Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rupert Croft-Cooke observes Ruth Manning-Sanders with the circus

Although her writing output was prodigious, Ruth Manning-Sanders was fairly private when it came to her own life.

I'm not aware of any autobiographical essays that she wrote. Most of what we know about her is cobbled together from a wide range of sources and is frustratingly incomplete.

It's frustrating, because the small morsels of her life that we are aware of are tantalizing. She spent her childhood summers with her sisters in the Scottish Highlands. She and her husband traveled across Great Britain in a horse-drawn caravan (likely in the 1910s). She was an acquaintance of Virginia Woolf. She traveled and worked with the circus at various times in her life.

It's frustrating, and we're left wanting to know a little more.

In a stroke of great research fortune, I recently stumbled upon "a little more."

A hunch led me to pick up a copy of the 1950 "revised and augmented" edition of "The Circus Has No Home" by Rupert Croft-Cooke. (The book was first published in 1941.)

Croft-Cooke (1903-1979) was an English author of biographies, screenplays and detective stories. According to Eric Brown, Croft-Cooke wrote "on such diverse topics as Buffalo Bill, Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Victorian writers, criminals, the circus, gypsies, wine, cookery, and darts."1

"The Circus Has No Home" documents Croft-Cooke's time with the English circus. And what makes it so valuable (to me) are all of the references to Manning-Sanders. Combined, they create a fascinating portrait of that side of her life, through another writer's eyes.

Here are some of the Manning-Sanders passages in the book:

  • [Page 15] But I still had not met the Count, the father of the eight Rosaires. 'He's in town with Ruth,' explained the Countess. 'Do you know Ruth Manning-Sanders? She's a writer, too.' No, I did not. I knew her name, but it was not a very welcome one at that moment. I had never found myself much at ease among members of my own profession, and for the most part had lived without acquaintance with them. ... So it was anything but reassuring to hear that the Rosaires, who were so far removed from all of the nonsense of the literary business, had a writer with them. It says all that one human being can say for Ruth Manning-Sanders that within twenty-four hours I was glad she was with the circus, and within a week or two could scarcely think of it without her. Wholly unpretentious and unliterary, she insisted on justifying her presence with the show by selling programmes or chocolates from a tray slung over her shoulders, and wandered round the seats casually and happily. Such a gesture could in itself have smacked of affectation or masquerade. Not so with Ruth. She was as incapable of a pose as she was of pomposity. I shall always think of her, a gentle auburn-haired woman in her earliest forties2, with a quiet friendly voice and kindly beautiful eyes, walking with a chocolate-tray before her among the children and soldiers and workers in the Rosaires' audience.3

  • [Page 18] There was the Count, deep in a big tweed overcoat, his bright face twinkling over its collar as he told Ruth Manning-Sanders one of his endless stories of the early days of Rosaire's Circus, much as a most ancient Israelite might have described to his gaping progeny the crossing of the Jordan.
  • [Page 23; Croft-Cooke describes the endlessly amusing antics of the clowns] I remember once, years later, when Ruth Manning-Sanders had rejoined the show after an absence, watching her while the [funnel trick] was played. She was alone on a seat, laughing madly. 'But Ruth,' I said, 'you must have seen it hundreds of times!' 'I know,' she replied weakly, 'but it's always funny.' And it is.
  • [Pages 167-168] Driving to Petworth the next morning I passed the Count with the monkey cart and his little cavalcade of ponies, and beside him on his box-seat Ruth was perched. She always drove with the Count in the morning when she was with us, loving the trot of the horses, the fresh smell of the air which is lost to motorists, and the journey made longer. With a gypsy-like scarf round her head, she would sit there chatting with the Count, waving to the successive lorries, waggons and cars as they passed, and happy as a human being could well be in the morning sunlight with a pleasant day ahead.

1. Unlike Manning-Sanders, Croft-Cooke reveled in writing about himself. According to Brown, "his most important contribution to English letters was the series of twenty-seven autobiography-cum-travel books which comprise The Sensual World."
2. Based upon her birth year of 1886, Manning-Sanders would have been in her "earliest forties" in the late 1920s. But it's also possible that Croft-Cooke made an incorrect guess on her age and that this encounter took place in the 1930s.
3. You might think that Croft-Cooke was a little sweet on Ruth. And maybe he was. But I should also point out here that he was gay, which got him into a little trouble with the law during his lifetime.


  1. "I passed the Count with the monkey cart and his little cavalcade of ponies" ... is the best thing I can imagine writing :)

  2. “But I should also point out here that he was gay”—but perhaps not exclusively.  In The Long Way Home (London, 1974) he writes:
    “I had come to [Tangier] fresh—or not so fresh—from the loathsome events which had befallen me in 1953 and been healed and purified by the sunlight and love I had found there.  I had written fourteen books [not including far more than nineteen books under the name Leo Bruce], enjoyed sex in delirious variety, learned to make a semi-tropical garden and to cook[.]” [p. 10]
    “Among the characteristics I recognized in myself when, a couple of years later, a heart attack and a subsequent period of convalescence gave me time and opportunity for contemplation, was that I have always been dependent for happiness and interest on the friendship of both men and women and that these have been (for me) divided into two kinds—the simple, extrovert, usually not highly educated younger folk with whom I am on terms of instant understanding and often affection, and those with whom on less commonplace, sometimes even intellectual subjects I like to converse.  (I think also that those who attract me sexually belong exclusively to one or other of those two categories, but that is another and less interesting matter.) [p. 66]