… the smell of the crowd…and other things

Today is the birthday of Philip Astley (1770-1814), founder of the famed Astley’s Amphitheatre, one of the hot spots of Regency London. He’s now seen as the father of the modern circus, and in fact established the standard circus ring size of 42 ft. diameter.

He began his career in the army where he fought in the Seven Years War and distinguished himself with his horsemanship and then left to become a riding instructor and performer. He rejoined the army again in 1793 when England and France were at war, taking emergency leave when his Amphitheatre caught fire.

Tracy Chevalier has a terrific page on her site about Astley, who appears in Burning Bright, her novel about William Blake. And now it seems I’m going to talk about Burning Bright, which I enjoyed–sort of–I actually liked the circus stuff best, and admired the way she wrote about artisans. There’s a family who makes chairs and another character who makes Dorset buttons, something of which I was woefully ignorant; buttons were made of thread, woven together in intricate patterns, so all my characters whose buttons made a “pinging” sound as they hit the floor are about twenty years ahead of their time.

This illustration, of a Dorset basket weave, is one borrowed from the site of the British Button Society (yes, there is actually such a thing). What I didn’t get from the book is a clear sense of Blake and that was disappointing, but her depiction of Blake’s London was vivid and exciting.

There are any number of directions I could go from here, but I also wanted to add that I had a blast in NJ last weekend, signing as two people and giving readers the choice of the dirty book or the funny one; I finally got to meet Santa and a lot of other cool people; and Smartbitches are talking about Jane today.

So: have you been to the circus or read a good book recently?

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