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Elizabeth Macneal on the Real-Life World of the Victorian Circus

Posted on 12th May 2021 by Mark Skinner

Elizabeth Macneal follows up former Waterstones Book of the Month The Doll Factory with Circus of Wonders, another irresistible dive into Victorian Gothic. In this exclusive piece, heavily illustrated with images from Elizabeth's researches, she describes the colourful, exploitative and thoroughly dangerous real-life world of the Victorian Circus.    

‘Mrs Astley will command a large hive of bees to quit their habitation and assemble on her arm.'

I read this single sentence in a book and I was captivated. It seemed to summarise everything about the circus – its flirtation with risk and danger, its relentless quest for the bizarre and the unique. Growing up in Edinburgh, I was treated to a glorious deluge of street performers each August – I sat spellbound on the pavement as women juggled chainsaws while balanced on unicycles, laughed as a clown tried to sweep a circle of light into a dustpan.

When I began to research the book that would go on to become Circus of Wonders, the more my obsession deepened. The Victorian era was the century of spectacle, when circus exploded, when great menageries toured small country towns, when tightrope walkers plunged to their deaths, when little people and bearded women became rich and famous. It was a world which exploited and empowered, and it felt ripe and exciting as the setting for a novel. As I walked around Edinburgh in August 2019, every surface and lamppost plastered with advertisements, I had that first sense of palpable excitement as I pictured the opening scene of my new novel. 1866. A circus poster, nailed to a tree outside a small coastal town. A building excitement, but a sense of fear too, about what this unfamiliar world might change or unleash.

The mid-19th century was a time, of course, when the whole world was changing; the machine age ushered in new possibilities and allowed the circus to flourish. Train travel meant that pockets of England were suddenly accessible. Whaling expeditions to Alaska captured sea lions for menageries. New factories could churn out hundreds of leaflets or newspapers. Performers could have their likenesses taken in photographs, in little cartes-de-visites, or their profiles formed in thousands of identical statuettes, produced by ceramics factories like Wedgwood. And it was just up to the showman to take advantage of these possibilities, to stir crowds into a frenzy, to blazon the name of his troupe across omnibuses and matchstick boxes.

In Circus of Wonders, Jasper Jupiter knows how to milk a crowd; he is a man driven by his own greed, by his own desire to be remembered. Like many circus owners, he is a master of the PR stunt. He rides a rowing boat down the Thames, sitting opposite his tame leopard with its toothless jaws. He has Nell, the girl he kidnapped from her small village, turned into the face of a matchbox company. In the books I read, real showman performed similar stunts.

In 1844, the clown Barry Thomas sailed down the Thames from Vauxhall to Westminster, in a tub supposedly drawn by four geese (but which was, in fact, drawn by a rowing boat on a string). The showman P. T. Barnum attempted to buy Shakespeare’s house and transport it, brick by brick, to his New York museum, at a time when he was trying to make his name in the UK. All of these snippets made me reflect on the idea of truth, of reality versus illusion, of deceit and lies and storytelling. The book became, then, Nell’s quest to find her own voice, to tell her own story, when Jasper Jupiter spun increasingly outlandish stories about her, mythologising her into a persona – even a brand – that she felt severed her from herself.

This, then, gave me part of the darkness, part of the unease, as well as the exuberance; but other risks of the circus were not difficult to find. Safety checks were rudimentary or not performed at all. Circus structures were flimsy and often burned to the ground or collapsed. Performers, driven to greater and greater risks in the quest for novelty, often tumbled to their deaths.

A tiger escaped from Wombwell’s travelling menagerie after a wagon crash and killed a man, a young boy, a woman and a baby. Numerous lionkeepers, like Henry Kraul, were torn to pieces by their beloved pets. At Ducrow’s circus, when simulating a battle scene, a female spectator was shot in the neck. The tightropewalker Selina Powell fell to her death from a high wire when seven months pregnant, prompting Queen Victoria to lament that ‘one of her subjects – a female – should have been sacrificed... for exhibitions attended with the greatest danger to performers.'

It is this undercurrent of menace that runs through the book, that fuels Nell’s own sense of precariousness. As she is reinvented as Nellie Moon and swings beneath a hot air balloon, she is torn between ecstasy and a grim reflection on all the performers who have died in unfortunate accidents. My characters Nell, Toby, Jasper and Stella – all of them are embedded in the fascinating and complex history of 1866, their fictional lives an echo of the real showmen and performers who walked the highwires and swung across the arena before them.

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