fears she might have run away, since 'She's been very unhappy, you know. It would be dreadful if we lost Fenny, as well as Carol' (p.196). Mrs Connie is unsympathetic:

"Lou, if Fenny ran away I wouldn't blame her," said Mrs. Connie. "You had one dear little girl, and you lost her — and here you have another sent to you, and you treat her unkindly, and she runs away. What's the matter with you? You need a change of heart. Ursie will run away from you one day, too!"

Aunt Lou turned away miserably. She felt quite sure now that Fenny had run away. The police would find her, no doubt — and everyone would know Fenny had run away because she, her Aunt Lou, had treated her badly. She had shut her heart to Fenny. Fenny wasn't Carol, but she was like her, and Aunt Lou wouldn't have anyone in her heart but Carol. She was wrong, very wrong. She had lost her chance of having another child growing up and loving her.

When Ursie suggests that Fenella would be happier elsewhere, Lou finally escapes being possessed by the memory of her dead child and her own feelings of guilt:

To Uncle Ursie's immense amazement Aunt Lou burst into tears, a thing he had not seen her do for years. "I do want her!" sobbed Aunt Lou. "I wouldn't take to her because she wasn't Carol. But now I'll love her because she's Fenny. Suppose something's happened to her, Ursie! I'll blame myself all my life long, just like I blamed myself for Carol." (p.199)

Fenella, of course, has not run away, just missed the last bus and had to walk back, but a number of issues are solved by the thought that she might have. When she explains about her quest to buy the sewing-machine, 'Aunt Lou swallowed a lump that had suddenly come into her throat' (p.201) and her face looks 'younger and softer than it had for years' (p.202). She even kisses her goodnight.

Fenella's return not only re-unites her with Willie, very much aware of his sulky behaviour and relieved to see her, but also causes Mr Presto to smile — another ghost exorcised, though we don't find the identity of this one. 'It's something I want to forget!' he explains, 'and if I tell you, I shan't forget it, shall I? I shall forget it soon, if you keep making me smile' (p.203).

And so the good-natured, unselfish little girl, facing her own difficulties and overcoming them, heals the rift between her aunt and Mrs Connie, causes Aunt Lou to finalIy come to terms with her daughter's death and Presto with his sad memories and causes Willie, effectively, to mature a little. From a little girl, frightened of animals, Fenella ends triumphantly as one of the circus acts with Bobbo, Willie and Cackles, 'How pretty she looks,' records her author, 'with her red hair fluffed round her excited face. Her frilly skirt bounces up and down and she has white wings edged with bright red' (p.207). The watching children whisper, 'She's a fairy.'

Fenella's acceptance is partly signalled by the familiar abbreviation of her name. In the first chapter the limitations of Aunt Janet's affections are indicated by the fact that she calls the girl 'Fenella', whilst the friendly neighbours, the Toms, call her 'Fenny'. Gradually she becomes Fenny to the circus, firstly to Willie, then Uncle Ursie then most of the others (including the author) and finally, and most significantly, to Aunt Lou. The final chapter title ('Bravo Fenny') is the only one to contain the abbreviated name, which confirms that she is now loved by all and also indicates how carefully Enid has structured her novel.

Of all the Sunny Stories serials I read as a child, Come to the Circus! was the one I liked least. Only in my adult years have I come to appreciate it. This may well be because a number of adult issues are addressed. It isn't often that Enid Blyton and D. H. Lawrence can be linked, but the psychology of Aunt Lou's reluctance to accept Fenella in lieu of her dead daughter is not far distant from that of Mrs Morel in Sons and Lovers, so busy pining for her dead son William that she doesn't notice that her younger son Paul is very ill until almost too late. 'I should have watched the living, not the dead,' she says. Aunt Lou could say the same. And Blyton's success with Aunt Lou is that she doesn't make her a bad woman.

Her affection for Fenella may be restrained but she is never deliberately cruel and makes sure the little girl is sheltered, fed and educated. It is the innocent little girl's purity of heart that gradually breaks down the reserve, even if it does take the shock of believing her lost to complete the transformation. The portrait of a woman, guilt-ridden by her daughter's death and imposing on others the anger she feels for herself is not a common one for a children's story. Living in the Present is the title of a 1960s book by John Wain; it could well serve as a motto for those like Presto and Lou, whose natural emotions in the present are restricted by the hauntings of the past. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.