Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, those who refuse to choose. Welcome all, come, join me and watch the incredible flying trapeze artists, the Lion-Faced Girl and the girl with the performing bear.
When people discover my research area they’re either excited by it or ask ‘why?’ If it’s the former, I know I’ve discovered a rare beast: another lover of circuses and sideshows. The latter, the answer is that the circus embraces outsiders, whether that’s with regards to their appearance, their sexuality, or their gender.
I’m interested in the variety of bodies that the circus deems acceptable and even profitable: the bearded ladies, the conjoined twins, those with missing limbs or skin conditions, the fat women, the skeleton men, those head-to-foot in tattoos. People who in real life chose to become a circus or sideshow performer rather than see out their days in the asylum, the workhouse or, if they were lucky, being ridiculed and abused in their hometown.
British circus literature is mostly in love with the trapeze artist. We have Sophie Fevvers in Nights at the Circus; Ebony Diamond in The Hourglass Factory, and Gene/Micah Grey in Pantomime. It’s not difficult to see why: the trapeze artist is a symbol of freedom, grace and hidden strength.
The idea of freedom is an attractive one; who hasn’t thought about escaping from their every day life? Running away with the circus is a long-held dream for some and a flippant expression of the desire to leave the chains of day-to-day chores for others. The trapeze artist is a clear symbol of freedom both as a member of a circus, travelling the world, and as someone who flies above the crowds, soaring through the air and appearing more bird-like than human.
In Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter uses Sophie Fevvers as a symbol for women’s freedom from male control. Unusually for a trapeze artist, she’s six feet two with a broad, oval face. She also sports a Cockney accent and a pair of wings on her back. Brought up in a brothel, she was raised to understand how the game of the sexes works. She entrances journalist Jack Walser, who uproots himself to secretly follow Fevvers across the world. Whilst Walser exists in a free/entrapped dichotomy, Fevvers is escaping male advances and building a nest egg for her troubles. She shows us that women can have men on their terms if they rewrite the rules of the game.
Women’s rights are also the concern of Ebony Diamond in The Hourglass Factory. Not only a trapeze artist, Ebony is a suffragette – handy if you want to hang banners calling for votes for women in halls where the prime minister is making an appearance. A working knowledge of the circus is also helpful when you need to make a bid for freedom to escape someone who wants to kill you. Additionally, Lucy Ribchester uses the novel to look at wider gender issues around clothing and the lack of freedom to dress as you chose in the Edwardian era.
Dress is an issue for Gene/Micah Grey in Pantomime too. They’re an intersex character hiding their true identity from almost every other character in the novel. Unusual in circus novels, Laura Lam chooses not to hide Gene/Micah’s identity from the reader. Lam uses them to explore what it might be like for an intersex teenager working out their identity and how they might function in a society hostile to their dual sex. In the circus, Gene/Micah finds freedom from their parents and the authorities but only at the expense of suppressing half of who they are.
Intersex characters appear more regularly in American circus novels, along with characters such as Anna Swan, the giant; Lavinia Warren, Mrs Tom Thumb, and bearded women, conjoined twins and those with physical abnormalities. However, in The Palace of Curiosities Rosie Garland both explores the theme of supressing one’s true identity and uses the type of character more often seen on the other side of the Atlantic: the Lion-Faced Girl.
Eve is born with a thick pelt of fur which her mother shaves regularly. Eventually Eve decides this is not what she wants and embraces her appearance. While she takes control of her looks and identity, Josiah Arroner, the man who becomes her husband, takes control of her. He adds her to his Palace of Curiosities where she remains trapped until freedom arrives in the form of love, as it often does in circus novels.
Love is also the way to freedom in The Gracekeepers. In a circus which travels by sea and has its show on a boat, North performs tricks and a death waltz with her bear. Kirsty Logan makes a class-based distinction between those who live on the land – landlockers – and those who live on the sea – damplings. Then there are those like Callanish, a gracekeeper, who lives on a tiny island which makes her part landlocker and part dampling, as well as an isolated being. There are different types of freedom suggested by each of these statuses but the resolution shows that true freedom is about love, regardless of gender or status.
British circus literature uses the bodies of its performers to explore ideas about women’s rights, sexuality, gender, appearance, status and love. Like the circus itself, which could manifest as a safe space for those who society considers to be ‘other’, circus literature allows characters often side-lined to take centre stage. Whenever I see these characters fully thrust under the literary spotlight – finally performing not just for the show, but to share with us some of the terrible performative moments of their maltreatment – then I cannot but stop to marvel, to cheer them on, to celebrate their freedoms. And I hope you will too. Join me under the big top where, after all, the price of admission is merely an open mind and a kind heart.
Naomi Frisby is working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her thesis is in gender and diversity in circus and sideshow literature. She blogs at The Writes of Woman, a one-woman attempt to address the gender disparity in mainstream book reviewing. She can be found on Twitter @Frizbot.