Elizabeth Macneal is back with a follow up to her 2019 novel The Doll Factory. Though not a sequel, Circus of Wonders treads familiar ground in weaving another Victorian era tale of entertainment, exploitation and obsession. While The Doll Factory used as its setting the Great Exhibition, Circus of Wonders, as its title suggests, uses the travelling circus.
Its main character, Nell, is a young woman whose physical abnormalities – spots all over her body – draw the attention of a travelling showman named Jasper Jupiter and his brother Toby. Jasper is a collector, and aspires to be one of the greats, like P.T. Barnum. But, as the novel begins to show through its careful braiding of Jasper, Toby and Nell’s points of view, the people who make up a circus are not property but people, and without their cooperation, a circus loses much of its magic.
Drawing on a more critical view of circuses which has entered the popular discourse, Macneal’s portrait of circuses and travelling ‘freakshows’ looks at the lesser known dark side of the 1860s circus boom. While her protagonist, Nell, finds some power in being a part of the travelling show, where her difference makes her remarkable rather than monstrous, she is also frequently frustrated by the fact that she is able to be traded like a possession and is unable to leave the circus.
Nell is befriended by a number of women who also perform for Jasper Jupiter, such as Stella, a bearded trapeze artist who is a talented MC in her own right and dreams of a circus controlled by performers like herself; and Brunette, a ‘giantess’ who longs to leave but is trapped by her own conspicuousness. All of these performers are painfully aware of the cautionary tales offered up by the fates of other performers – real stories which Macneal weaves into her narrative and also comments on in her author’s note.
This novel expertly challenges the narrative of magic and frivolity perpetuated by popular depictions such as The Greatest Showman which present circus owners as heroic figures, when the reality is in fact much darker. Macneal uses the stories of well-known performers alongside lesser known histories to critique the horrific things done to fellow humans by their ringmasters in the name of creating a cheap thrill.
I was most horrified by the story of Charles Byrne, who had the growth disorder acromegaly (a disorder Macneal gives to her character Brunette.) Byrne was “constantly hounded by those who wanted to examine his body against his will”… “Aware that the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter wanted his body upon his death… Byrne made detailed arrangements to avoid this fate, including the instruction that he should be buried at sea in a lead coffin. However, Hunter bribed Byrne’s friends and obtained the man’s body. Charles Byrne’s skeleton was displayed until 2017 in London’s Hunterian Museum. There are ongoing debates as to whether his skeleton will be exhibited when the museum reopens in 2021.” (p.373) Macneal contrasts these abuses against those stories of performers who were able to make their fortunes this way, such as Chang and Eng Bunker.
All of this contributes to the very complicated feelings of Nell and her found family, who know that outside of circuses they will be viewed as less-than-human. This aspect of the novel is extremely well-done. Macneal states in her acknowledgements that she consulted author Jen Campbell as a sensitivity reader in her quest to get the details right. (Campbell’s Youtube channel contains a number of excellent resources about the history of circuses and disability for anyone who may be interested in learning more.)
On top of having an important message, Macneal is also a talented storyteller and this book is full of sumptuous historical detail that makes it difficult to put down. There is a little bit of something for everyone in Circus of Wonders: romance, coming of age, rags to riches, found family and above all, the story of a young woman breaking free of the limits imposed on her by others. This is a delightful novel and a worthy successor to The Doll Factory. I can’t wait to see what Macneal writes about next.