At the time Isabella Alden wrote her books, there were no movie theaters, telephones, radios or televisions. Few had the means to attend the theater and the concept of “entertainment” was usually confined to people finding ways to amuse themselves within the drawing-rooms and parlors of individual homes.
But quiet American life changed the moment the traveling circus came into town (click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version). When a circus company arrived in a new place, the acts and animals paraded through the town, firing people’s imaginations and enticing them to follow the parade back to the performance tent.
The mainstay of the circus was the equestrian acts. Trick riders atop well-trained horses performed remarkable feats and thrilled audiences with their precision. Clowns, jungle animals, and rare, exotic people rounded out the bill. The circus was the only entertainment of its kind, thrilling audiences with new experiences and feats they’d never seen before. The atmosphere under the tent was electric, with real performers and real animals executing larger-than-life tricks right in front of the audience.
It was heady stuff at the time, and circuses owned an exclusive corner of the entertainment market. It was natural, then that Isabella Alden would have mentioned circuses in her novels.
In Stephen Mitchell’s Journey, Stephen’s sister Sara Jane sighed over the family’s poverty and her dream of being able to do things other people could afford to do:
“I wish we knew about things. I am dreadful sick of sticking here on this stony old farm and not knowing what is going on. I wish I could go to the circus. There is going to be one next week, and I would give most anything to go to it; but there! I don’t suppose it is of any use.”
Sarah Jane may have longed to go to the circus, but Isabella Alden didn’t believe the circus was an appropriate venue for Christians.
In Chrissy’s Endeavor, Chess Gardner explained to Joe the stable boy why Christians should not attend the circus:
“It is said that there are at these places, exhibitions more or less offensive to good taste and good manners; women who dress in a manner not agreeable to refined people, and who ride in a way that would not be pleasant to us if they were our sisters, for instance. This being the case, the latter part of the other statement applies, that to attend, and to pay money for doing so, helps to sustain such entertainments.”
After more discussion, new Christian Joe decided to skip going to the circus, saying:
“Well, I don’t believe Jesus Christ would go to a circus if he were here; I don’t, honest.”
The explanation Chess Gardner gave reflected a popular view of the time about people who performed in circus shows, especially women. While some, like the equestrians in the above poster, were conventionally attired, others wore costumes that were more daring and much more provocative, like these scandalously-clad acrobats.
But costumes and lady-like riding aside, Isabella had a more important reason for believing the circus was the wrong place for Christians to be. Her belief was founded in a verse from Corinthians that she used as her guide for daily living:
Whether, therefore, ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31
The verse was the yardstick against which she measured her behavior. When she was faced with a dilemma—such as whether to attend a circus or theater production—she asked herself whether doing so would glorify God.
And it wasn’t just in big decisions that she applied the verse. She took it literally, believing that even in small things, such as eating and drinking, Christians should strive to do all things in ways that glorified God.
She wove the verse into many of her books as a touchstone for her characters whenever they were faced with a decision about what to do. In the case of going to the circus, Isabella’s characters asked themselves whether going to see a performance would add to the glory of God.
While some of her characters made conscious decisions to stay away, Sarah Jane Mitchell continued to dream of someday going to the circus and the marvelous things she would see there.