One truly enjoyable thing about the Circus of Wonders is the way Elizabeth Macneal crafts her Victorian atmosphere around the subversive world of the circus with echoes of Frankenstein, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and the Brothers Grimm.
Nell, the protagonist, is mottled by birthmarks and hence seen as different and pitied in her village. When her father sells her to Jasper, the proprietor of the Circus of Wonders who prides himself on creating fantastical backstories for his collection of ‘monsters’, Jasper spins her tale into that of a star-dappled aerialist, Nellie Moon, and lifts her to the stars. Jasper sees himself as a creator, a blend of Victor Frankenstein and Daedalus, and a master storyteller, although, he seems to have forgotten about the fate of both Dr. Frankenstein and Icarus.
The power of narrative
The power of storytelling is at the very heart of Macneal’s book. It’s not merely about the stories spun around the circus performers that render them magical or monstrous thus obliterating their humanity and their actual history, but it’s also about the winding relationship between war and history. All history is fiction, the tone and the contents of the stories depend on who’s telling them. While photographing the scenes from the frontline during the Crimean War, Toby is torn asunder by the requests for encouraging shots that would reassure the English public and the actual hideous reality of warfare. It is the dominant narrative that dictates the flow of history, and it takes courage to pull the truth from the margins and into the mainstream. The kind of courage that Toby does not possess.
Despite their differences, jealousies, and fights, Jasper and Toby are linked together by unbreakable bonds of brotherhood and the dark secret that has followed them all the way from the Crimean battlefields.
Throughout her book, Macneal explores the meaning of power and powerlessness. Circus performers have a rather paradoxical relationship with power. In their own communities, they’re regarded as mere freaks, whereas when they join the circus they lose their freedom, they ‘belong to the public’ and their showman, yet they earn more money and admiration than they ever dreamed of. They are simultaneously exploited and exalted in a world that shuns them as objects of fear and repulsion. Toby is equally oppressed by his love for Nell and his attachment to his brother.
Nevertheless, as soon as they are out of the enchanted bubble of the circus, the performers suffer the public gaze, the hushed whispers and pointed fingers. In several places in the novel, the characters wish that the world would change and grow more accepting. Macneal emphasises this, and it’s one of the things that I really appreciate about the book – the performers have accepted their differences, they are at peace with themselves (as we can see at the very end), but it is the world that needs changing.
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