In a quiet coastal village in 1866, Nell spends her days picking and candying violets for the London confectionery market. It is a close-knit community; girls marry and have children young, with lads they have known all their lives; dances at the inn provide a respite from the back-breaking toil. Nell’s life is encompassed by her cottage, the flower fields and the sea. But Nell is covered by birthmarks across her face and body; they set her apart, make her ostracised even within her own family. She is seen as a changeling, a bad omen. Then one day, Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders sweeps into town. Jasper takes one look at Nell and knows he must have her to join his other “living curiosities” – a bearded woman who sings like a bird, a Welsh giantess, a tame elephant.
Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory, was set amongst the dressmakers and artists of the 1850s. In this second novel, Circus of Wonders, she once again delves into the stories of those who are usually a footnote in history: entertainers, showmen, soldiers. Her great strength is in imagining vivid inner lives and narratives for people usually sidelined, who in the historical great-man theory merely provide delicacies and amusements for the rich.
Jasper struggles to transcend his ordinary background and become immortal, and the fame of his circus is his ticket. As a child, he was given a microscope. Peering through it at the wings of a fly or the pincers of a beetle, he felt God-like, “as if [he] were a great scientist, testing human nature… How powerful it made him feel, how important.” Later, in the Crimean War, Jasper stripped corpses of valuable jewellery and plundered captured towns. He begins to lose his humanity to his vainglorious ambition, eventually descending into mania in his belief that he can create a world to serve him alone. References to the stories of Daedalus and Frankenstein – inventors whose creatures caused them great suffering -– are scattered throughout the novel. For Jasper, these cautionary tales are “an exhortation to try, to build. Better to invent a remarkable monster than be imprisoned in a life of mediocrity. Better to fly and fall than to stay trapped in that tower.” Within the prism of his charismatic, messianic dictatorship, the circus “freaks” are mere props, divested of agency. Jasper experiences the odd flicker of morality, but he chooses to extinguish them in the service of his own search for divinity. He will stop at nothing – except, luckily for this squeamish reader – cruelty to animals.
Nell, sold into the circus against her will, soon finds herself enjoying the attention that comes with being the latest attraction. Like the famous Cottingley photographs of fairies at the bottom of the garden, we can believe in wonders even if we collude in their invention. Far from her village, she is no longer an outcast but a celebrity, a heroine of the “deformito-mania” engulfing the country. “She flies like Icarus, and they are waiting for her to fall.” As the characters are swept up in the whirlwind of success, fame, even royal patronage, they all forget that, in fact, “being ordinary is the best way to exist in the world”.
Macneal brings us deep into the life of the circus. We smell the elephant dung and hear the creaking of the big-top tent; we can taste the gristly post-performance stew and see the peacock-feathered costumes. She is not shy of metaphor – those stories of Daedalus and Frankenstein – or of symbol. One of the first signs that catastrophe and destruction are on their way is when the wolf from the “happy families” enclosure eats the hare that has been its cellmate for years. The recollection of the Book of Isaiah’s “the wolf will live with the lamb” is irresistible. But “a wolf cannot stop being a wolf. Instinct cannot be suppressed.” If “circus was life, desire, amplified”, then all human life is here – love, lust, greed, charity, friendship, ambition, humility. Each character has his own instincts – for fame, for survival, for companionship – and the jostling of these creates a claustrophobic, cut-throat world. The story takes place over the course of six months or so (with flashbacks), and the speeded-up pace adds to the sense of giddiness, of being on a carousel going slightly too fast, the metal horse becoming untethered. For Jasper, flying too close to the sun ends as it always must: with a fall. The whirligig of circus life is as enchanting as it is dangerous, and no one can escape unchanged.
Violet Hudson is a freelance journalist.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.