Award winning Elizabeth Macneal (Inv-CW 2000-2007) has published her new novel, Circus of Wonders. It is the story of a girl who is kidnapped into the circus, her quest to tell her own story, and what happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her. Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is a story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.
Already a Sunday Times bestseller, it was described by the same newspaper as ‘A novel that highlights Macneal's rich imagination and vivid prose,’ and by The Guardian as ‘glittering’ and a work of ‘subtlety and originality.’
Elizabeth said ‘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.
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.’
I really hope that you enjoy Circus of Wonders.’
Elizabeth’s debut novel, The Doll Factory, won the Caledonia Novel Award in 2018 and has since been translated into 29 languages. It is set in 1850s London, and it is about a young woman who aspires to be an artist, and the man whose obsession may destroy her world forever. It was a Sunday Times bestseller, a Radio 2 Book Club pick, a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime and a Waterstones Book of the Month. It is currently being adapted for a major TV series.
From all at Fettes we wish Elizabeth hugely deserved continued success!