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

Abstract

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 friend Billy Rocca, a short-statured person.1 It argues that Prichard uses focalisation to position Rocca as the subject of a prejudiced gaze, and that she moves beyond visual representations of his character to capture the psychological ramifications of this prejudice. This is significant for a novel published in Australia in 1930, some fifty years before the establishment of Disabled Peoples International and its first World Assembly in Singapore in 1981. This assembly, and the United Nations’ declaration of 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons, precipitated a shift in the perception of disability from an individual problem to a structural and cultural problem (People with Disability Australia, ‘History of Disability Rights Movement in Australia’t).

It is also significant because, as disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes,

Disabled literary characters usually remain on the margins of fiction as uncomplicated figures or exotic aliens whose bodily configurations operate as spectacles, eliciting responses from other characters or producing rhetorical effects that depend on disability’s cultural resonance. Indeed, main characters almost never have physical disabilities. (Extraordinary Bodies 9)

In Haxby’s Circus, Rocca is pivotal to protagonist Gina’s development. When Gina herself becomes disabled, she looks to Rocca to learn how to live in an ableist world, signalling the importance of community for disabled people. Prichard’s attempts to move beyond stereotypical representations of bodily difference in Haxby’s Circus mark this novel as an important text in Australian literature about disability.

See(d)ing Disability

Haxby’s Circus is the seventh novel by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883–1969), one of Australia’s most well-known mid-century writers. Born in Fiji and raised in Australia, Prichard worked as a governess before travelling to London in 1908. Her first novel, The Pioneers (1915), won the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australasia. When she returned to Australia, she married Lieutenant Hugo Throssell and settled in Western Australia, and went on to publish over thirty works, including novels, plays, short stories and poetry.

Prichard was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, and much of her writing dealt with social injustice and conditions for workers. Working Bullocks (1926), the novel that launched her literary reputation, is ‘a passionate, lyrical celebration of the lives of the small community of timber getters in the Western Australian karri forests’ (Hay), while her trilogy of The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948) and The Winged Seeds (1950) describes the history of a gold-mining community from the 1890s to the 1940s.

While many of Prichard’s works were critically acclaimed, scholarship on Haxby’s Circus remains slight, with readings confined to the novel’s cultural commentary on abortion (Moore) and its publication and reception in Britain and America (Hetherington). As with other examples of Prichard’s work, Haxby’s Circus focusses on conditions for workers, this time in a circus troupe. As one of the characters in the novel is short-statured, and another one becomes disabled through her work in the circus, attention to the way the novel represents disability is warranted.

Haxby’s Circus follows Dan Haxby’s circus troupe as it travels around eastern Australia. Gina Haxby, Dan’s daughter, carries the story’s arc. Her role in the circus is to ride the horses, but during an evening show when she is overworked and tired, she falls, is crushed by her horses, and breaks her back. She endures three months in hospital, with Rocca her sole visitor. When Gina returns to the circus, she is unable to perform, and Rocca departs when his contract is up, for he fears he will kill Dan Haxby for his neglect of Gina before and after her accident.

Not long after Gina’s return, her mother bears a child, Lin, and Gina becomes the boy’s carer. However Lin is killed when he performs without a net and falls to the ground. Gina is heartbroken and resentful towards her father who pushed her and Lin to perform when they were tired, fearful or unsafe. When her mother becomes pregnant again, Gina takes her away from the circus and cares for her and a new sister, Maxine. Six years later, Dan Haxby arrives at the local agricultural show and sees Max, a natural performer, doing handstands. When he realises Max is his daughter, he gathers the family together once more. The circus, which fell apart after Gina and her mother’s departure, begins again, this time with Max as the star of the show. Gina takes increasing control of the circus and becomes its boss when her father dies. His death prompts her slump into drinking and depression, but she revives herself at the novel’s close with a new role in the circus. At both points – taking increasing charge of the show and her new role at the novel’s close – Rocca’s influence is pivotal.

Gina’s character is based on Prichard’s memory of a bare-back rider who, with a broken back, was brought into her brother’s surgery in a country town in Victoria. ‘For years I thought about her’, Prichard wrote, ‘but not until Wirth’s Circus came to the West, long after, did I have a chance to travel with a circus and learn something of the everyday life of the circus folk’ (‘Some Perceptions’ 240). Prichard adds that the story is ‘not a story of Wirth’s, but of a smaller show to which the injured girl belonged’ (‘Some Perceptions’ 240), yet her material was informed by her travels with Wirth’s Circus.

Wirth’s Circus began in Australia in the 1850s with the arrival of three brothers from Bavaria, Johannes, Peter and Jacob. All were highly trained musicians, and it was thought that they were attracted to Australia because of the first goldrush. They settled in Dalby in Queensland in the 1860s and gave lessons in music and dancing. They also travelled in the surrounding districts, playing at local races, agricultural shows and dances (St. Leon 163). Around the 1870s, Ashton’s Circus passed through Dalby and persuaded Johannes Wirth and, later, his sons, to join their show. Later, they struck out on their own, creating a dynasty of performers that lasted until 1963, when Wirth’s folded on account of the increasing cost of rail transport, unpaid taxes and other debts (St. Leon 207).

In her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, Prichard relates how, when Wirth’s circus came to Perth, her husband Jim ‘arranged for [her] to travel with it through the country districts in order to obtain details’ (254), as a half-formed novel ‘about circus life had been haunting [her] ever since the circus rider with the broken back had been brought into Nigel’s [her brother’s] surgery in Victoria’ (254). She relished her experiences, dedicating her novel to ‘my good friends of Wirth’s Circus, in memory of our time together and their “assistant lion tamer”’, who was Prichard herself. Wirth’s appears in the novel as the circus with which Dan Haxby trained and where he met his wife Lotty, a costume-maker. In a 1931 interview for the Adelaide Chronicle, Doris Wirth, one of four sisters who performed in the troupe, also points to Prichard’s enjoyment, stating that the author ‘travelled round with the circus for months … She was sorry to leave it, because she had quite a good time with us. We travel by special train, you know, and she had a compartment to herself. She took all her characters from the circus – the dwarf and everybody’ (‘Behind the Circus Scenes’).

The short-statured person to whom Doris Wirth refers is likely to have been Giuseppe Bignoli (1893–1939), billed in Australian performances as ‘Prince Guiseppe Bogonghi [sic], the Cleverest Midget Equestrian in the World’ (Wirth 144). In a performance in the northern New South Wales town of Narrabri, which drew a crowd of one thousand people, he ‘caused much amusement and was heartily applauded … his performance on the big white horse caused hilarious response’ (‘Wirth’s Circus’). He was offered an engagement by Wirth’s while in America, on the condition that he deposit £100 as a bond, which would be returned to him at the conclusion of his contract (‘Prince of the Sawdust Ring’). In 1925 he ‘injured his spine so severely as to be unable to continue his acrobatics’ and demanded the cancellation of his contract (‘Prince’). Wirth’s retained his deposit and would not pay for a return fare for him and his brother to America, so Bignoli sued the company. Bignoli lost the claim, and was counter-sued by Wirth’s and ordered to pay their costs. Prichard travelled with Wirth’s in 1927, and it is unclear if the short-statured person who Doris Wirth refers to is Bignoli or a replacement. The two articles that Prichard wrote about her tour, ‘Out Back with a Circus’ and ‘In the Ring with the Circus King’, do not refer to a short-statured person.2 Her description of Rocca as an Italian with imperfect English seem, however, to match newspaper reports of Bignoli as speaking little English (‘Dwarf Receives’).

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 revenge3), Prichard depicts 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 frustrating circumstances, exerts agency and control over his life.

Viewing Bodies

Haxby’s Circus opens with circus owner Dan Haxby, ‘fat and jolly as a sultan, riding his elephant’ (1) into a hot, dusty country town in the Mallee, a region in Victoria. Following Haxby is ‘the dwarf on a pot-bellied Timor pony’ (1), then the rest of the troupe. The differences in stature of the men, denoted by the contrast between ‘sultan’ and ‘dwarf’, and the choice of animals they are riding – the elephant and pot-bellied pony – translates to a visual hierarchy in which Haxby towers over Rocca. At first glance, this suggests that Haxby, a non-disabled person, has power over a disabled person, particularly given the historical association of short-statured people with freak shows.

Billy Rocca, ‘the plaything of princes and oriental potentates’ (8), was born in a small Italian town. When a local entrepreneur suggested to his parents that ‘there was fortune in the boy’s deformity’ (9), they rejected this idea, but Rocca embraced it. At the novel’s opening, he has ‘taken the law into his own hands, and by making a laughing stock of himself, wandered about the world, leading a gay grasshoppery existence’ (9). He is referred to as the ‘perfect little gentleman’, with white hands, manicured nails, and had ‘become accustomed to luxury, scented baths and fine linen’ (8), characteristics which hearken back to the cultural history of short-statured people. In ancient Egypt, short-statured peoples’ status was enhanced through their association with the gods of childbirth and creativity, and Egyptian courts offered roles to short-statured people ‘as priests and courtiers, as well as jewellers and keepers of linen and toilet objects’ (Adelson, ‘Dwarfs: The Changing Lives’). Adelson comments that the defining characteristics of short-statured peoples’ lives, during the nearly 5,000 years that they are known to have lived and worked in the courts of Africa, Asia, Europe and Central America, is ‘a combination of being highly prized, but the property of an owner’ and being ‘assigned to wait upon or amuse others’ (Pritchard and Kruse 131). These characteristics apply to Rocca, whose primary role is to provide entertainment.

By the eighteenth century, ‘spectacles’ such as giants, short-statured people, hairy women and conjoined twins ‘had become staples of both popular and elite culture, appearing not only in entertainment venues but also in scientific spaces’ (Durbach 2). Durbach cites the example of Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera, the first museum in Russia, which contained not only his personal collection of natural history specimens, but also living freaks of nature who could be seen not only by the scientists using the museum as a research facility but also by curious members of the Russian public (2). Garland-Thomson makes the observation that extraordinary bodies have been so compelling throughout history that

whether they were alive or dead had little consequence. If live exhibition was enhanced by animation and performance, the display of a dead prodigy embalmed as a spectacle, pickled as a specimen, or textualized as an anatomical drawing derived from dissection was equally profitable, and often more readable and manipulable. (Extraordinary Bodies 57)

The lack of a distinction between a live and a dead body, between a specimen (or object) and a subject, is an example of the many ways in which disabled people have been denied subjectivity.

Short-statured people were among the first human exhibits of American P. T. Barnum’s freak show, and remained a staple of such shows thereafter (Gerber 49). These freak shows, which gathered pace in the nineteenth century, were ‘popular tests of knowledge that paralleled and intersected the halting emergence of scientific quantification as the elite, dominant method of subduing the material world by naming and measuring it’ (Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies 58). This means of labelling, naming and controlling through scientific classification became pronounced as Britain expanded its global reach through colonisation. Durbach explains that the maintenance of Britain’s far-flung empire was dependent upon establishing and, crucially, naturalising the difference between ruler and ruled, a project that by the middle of the nineteenth century was intimately bound up in the discourses of bodily norms (29). Exotic (to the British) peoples were often displayed alongside freaks, and Wirth’s 1924 programme features Torrelli’s Miniature Circus, introducing the bucking mule, dogs, ponies and monkeys alongside Guiseppe Bogonghi, the ‘midget equestrian’ (Wirth 146).

The use of the offensive term ‘midget’ illuminates the problematic circumstances in which Bignoli and his fictional counterpart Rocca had to work. The term ‘midget’ originates from the freak show, and was used ‘to separate those with disproportionate dwarfism (dwarfs) from those with proportionate dwarfism (midgets)’ (Pritchard, ‘Hate Speech’). Short-statured performer Charles Stratton, popularised as ‘General Tom Thumb’, had proportionate dwarfism. He became a celebrity in the nineteenth century and his status helped to popularise the term ‘midget’ (Pritchard, ‘Hate Speech’). Its association with insects reinforces the perception of short-statured people as inhuman, as does Bignoli’s placement in the advertisement alongside dogs, ponies and monkeys.

Returning to the novel’s opening image of Dan Haxby on his elephant and Rocca on his pot-bellied pony, it may seem that Haxby’s Circus reinscribes the power differentials of the freak show, particularly given that ‘people with dwarfism were often exhibited next to people with gigantism (whose height was artificially raised) in order to exaggerate both of their sizes’ (Pritchard, ‘Hate Speech’), thereby reducing both people to nothing more than their size. However, this disparity in fact presages the disruption of Dan Haxby’s control over his circus. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, ‘Perhaps the most spectacular form of visual novelty that can prompt stares are breaches of the common human scale and shape. Characters with unusual forms and sizes abound in our folktales, literature, art, and material culture’ (Staring Chapter 11). The character of Rocca unsettles the viewer and disrupts their need for order.

Subverting Stares

On arriving in Australia, Rocca joins a vaudeville company, but the director absconds and leaves him ‘penniless and in broken health’ (9). Rocca then meets Haxby, who invites him to join his circus. In his performances for Haxby’s Circus, Rocca capitalises on the stares of the non-disabled, provoking mirth in his audience: ‘the children had shrieked at Rocca and his antics; the heavy, fat faced, or weedy, thin and melancholy farmers and their wives laughed till the tears ran down their faces, to see the dwarf trying to imitate Jack’s and Lily’s feat on the trapeze’ (16). He uses the gaze for capital gain, similar to contemporary performers such as Verne Troyer or Tecki Lomnicki,4 or short-statured clown Frank Theriault, who saw himself as a professional, and considered himself an entertainer like his non-disabled peers (Adelson, ‘The Lives of Dwarfs’ 33). Rocca also takes the stares of the crowd and subverts them:

He only had to stand before the crowd for it to laugh; that raucous blare to lash round and scourge him. If he fell, or sat down, people laughed the more … Caricature of a man though he was, Rocca got back on the crowd, by caricaturing the airs of its most respected citizens. (31)

Rocca’s perspective echoes those of real-life circus performers who refuse the idea that they are disabled. His use of his body as a ‘means of earning a living’ (8) shows that he has a degree of autonomy and, as Durbach outlines, the mere fact that freak performers were working meant that they ‘resisted the idea that they were dependents’ (19). Rocca and his fellow performers locate agency in what many non-disabled people would consider to be constrained circumstances. At the same time, it is important to note that many disabled people were often exploited and poorly treated in freak shows and circuses. Scholar Erin Pritchard, herself short-statured, writes:

‘Freaks’ were often bought or kidnapped by show owners, including Barnum. Of course, some of the performers chose to become part of the freak show as it provided them with the opportunity to gain financial stability, as other forms of employment were off limits to them. The displays themselves routinely dehumanised difference and disability. These shows thus became a way to exploit and oppress disabled people, all of which certainly benefited Barnum. (‘Down with P. T. Barnum’)

Charles Stratton, for example, became a star of Barnum’s show, offering performances to Queen Victoria. Stratton was so traumatised by his experiences that he would sometimes wake up crying (Pritchard, ‘Down with P. T. Barnum’). Pritchard also notes that ‘for many people with particular impairments, if they were not employed within the freak show, they would likely have been put into asylums or workhouses. They were exploited in order to avoid such places’ (‘Hate Speech’).

Rocca, too, experiences this tension between capacity and exploitation. Although he exerts a considerable amount of agency, he also experiences undeniable frustration at the responses of his viewers. When Prichard moves beyond her descriptions of the way in which the crowd perceives Rocca and articulates his viewpoint, the impact of the prejudice against him becomes clear:

There might have been some shame and pity in the laughter which inundated him; but Rocca never caught those notes. He was made to be laughed at, and lived on the laughter he stirred, though he cursed laughter and hated the crowd that laughed, as all men hate the gods whose puppets they are. His face was a suffering mask, under its paint, on nights like this when the hardworking country folk laughed themselves to hysterics and tears. (48)

This passage is strained, veering from a statement that Rocca does not hear the shame and pity in his audience’s laughter, to the understanding that he does hear the laughter, for he curses it and hates those who laugh. The convoluted expression is reinforced by the awkward observation that his face is a ‘suffering mask, under its paint’, suggesting that there is a mask beneath another mask. This could denote the extremes to which Rocca goes to in order to hide his fury at the prejudice directed towards him.

The lines that follow this passage indicate Prichard’s understanding that it is not Rocca who is impaired, but those who perceive him as such. She writes, ‘He was Life’s joke at itself, he believed. His mind as fine and straight as the bodies of these people. Their minds as deformed, childish, undeveloped, paddling soft and helpless as his limbs’ (48). In this, Prichard approaches the social model of disability, which posits that disability is ‘the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers’ (People With Disability Australia, ‘Social Model of Disability’). The barrier in Rocca’s instance is the attitudes towards him. Unfortunately, however, Prichard reinforces the distinction between non-disabled and disabled by creating a comparison between a fine, straight mind and one that is ‘deformed’ or ‘childish’, which in turn evokes the infantilisation of people with disability. It may be that she was entrenched in the discourse of the time that posited people with disabilities as inferior. Certainly, her representations of other minorities in this and other works are extremely problematic. In Haxby’s Circus she refers to ‘Japs and yellow skins doing the smartest trapeze’ (233), while Jeanine Leane has pointed to her troubling and racist representation of white man Hugh Watt’s self-loathing for loving an Aboriginal woman in the widely-read Coonardoo (published a year before Haxby’s Circus). Yet on other occasions Prichard’s move into Rocca’s consciousness clearly articulates the impact of prejudice against him, for example: ‘No one knew perhaps the suffering of his mind: the despair, misery and loneliness which went on in the fine brain under Billy Rocca’s big head, broad low brow’ (8). Prichard uses focalisation to shift her representation of Rocca as an object – seen in derogatory terms by the crowd – to a subject who suffers but who also, ultimately, has control over his life and the way in which he is treated. In this he differs from some of the other participants in the circus.

Animal/Human

At many points throughout the novel, Rocca is likened to a performing animal. The dancer Gina, one of the Haxby’s daughters, contemplates the menagerie one evening:

One of the bears scratched the floor of his cage with ceaseless furtive movements of his long-nailed claws. The green eyes of the wolf-hound had half closed on their savage unfathomable rancor; and the yellow eyes of the old lion, half asleep, blinked at her gratefully.

‘A poor old lot,’ Gina told herself. ‘But improving. There’s the bears … and Rocca. He’s a draw. The kids love him. He’s got the crowd by the wool, Dad says. If business keeps up like it’s been doing, we’ll be able to get a tiger soon and a lioness.’ (10)

The placement of Rocca amidst the bear, wolf-hound, lion, tiger and lioness – akin to Bignoli’s placement among ponies, mules, dogs and monkeys – serves to reinscribe the long history of association between circus performers and animals.5 In sideshows, writes artist and disability scholar Sunaura Taylor, there were performers with names such as ‘‘‘What Is It?’; “Maximo and Bartola, the Aztec Twins”; “The Missing Link”; and “Krao, the Ape Girl.” These are the animal metaphors that epitomize what’s wrong with animal metaphors. We hear phrases like “monkey girl” or “dog boy” and think of oppression’ (195).

Arguably, all of the circus members working for Dan Haxby are oppressed, caged by his whims and drive, by his showman’s instinct that ‘demanded all he got from them’ (167). Lotty Haxby, his wife, bitterly describes herself as: ‘a machine for churnin’ out acrobats and bare-back riders that’s all he thinks I am … it’s the show all the time with your father – the damned show’ (86). These examples reflect Prichard’s longstanding interest in the working class, working conditions and capitalism, so it is significant that Rocca, the character with a disability, has the capacity to extricate himself from Haxby’s control when other, non-disabled characters do not.

When Gina is injured and removed from the spectacle of the circus, Dan Haxby exhorts Rocca to continue his act. Although Rocca understands that a showman has to keep faith with his public (31) he is furious with Dan Haxby and the turn of the events. In his rage, Rocca ‘shrieked at the audience in Italian and Malay, dancing with passion and the crowd, thinking Rocca was playing the baby, as he squalled and threw himself about like that, laughed unrestrainedly’ (31). Prichard reveals Rocca’s hatred of the crowd’s laughter at his disability and, through his rage, presages the cruelty which Gina will inherit. When Rocca eventually leaves the circus, concerned that his anger will consume him enough to kill Dan Haxby, he shows that he will no longer consent to being part of an enterprise that denies human and nonhuman animals their right to a decent life. Gina takes much longer to reach this position, and while she arrives at it through a different route, Rocca remains crucial to her understanding of her disability.

Twinned

The link between Gina and Rocca is established from the novel’s opening pages, through Rocca’s jealousy over Gina’s admirer, who follows the circus from town to town. It is also created through their bodies. Early in the novel, a similarity is established between Rocca’s and Gina’s performances. Gina observes that Billy’s work ‘looked simple, but he practiced painstakingly, and his acrobatics stunts were exhausting’ (8). Gina’s performance is read through her sister Lily’s envious eyes, which watch Gina

running and vaulting to the back of the new white mare, standing poised with pointed toes [to] throw herself easily, gracefully from Bonnie’s back to the ring or turning a somersault from the back of one horse to the other, stretch up on her toes again, blow her kisses and retire. (15)

Yet, in an early warning of what is to come, Gina was ‘so good at her work, went through it so easily, gaily, people as often as not did not realise how difficult and dangerous what she had done really was’ (15). These lines foreshadow the accident in which Gina falls and is crushed by her horses. Her admirer, resented by Rocca, drives her to the nearest doctor, but loses heart when he sees how damaged her body is, and flees.

Gina, however, has absorbed her culture’s loathing of those with disabilities. In the opening pages of the novel, Prichard describes Gina as

so accustomed to the sight of [Rocca] that she never thought of him as they did. He had travelled and read a great deal, and he talked so interestingly about things and people that he had seen, that she almost forgot when they were together what she looked like and how odd he was to most people. (7)

Prichard’s focalisation of Gina’s point of view shows that Rocca’s physical appearance is immaterial. Instead, Gina focuses on his fine, ‘straight’ mind, which engages her own.

However, when Rocca, her only visitor from her circus family, visits her in hospital, Gina sees him in a different light:

Gina saw Rocca in a new grey suit with the flowers. Never had he looked so grotesque to her. She was so used to him that she had never thought much of his unusualness; his deformity had been something for the show ring; one of the assets of the circus. Billy Rocca as a star performer held the respect of brother artists. There those like Rabe who thought he earned his crust easily; but Jack and the boys recognised he made the most of himself and worked for his living, like the rest of them.

Here it was different. In the hospital, toddling towards her in his coat, waistcoat and trousers of light grey tweed, hat and flowers in one hand, sight of Rocca struck Gina with a stab of revelation.

Would she be like that – deformed, a monstrosity?

In the agony of the moment, she lost sight of Billy. (55)

Gina’s new appraisal of Rocca suggests that she has become like his audience, laughing at his mask, and failing to see the bright mind behind it. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson observes, ‘The visibly disabled body intrudes on our routine visual landscape and compels our attention, often obscuring the personhood of its bearer’ (Staring 20). This occurs when Gina’s question as to whether she would be ‘deformed, a monstrosity’ causes her to see Rocca only in terms of his disability, not his personhood.

The aversion expressed by Gina’s admirer towards her broken body, and by Gina and her doctor towards Rocca, is an example of what David Bolt terms the ‘forbidden relationship’. He refers to this in the context of the film Freaks, in which a short-statured person falls in love with a non-disabled woman, and contrasts it with the ‘unforbidden relationship’, an intimacy between disabled people that ‘does not cross the normative divide but nonetheless shocks as it counters notions of asexuality (not to mention the received incompatibility of happiness and disability)’ (Bolt 115). Part of this aversion may stem from the common infantilisation of people with disability (Bolt 35), evidenced through the use of the adverb ‘toddling’ to describe the way Rocca walks.

This passage also indicates that the circus is a place in which the unusual becomes the norm, and that the variety of its performers, both human and non-human, causes Gina to forget that there is a world with different, and often repressive, regulations beyond it. Still, when Gina returns to the circus with her new body, she does not register this relative permissibility. She loses interest in her appearance and keeps ‘out of sight as much as possible, working all day at the back of the waggons, washing dishes or clothes … a drab, stooping figure, beside the fire, behind the buckboard, scrubbing pots or carrying kerosene buckets, was all anybody ever saw of her’ (66). Her attempts to keep out of people’s vision signals that she has internalised the idea that a visibly disabled body should be hidden. Rocca watches his friend and tries to mend their relationship, but Gina cannot ‘bear his pity and sympathy. Gina herself did not understand why, but he did. She had to find herself, Billy understood, get used to this sort of life, work it out for herself before she could talk to any one’ (70). When Rocca prepares to leave the circus, he proposes to take Gina away with him, not as a love match, but to give her an easier life. Gina’s first response to this is derogatory:

How everybody would laugh if they knew what he had just said to her … Even Lily and Jack, her father and mother. The hunch-back and the dwarf to elope together? But that was not the way to look at it. It was quite right what Rocca had said, Gina brooded. He could give her an easier, more comfortable life. (69)

Ultimately, although she acknowledges Rocca’s kindness, Gina decides to stay with her family.

Only when Gina receives a windfall from Rocca on the event of his death does she understand how truly kind he was, and how unkind she was in failing to recognise his humanity:

How bitterly she had suffered, she thought, no one knew. Yet Rocca had known. This last thought of his for her was the gesture of his understanding and sympathy. And she had scarcely thought of him in all these years. It was not fair; not to have given him the same gentle and sorrowing thought he had given her. She had after all treated him like the rest of the world, Gina told herself. Billy had been a freak and a curiosity to her, just the same as to the others. (189)

Where, in the novel’s opening pages, Prichard writes that ‘No one knew perhaps the suffering of Rocca’s mind’ (8), here she establishes that Rocca understands what his disabled friend is feeling. On his death, and her windfall, Gina muses to her sister Max, ‘Poor Billy … He was banged about so. Everybody laughed at him. “What is it?” you’d hear them say if he walked down the town. Like they’ve done to me, sometimes’ (194). This points to the pervasiveness of ableism, and also to the importance of role models, connection and community among disabled people. It also shows how this connection ultimately helps Gina become comfortable with her identity as a disabled person.

Transforming Bodies

When Rocca speaks, in his ‘clear exquisite English’ (Prichard 40) to the doctor who will care for Gina’s broken back, and offers to cover her expenses, the doctor’s first response is amusement. He ‘looked down on the dwarf. It seemed absurd to take him seriously. The little man looked so absurd in his dignity. Then, ashamed of his amusement, Heathcote saw something of the man behind the mask’ (40). The doctor’s mixed response indicates how the figure of the freak is inherently destabilising. As Durbach explains:

The freak was monstrous precisely because of the instability of its body: the freak could be both male and female, white and black, adult and child, and/or human and animal at the same time. Indeed, this ability to inhabit two categories at once, and thus to challenge the distinction between them, was the hallmark of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century freak show performer. (3–4)

In Rocca’s instance, he inhabits the role of adult and child, with the ‘head of a rather good looking man with hazel green eyes, and a well-cut sensitive, sensual mouth’ (7). But from his broad shoulders, Prichard continues, ‘his body tapered to the legs of a child, his arms and legs were those of a boy of about five years old, small, plump, absurd’ (7–8).

Rather than showing that the freak could inhabit a multitude of categories, it is more accurate to argue that the freak shows the limitations of categories and hierarchies themselves, particularly given that these hierarchies were developed alongside the colonial obsession with control and domination. When Rocca bequeaths Gina his financial legacy, he allows her to dispose of her father’s management of the circus, and to take control of it herself. She disputes the idea – as does Rocca – that a person with a disability cannot have autonomy. In taking over the circus from her father, she also relegates him to a management role and makes the participants in the circus shareholders, disrupting the iron-fisted, autocratic control that made so many lives difficult.

Towards the end of the novel, Dan Haxby dies. Gina, bereft of the force that shaped her life, drifts into drink. The show suffers, until she is alerted to the impact of her diminished authority, whereupon she begins to exert discipline again. She also takes a surprising step into Rocca’s shoes. She becomes a clown herself who is billed as ‘Punch, The Hunchback Clown. She just ran on, clumsy and lumbering, parodying the juggling and tumbling act with a gleeful cry’ (274). Her act is a success, and with the circus moving under her direction again, she ‘began to feel a sense of power’ (275). Here, Rocca’s exhortation to make the best of her disability becomes her salvation, as indicated in the book’s closing lines:

[Gina] seemed happiest really when, in her clown’s dress, made-up with plastered face and rouged mouth, she waddled into the ring and tumbled about, making herself grotesque and hideous, to get the brittle crashing merriment of the crowds that could hurt her no more, in whose laughter she could join in, at the order and harmony of a world to which the circus held the dim surface of its mirror. (277)

The reference to the ‘dim surface of its mirror’ recalls the discussion of ‘specular’ at the beginning of this essay, particularly the notion that non-disabled people expect to see themselves reflected in the bodies around them, and may be unsettled when they do not. That the circus is likened to a mirror suggests that Gina’s body, and disabled bodies more generally, are at home in a place that celebrates their creativity and disruption. However, the fact that the mirror is ‘dim’ indicates that acceptance of this place by non-disabled people is still taking some time.

Legacies

In 1925, a fire tore through Melbourne’s Town Hall, damaging its roof and interior, and particularly the full-length portraits that adorned its hall. The City Councillors commissioned artist Napier Waller to design mural panels to replace the damaged hall. Between 1927 and 1935 he designed ten panels that evoked ‘an Olympian, Arcadian or Golden Age world’ (Lane). The first panel, centred on ‘Women in Literature’, depicts ‘a handsome, brown-haired, high-booted Prichard among the characters of Haxby's Circus, her high forehead and sharply sculptured features anticipating later portraits by Enid Dickson, Noel Counihan and Rhoda Boissevain’ (Hay). Beside her is Gina Haxby, a young woman with short, black bobbed hair, one arm raised, revealing a trim body with a short, frilled skirt. Crouching beside her, in a setup that echoes the disparity between the tall Dan Haxby on his elephant and short dwarf on his pony in the opening of Haxby’s Circus, is Billy Rocca. Rocca crouches behind a drum which obscures all of his body apart from his shoulders and head. The body which earns him a living, which he uses to challenge his audience, and that withstands the audience’s laughter, is obscured.

It is not known whether Waller read Haxby’s Circus, but he was disabled, his right arm having been amputated at the shoulder when he was wounded in World War One. Masculinity in disabled soldiers was associated with mastery over a disability, whether or not with a prosthesis, through control over the undamaged parts of the body (Gagen 535). Ultimately, this mastery was constructed through mental fortitude, with disabled soldiers encouraged to ‘draw upon their inner potential to achieve independence and self-reliance in spite of the challenges posed by impairment’ (Larsson 50). It may have been that Waller was influenced by this prevalent discourse, for his decision to hide most of Rocca’s body shows that he did not contemplate, as Prichard did, Rocca’s humanity.6

The difference between Prichard’s and Waller’s representations of Rocca and Gina show that, even if one artist might be relatively progressive in their depiction of disability, many others are not. This is significant given that, as Pritchard and Kruse observe, ‘cultural representations of people with dwarfism have shaped, and continue to shape, how people with dwarfism are perceived within society. This makes how they are represented within culture, including literature, important to consider’ (132). It is particularly important given that the denigration of short-statured people persists today. Erin Pritchard suggests that the term ‘midget’ should be considered a form of hate speech, given its origins in the freak show and the way it continues to be used to denigrate and dehumanise short-statured people (‘Hate Speech’). Andrew Solomon, in Far From the Tree, recounts a doctor’s pronouncement to the parents of a child newly diagnosed with dwarfism: ‘You have given birth to a circus dwarf’ and another’s equally heartless recommendation that a child he had diagnosed should ‘be institutionalised or sent to live with a dwarf troupe in Florida’ (236). Solomon also observes that ‘Woody Allen once quipped that dwarf is one of the four funniest words in the English language. To be in your very essence perceived as comical is a significant burden’ (235). Haxby’s Circus shows that although this burden is carried by people with disabilities, it is not created by them. When Prichard concludes her novel with Gina’s happiness in ‘making herself grotesque and hideous’ (277), she indicates to her readers that it is not disability which is disabling, rather, it is those who have no understanding of its potential for restitution.

Footnotes

  1. The terminology used to describe people with skeletal dysplasia varies. People with the impairment prefer names ranging from ‘person with dwarfism, dwarf, person with restricted growth, person of short stature and little person’ (Pritchard, Dwarfism 7). Pritchard notes that the term ‘dwarf’ is ‘the most common term used both medically and socially when referring to dwarfism. Despite this, some people contest the use of the word ‘dwarf’ due to its relation to mythology’ (Dwarfism 7). I have chosen the term ‘short-statured person’ as this is the preferred term in the Australian context.

  2. I am indebted to Nathan Hobby for his mention of these articles. Hobby also notes that, contrary to reports, Prichard spent only a few weeks with the circus, not months. See https://nathanhobby.com/2018/05/04/writing-the-circus-chapter.

  3. See Mock for analysis of the stereotype of the inherently malicious and antagonistic dwarf, and Adelson for analysis of the association of dwarves with elves and leprechauns.

  4. Both these actors refuse stereotypical roles usually given to short-statured people. See Mock and Garland-Thomson, Staring, ch. 11.

  5. CA. Cranston has dwelled on the blurring of the animal/human boundary in the nineteenth century circus, which manifests in contemporary circuses in the ways that ‘animals are taught to act like humans: seals applaud; dogs ride bicycles; horses and elephants walk upright; and chimpanzees attend tea-parties’ (3). She references Phil the piebald pony in Haxby’s Circus, described as ‘a horse almost human’ (Prichard 16).

  6. The wartime experiences of Prichard’s husband, Hugo Throssell, gave him post-traumatic stress disorder, and he suicided in 1933. Prichard would have witnessed the strain caused by expectations of returned soldiers and Throssell’s revulsion at war and patriotism, although it is not clear if this fed into the writing of Haxby’s Circus.

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.