Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal delves into the world of the Circus/Freak Shows of 19th Century England that were inspired by the U. S. showman, P. T. Barnum.
In a small village on the coast in the south of England Nell works on her father’s farm picking violets for a living. She is shunned by other inhabitants because of the birthmarks that pattern her skin. She keeps a low profile, devoted to her brother and her love of the sea.
When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives on the outskirts of the village it causes great excitement. Nell is fascinated but steers clear of all the strange and unfamiliar animals and humans.
Nell’s father has other ideas and sells her to the circus as a ‘leopard girl’.
Jasper and his brother, Toby, run the circus. Jasper is the showman and Toby shoulders the hard work of the day to day chores of caring for the animals, supervising the erection and dismantling of the Big Top, etc.
Both brothers served in the Crimean War, Toby recording the carnage of the battlefields with his camera. The brothers share a dark secret from those unprecedented times which closely binds them.
Toby is beguiled by Nell, who, as Nellie Moon, soon becomes the star of Jasper’s show as she flies nightly above the audience. Even in London, she is feted by the press, and the Who’s Who of the city want to meet her.
Nell, in turn, finds herself falling in love with Toby and they both seek to escape. However, the spectacle that Jasper has created threatens to disintegrate around him.
Toby is torn between his brother and the woman he loves.
This wonderfully moving novel brings to light the Victorian obsession with the spectacle of the circus and its unusual inhabitants. In particular, it brought to their attention those people who were in some way different.
Queen Victoria was enamoured by them and invited many to the palace to perform for her. Many became rich and famous in their own right, although many more were exploited and abused.
This extraordinary novel sheds light on a subject that is usually avoided. It is, however, an acknowledgement of these amazing people’s lives and how many overcame what was seen as their adversity.
A marvellous read, entrancing, enlightening and emotionally stimulating.
Another must-read for 2021!
Circus of Wonders is available in hardback, paperback and e-book
About Elizabeth Macneal
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA, where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. She is the author of the Sunday Times bestseller The Doll Factory, which won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is her second book.