I have always been interested in forgotten pieces of history, particularly where lives have been barely recorded, distorted by mis-telling, or eroded over time. It is the fragment that excites me – that scrap of information where my imagination begins to fill in the rest. When I was flicking through a book of Victorian photography, I came across the reproduction of a carte-de-visite. It was captioned ‘Unidentified Bearded Lady, Age 23’. She was dressed smartly in a veil and corseted gown, holding a book. Her name, written in looping font, had been smudged and lost. Nothing more was said about her. It was this that was the seed behind Circus of Wonders.
Over the weeks that followed, I found many more fragments and pieces of information about Victorian performers, involved in the so-called ‘freak show’, a booming industry which traded physical difference as a form of entertainment. There were throwaway references in poems to ladies ‘with skin white as snow’, but nothing more was said about them. About some personages, there was much more information – for example Charles Stratton, a little person acquired by P. T. Barnum and dubbed ‘Tom Thumb’, who achieved stratospheric fame and wealth. But next to nothing was written in his own voice; rather, his showman, P. T. Barnum, wrote numerous books about his own commercial success and his role in securing Stratton’s renown. How did we know so much about Barnum and so little about those who worked for him? The comparative silence speaks volumes about the power imbalance.
these were real people about whom so many stories had already been spun by media and showmen, their voices silenced and their histories overwritten by those who profited from their lives.
From there, I researched and researched and researched. I learned so much about those involved in this Victorian spectacle – and was particularly interested in that complex line between exploitation and empowerment. I filled my house with books about the circus, and read many contemporary narratives too. Initially, I thought of writing about real historical figures. But when I sat down to write, it felt like I was invading their privacy – these were real people about whom so many stories had already been spun by media and showmen, their voices silenced and their histories overwritten by those who profited from their lives. And that is when I started writing about Nell – a girl who works in a flower farm in southern England, who finds herself sold to Jasper Jupiter, and from there her fame spreads like wildfire. Storytelling became a central theme of the novel. The novel became about Nell’s quest to tell her own story, unshaped by the showman who bought her. As Nell puts it towards the end of the book, ‘every writer is a thief and a liar’.
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into twenty-nine languages and has been optioned for a major television series. Circus of Wonders is her second novel.