Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Picador| 13 May 2021| 384 pages|Review copy| 4*


1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother.

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

I loved Elizabeth Macneal’s first book, The Doll Factory, so I was keen to read her second, Circus of Wonders, set in 1866. I liked the circus setting and the variety of characters. The main character is Nell, the ‘leopard girl’, who is both shunned and ridiculed by the people in her village because of the birthmarks on her face and all over her body. When the travelling circus visits the village her father sells her to Jasper Jupiter’s ‘Circus of Wonders‘ as it includes a ‘freak show’, highlighting the very different attitudes of the times from those of the present day. This makes for uncomfortable reading at times, as Stella, the bearded lady, Brunette, the Welsh Giantess, and Peggy the dwarf who drives a miniature carriage are treated as objects of curiosities, acts to be bought and sold, just as Nell was sold.

It’s narrated from the perspectives of the three main characters, Nell, who became a star as ‘Nellie Moon’ flying high above the circus ring suspended beneath a balloon, Jasper, the ambitious circus owner and Toby his younger, gentler brother. Jasper is the driving force as he is forever looking for new acts to draw the crowds. His ambition is to gain a pitch in London, hoping the Queen might hear of him and want to see his show. He knows that the queen is the ‘freak-fancier par excellence, who has summoned Aztecs, pinheaded people and dwarves to her Palace’.

The brothers had both taken part in the Crimean War, Jasper as a soldier and Toby as a photographer. Toby is haunted by memories of the war and in particular of what happened to Dash, Jasper’s friend, during the siege of Sevastopol. The horror of the war has never left him. Although the circus is the main focus of the novel, it is the mystery of what happened in the Crimea and the relationships between Jasper, Toby and Dash that interested me the most and made me want to read on.

This is a novel that transported me back to the Victorian period, full of the atmosphere of both the circus and of war. It reveals the insecurities, fears and isolation that the characters suffer. It emphasises the exploitation of ‘freaks of nature’, who draw the crowds and the power of illusions. I like the mix of fact and fiction and the way that Macneal interweaves the details of the Crimean War with the circus narrative. However, I don’t think it’s quite as good as The Doll Factory, which totally captivated me with its dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.

With thanks to NetGalley and especially to Pan McMillan, Picador for my review copy.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

An intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession

Doll Factory

Picador|2 May 2019|336 pages|Review e-book copy|5*

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is one of the best books I read so far this year. It captivated me with its tale of Iris, the young woman who worked painting dolls in Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium, but who dreamed of being an artist. It tells of her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite artists – in particular with Louis Frost (a fictional character) who attracted by her beauty and her red hair wants her to model for him. She agrees, despite the disapproval of her parents and twin sister Rose, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. Meanwhile Silas Reed, a taxidermist and a collector of curiosities, worships her from afar and fantasises that she returns his love.  

But it’s much more than my brief outline conveys. This is historical fiction that transports me back in time and place to the 1850s when the Great Exhibition is being constructed and then opened to the public, a time when the young artists who had recently formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, first formed in the summer of 1848, are challenging the art world with their vivid paintings, at once both stylised and naturalistic. The descriptions take me straight into London of the early 1850s with all its sights and smells, its squalor and bustling crowds as people go about their daily lives.

There are some really memorable characters, such as ten year old Albie, who collects dead creatures for Silas. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, in a ramshackle house down a dead-end alley and with just one tooth he dreams of buying a set of false teeth. Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt also appear alongside the fictional characters and I loved all the details about their paintings, and their fascination with wombats. Rossetti owned two wombats – the inspiration for Louis’ wombat, Guinevere, who lives in his studio.

As I read on I began to feel a growing sense of menace and the tension between the characters rose almost to an unbearable peak as the book reached its conclusion. It’s full of atmosphere, dark and gothic towards the end as it reached its climax – and left me wanting more. It’s wonderful – historical fiction, art history, and a love story as well as a dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.  I loved it!

About the Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh 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 in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. It will be published in twenty-eight languages and TV rights have sold to Buccaneer Media.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.