This vivid poster for the Garrick Theatre in Whitechapel demonstrates the typical range of circus entertainments on offer in the early Victorian period. The emphasis is very much on the exotic and the spectacular, with performing animals transported from around the world, and a number of re-enactments of internationally famous battles and pageants. The poster also demonstrates a number of changes in the way circuses were run as the Victorian period progressed. Where once a circus was an all-year-round travelling roadshow, pitching a big top in a field and hoping to attract the public through displays of sound and light, increasingly circus companies began to perform full seasons in permanent theatres and to become grander, more commercial ventures. Some, such as Astley’s Circus, would even build their own amphitheatres. The main reason for this was the growing concentration of the British public in built-up metropolitan areas; and the more tightly regulated work and leisure hours in industrial towns. It no longer paid quite as handsomely to move from town to town.Charles Dickens was a fervent supporter of popular working-class culture, including circuses. One of his earliest journalistic pieces (collected in Sketches by Boz, 1836) is an admiring account of several visits to Astley’s Circus in the 1830s. In the mature novel Hard Times (1854), the entertainments on offer at Sleary’s Circus are presented as a healthy contrast to the depredations of factory work that turn workers into ‘melancholy-mad elephants’.
- Article by:
- Paul Schlicke
- The novel 1832 - 1880
Paul Schlicke considers the contrast between fact and fancy in Hard Times, exploring how Dickens uses the excitement of the circus to challenge the doctrines of 19th-century philosophers and political economists.