BOOKS

High-wire hero

A star showman’s tale emerges from obscurity

Brian Bethune September 18 1995
BOOKS

High-wire hero

A star showman’s tale emerges from obscurity

Brian Bethune September 18 1995

High-wire hero

BOOKS

A star showman’s tale emerges from obscurity

BRIAN BETHUNE

THE GREAT FARINI By Shane Peacock (Penguin, 457pages, $29.99)

When a 21-year-old medical student named William Hunt walked along a rope strung four storeys above the main street of Port Hope,

Ont., on Oct. 1, 1859, he began an extraordinary career. Hunt, bearing the stage name of Farini, left his home town to spend the following summer repeatedly walking across the gorge at Niagara Falls. By the late 1860s, he was a famous trapeze artist in England. Later, he became the wealthy impresario behind the first human-cannonball act and other circus sensations, and an inventor whose creations ranged from the mundane (the folding theatre seat) to the significant (a functioning parachute). He was also an explorer, author, botanist—and, until the publication of The Great Farini, a man almost entirely unknown today.

Farini's obscurity—particularly as compared with the continuing fame of his rivals, such as the French tightrope walker Blondín, who is commemorated on one of the busiest streets in Niagara Falls, Ont.—is one of the mysteries that Toronto-based author Shane Peacock tackles in his fascinating account of a driven, multifaceted man. The best explan seems to be that Farini was a Canadian who was prominent in none of the areas his countrymen think worthy of note. While his subject may not have scored any goals against a Russian hockey team, Peacock clearly believes that Farini has been unfairly ignored. And while rectifying this injustice, Peacock also provides an illuminating sketch of Victorian-era entertainments, especially the variety of circus acts that toured even the small towns of pre-Confederation Canada.

Farini saw his first circus in Bowmanville, near Port Hope, when he was 8. By the time he was 15, he had seen at least a dozen circuses, including P. T. Barnum’s Colossal Museum and Menagerie, which was led into town by 10 elephants. While others merely marvelled at their performances, Farini carefully analyzed the secrets that lay behind their seemingly superhuman feats. What distinguished Farini from all the other awestruck boys was his courage—not just the physical variety, but the moral courage that led him to abandon middle-class respectability and secure prospects for a chancy and disreputable profession.

Driven from home by his outraged father after the Port Hope walk, Farini made his way to Niagara Falls where he spent the summer of 1860 parodying the shows put on by the celebrated Blondin, the only man before Farini to have walked the gorge. When the Frenchman, for example, carted a stove aloft the narrow wire and paused midway to cook omelettes, Farini responded by dressing as a laundress, bringing up a washing machine and cleaning some handkerchiefs.

After wandering around South America for a few years, Farini surfaced in London with a trapeze act involving himself and a small boy. In 1870, he dropped briefly from public sight, returning to even more acclaim as manager of the lovely Lulu, purportedly a 16-year-old girl whose act consisted of being propelled 25 feet into the air by a Farini-designed machine cunningly hidden in the floorboards. Lulu, of course, was none other than the trapeze boy.

The Lulu Leap was a stroke of genius on Farini’s part, providing the audience with that hint of sex that so bedazzled Victorians: one reporter for the London Daily Telegraph rhapsodized over Lulu’s “symmetrical form free from the restraint of superfluous apparel.” Lulu packed houses across Europe and America for six years before being unmasked, to little public animosity. Even after he began to lose his hair and grow a moustache, Lulu continued to leap, in his pink dress, for many more years. But Farini had already moved on, taking over London’s Royal Aquarium, a respectable but money-losing institution dedicated to natural history. Farini immediately reversed both descriptions by turning the aquarium into a circus, hiring a young German girl and firing her out of a cannon. She was his greatest sensation, with up to 20,000 people a day paying to see her. The human-cannonball act only heightened Farini’s Svengali-like reputation.

By the late 1880s, Farini was pursuing other ventures with the same prodigious energy. He began to concentrate on his inventions while playing the stock market. He took a trip to the Kalahari Desert and wrote a book about his explorations. He became obsessed with begonias, writing a how-to manual about them. He took art classes and, by the turn of the century, he was a noted Toronto investor who exhibited his paintings in prominent galleries. In 1920, he returned to Port Hope and lived there quietly until pneumonia killed him at age 90 in 1929, sending him to an obscurity almost as astonishing as his life.

Peacock’s prose, unfortunately, is not marked by the elegance he attributes to Farini’s performances. The author at times seems as dazzled by his subject’s accomplishments as the young William Hunt was by P T. Barnum’s acts, and the narrative often bogs down in unnecessary details. But in his relentless pursuit of those scattered details and his impressive biographical reconstruction (including 14 pages of photographs), Peacock shows a Farini-like determination. The author, who first heard of Farini from his grandfather, even learned to walk the high wire. He performed last week at a reception launching his book—a measure of dedication that would have impressed The Great Farini himself.