Losing Sight of Billy: Moving Beyond the Specular in Haxby’s Circus


Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus: the Lightest Brightest Little Show on Earth (1930) chronicles the life of Gina Haxby as she travels with a circus troupe owned by her father. Her close friend is Billy Rocca, a short-statured person and fellow performer. When Gina has an accident and becomes disabled, she realises she has absorbed her culture’s aversion to visibly disabled people, and looks to Rocca to learn how to live in an ableist world. While Gina’s character arc drives the novel, her trajectory is driven by the presence of a disabled character. Rather than using Rocca merely as a plot device, or to stand in as a metaphor (what Mitchell and Snyder refer to as ‘narrative prosthesis’), or reverting to stereotypes of short-statured people (for example, as fantasy creatures, or angry people bent on revenge), Prichard portrays Rocca as a sensitive, cultured and generous man who has learnt to weather – although not without bitterness – the constant slaps of prejudice. She portrays Rocca as a human being who works hard, desires, makes a living and, despite his embedding in the long and degrading history of short-statured people’s work in circuses and shows, exerts agency and control over his life. She also positions him as the subject of a prejudiced gaze, and uses focalisation to capture the psychological ramifications of this prejudice. Through the connection between Gina and Rocca, and Gina’s eventual reconciliation with her disability, Prichard underscores the importance of connection in the disabled community. Prichard published Haxby’s Circus in 1930, some fifty years before the establishment of Disabled Peoples International and its first World Assembly in Singapore. Her attempts to move beyond stereotypical representations of bodily difference mark Haxby’s Circus as an important text in Australian literature about disability.

‘Disability is a specular moment’, Lennard Davis writes, for the disabled body is marked by the ‘missing limb, blind gaze, use of sign language, wheelchair or prosthesis’, as seen by the ‘normal’ observer (12). This use of ‘specular’ refers to sight or vision, but there is another meaning that it recalls: ‘senses relating to reflection or mirrors’ (Oxford English Dictionary). This underscores the expectation that, when a ‘normal’ person looks at other bodies, they expect to see their able body reflected back. When they encounter visibly disabled people and do not find themselves reflected, they are provoked into a range of responses, which ‘can include horror, fear, pity, compassion and avoidance’ (Davis 12). This essay examines the dynamics of encountering the visibly disabled body in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus: the Lightest Brightest Little Show on Earth (1930) particularly in relation to its protagonist Gina Haxby and her…

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Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Disabilities, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Dwarfism, Disabled characters.

Cite as: White, Jessica . ‘Losing Sight of Billy: Moving Beyond the Specular in Haxby’s Circus.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.3b221653fe.