Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Victorian Freak Show

As part of its "Bodies of Knowledge" series, the British Library offers a fascinating online gallery of posters and handbills used to publicize Victorian freak shows.

"Titillating publicity was crucial, as the people described in these adverts often bore little resemblance to what lay behind the curtain or turnstile," the site notes. "Exaggerated and stylised illustrations lent age to dwarf acts, stature to giants, and plausibility to mermaids and bear boys. The advertisers of these shows aroused the curiosity of the audience by overplaying, often entirely inventing, 'true life' stories. The public thirst for stories of adventure, struggle, and hardship was quenched by the story of how each 'anomaly' came to be. The new and different had strong appeal; difference was often judged according to popular fantasies of racial and imperial hierarchies, adventurous exploration, and scientific discovery."

A new scholarly treatment of the subject, Lillian Craton's The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-Century Fiction, analyzes freak show imagery as it appears in Victorian popular fiction, including the works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Guy de Maupassant, Florence Marryat, and Lewis Carroll. Craton finds that images of radical physical difference are often framed in surprisingly positive ways by these writers, ultimately helping Victorian culture move toward more inclusive and flexible gender norms.

7 comments:

Deb in Dayton, Ohio said...

So glad to see you're posting again. Thought you had given it up after your last post in September. I really enjoy your site. Thanks for all the work you do.

Kristan Tetens said...

Deb, thanks so much for your kind words! My posts should become more frequent now that I've completed some major writing projects unrelated to the blog. Wish there were more hours in the day...

Lidian said...

I'm glad to see that you are back, too! This is wonderful information, and Craton's book sounds fascinating (am going to track it down ASAP).

The Virtual Victorian said...

Thanks for such an interesting post - and an area I'm really interested in researching right now. Some great links.

Essie

Hels said...

"The new and different had strong appeal; difference was often judged according to popular fantasies of racial and imperial hierarchies, adventurous exploration, and scientific discovery." This sounds absolutely right to me.

So the following does not follow on necessarily. "... images of radical physical difference are often framed in surprisingly positive ways by these writers, ultimately helping Victorian culture move toward more inclusive and flexible gender norms." I hope Craton was correct.

salisbury_matt said...

There's a good podcast on the same subject on the National Archives website. It's at
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/podcasts/roll-up-roll-up.html
(for reasons I won't bore you with I've had to type rather than paste the URL in - I think it's right but if not you might want to google 'circus national archives podcast' without the quotes)

Kristan Tetens said...

The link is http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/podcasts/roll-up-roll-up.htm

If you add the "l" at the end you'll get an error message.

The podcast is excellent; thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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