Tthe illusion. The tacky glamor. The delicate balance between illusion and reality, a resplendent spectacle and her dark belly. And above all, the wonder. Not surprisingly, novelists have been inspired by the circus since it first came to town, from Charles Dickens in the Hard Times and The Old Curiosity Shop (“Dear, dear, what a place it looked, that Astley; with all the painting, gold, and mirror ”) to Angela Carter and her magnificent and obscene invention, Sophie Fevvers.
As a setting, the circus is an irresistible place to explore power and control. After all, the showman’s job is to misrepresent, to make up wacky stories, to keep the crowd ecstatic. When i started to write Circus of wonders, quickly became a book on storytelling and appropriation. It is set in the heyday of the Victorian circus and the so-called “Monster show“When the show exploded, when new inventions caused fame to spread like wildfire, when little people and bearded women became rich and celebrated, when even Queen Victoria became known as” the freak fanatic. ”.
And with the circus’s focus on illusion and storytelling, it became the ideal setting to ask: who’s holding the pen? Whose voice is heard and whose voice is it silenced? How far are we willing to go to entertain? All of these books and collections are feats of the imagination, where the author’s hand never wavers and he cuts through the dazzling deception of the show to often devastating effect.
1. Nights at Angela Carter’s Circus
Oh what a novel! Carter called it “Psychedelic Dickens,” and the entire novel is a feast for the senses. The images are so lurid, the metaphors and double meanings so accumulated, the jokes so sharp and obscene, it almost leaves the reader dizzy. While these are the qualities I most admire about Carter’s prose, I also loved it for how it played with reality and illusion. Sophie Fevvers, a winged Aerialiste, is a cockney virgin, hatched from an egg. Or is she? The prosaic quest for truth seeps through journalist Jack Walser, a witty addition, who insists on reports and facts, longs to pin it down, but Fevvers will not be held back by conventions and happily occupies space. She talks at length, fills the room with her scent, laughter and gestures, and exuberantly plays with the boundaries between fairy tales and reality. This is the definitive book on the circus, and truly, the definitive book on being alive.
two. Jen Campbell’s Girls Aquarium
This gripping collection of poetry explores showmanship, the so-called freak industry, fairy tales, and showmanship, and in fact it’s not so much about undoing these things as about breaking them into pieces and making them new. We find “beetle-eyed girls” on display in a girls’ aquarium, mermaids captured behind glass, a Bear Lady, and the Skeleton Man drinking beer. I love it: how it slams against the tropes of disfigurement, how science pushes itself against the circus fantasy, how it explores how girls’ bodies can be places of both self-discovery and exploitation. It is challenging, bold, brilliant. As the penultimate poem says, “Smash this circus to the ground.”
3. Under the Big Top: A Social History of the Circus in Britain by Steve Ward
This the compact history is replete with interviews, eyewitness accounts, and events so outlandish that not even the most imaginative novelist could surpass them. Ward offers nuggets about Henry Kraul, the showman whose head was ripped off by his pet lion; about George Wombwell’s Escaped Tigress who killed a child, a woman and a baby; and about the many conflagrations that have burned tents, amphitheaters and circus tracks to ashes.
Four. Josser: The Secret Life of a Circus Girl by Nell Stroud
“The circus put a spell on some people. I was overwhelmed by that. The circus filled existence and left no room for anything else. What was to be done? After leaving Oxford, Stroud did what many dream of but dare not: he joined a traveling circus. His memories, told with great tenderness and spirit, helped me understand the emotion, the dirt, the fatigue, the belonging, of being part of a stage company. She went on to co-found Giffords Circus, entertaining over a million people and traveling around the world. It left me in awe of the uniqueness of his life and how much he got into it, made all the more poignant by his early death in 2019.
5. Wonderland: Raising the Curtain on John Woolf’s Freak Show, Circus, and Victorian Times
Many will not realize how vast and flourishing the so-called freak industry was in Victorian Britain, and how extraordinary, tragic and magnificent were the lives of many of its artists. In this remarkable social story, John Woolf recounts the lives of his biggest stars, for example, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker; former slave Joice Heth who was exploited by showman PT Barnum; and little Charles Stratton (known as “General Tom Thumb”), who, in the opening chapter, meets Queen Victoria. While Woolf recognizes the opportunities offered to those who were rejected by society, he is not shy about denouncing the exploitative nature of the industry, a world that could offer freedom and take it away.
6. Tessa Fontaine’s Electric Woman
“The trick is that there is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire. “In her memoirs, Fontaine recounts how she grew up as an escapist, fire eater, and snake charmer. In doing so, she looks at the darker side of the circus and how to overcome it, specifically, her battle to ignore fear. and danger, and engaging in death-defying stunts.Like Josser, it is an astonishing account of life in a circus and the camaraderie, eccentricity and storytelling of its performers.
7. Bettina Judd’s Patient
Joice Heth. Sarah Baartman. Betsey Harris. These are just three of the names of black women who have been exploited and assaulted throughout history, their bodies raped as sites of curiosity and science, and whom Bettina Judd takes as the core of her unforgettable collection of poetry. Like many narratives about the show that explore how the voices of artists or patients have been lost and overwritten, this collection returns the power of storytelling to those who were denied, imagining their voices in conversation with a modern speaker.
8. The circus 1870-1950
This non-fiction book is a treasure trove of photographs, posters, lithographs, show posters, and circus prints. When I found it in a library, I was so enchanted and inspired by the images inside (sequined girls smoking in circus carts, Frank A. Robbins shooting a woman with a cannon) that I had to buy my own copy. Brings the determination and glamor of the circus to life, cataloging photographers such as Frederick Whitman Glasier, Edward Kelty and Cornell Capa. As I turned each page, it was impossible not to ask the question that prompts me to write: How would that have felt?
9. Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus
This novel takes the illusion and intrigue of the circus and turns it into a fantasy, where magic becomes real and viewers wield dark powers. Le Cirque des Rêves sparkles with imaginative delights, cloud mazes and gardens made of ice, but it is the combat between two rival magicians (and their enamored pawns) where the novel examines the darker and more controlling side of the show.
10. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Set in the United States during the Great Depression, this novel begins almost like Nell Stroud’s memoirs: Jacob Jankowski drops out of college and joins the most spectacular show on Land by the Benzini brothers. The book weaves the romance between Jacob and the equestrian star Marlena; danger in the form of August, the circus-controlling animal trainer; and tenderness in the form of Rosie, an elephant whom Jacob adores.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism