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Circus of Wonders

A Novel

From the #1 internationally bestselling author of the “lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book Review) The Doll Factory comes an atmospheric and spectacular novel where one woman’s life is transformed by the arrival of a Victorian circus of wonders.

Step up, step up! In 1860s England, circus mania is sweeping the nation. Crowds jostle for a glimpse of the lion-tamers, the dazzling trapeze artists and, most thrilling of all, the so-called “human wonders.”

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders pitches its tent in a poor coastal town, the life of one young girl changes forever. Sold to the ringmaster as a “leopard girl” because of the birthmarks that cover her body, Nell is utterly devastated. But as she grows close to the other performers, she finds herself enchanted by the glittering freedom of the circus, and by her own role as the Queen of the Moon and Stars.

Before long, Nell’s fame spreads across the world—and with it, a chance for Jasper Jupiter to grow his own name and fortune. But what happens when her fame begins to eclipse his own, when even Jasper’s loyal brother Toby becomes captivated by Nell? No longer the quiet flower-picker, Nell knows her own place in the world, and she will fight for it.

A gorgeously wrought exploration of celebrity, power, and belonging, this is a historical novel unlike any other, with an unforgettable heroine at its heart.

1. Nell Nell
It begins with an advertisement, nailed to an oak tree.

“Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders!” someone shouts.

“What is it?”

“The greatest show on earth!”

Everyone is shuffling forward, tutting, shouting. A woman shrieks, “Watch your wings!”

Through a gap between armpits, Nell glimpses a fragment of the handbill. The color sings, bright red edged in gold. An illustration of a bearded woman, dressed in a red doublet, golden wings clipped to her boots. “Stella the Songbird, Bearded Like a Bear!” Nell leans closer, straining to see the whole of the advertisement, to read the looping words. “Minnie, the Famed Behemoth”—a huge gray creature, long snouted—“Brunette, the Welsh Giantess. The World’s Smallest Museum of Curious Objects”—a sketch of a white crocodile in a jar, the sloughed skin of a snake.

At the top of the handbill, three times the size of any of the other acts, is a man’s face. His mustache is curled into two sharp brackets, cane held like a thunderbolt. “Jasper Jupiter,” she reads, “showman, presents a dazzling troupe of living curiosities—

“What’s a living curiosity?” Nell asks her brother.

He doesn’t answer.

As she stands there, she forgets the endless cutting and tying of violets and narcissi, the numerous bee stings that swell her hands, the spring sun that bakes her skin until it looks parboiled. Wonder kindles in her. The circus is coming here, to their small village. It will pin itself to the salt-bleached fields behind them, stain the sky with splashes of exquisite color, spill knife jugglers and exotic animals and girls who strut through the streets as if they own them. She presses closer to her brother, listens to the racket of questions. Gasps, exclamations.

“How do they make the poodles dance?”

“A monkey, dressed as a tiny gallant!”

“Does that woman really have a beard?”

“Mouse pelts. It will be mouse pelts, fixed with glue.”

Nell stares at the handbill—its scrolled edges, its fierce colors, its shimmering script—and tries to burn it into her mind. She wishes she could keep it. She would like to sneak back when it is dark and pull loose the nails—gently, so as not to rip the paper—and look at it whenever she wants, to study these curious people as carefully as she pores over the woodcuts in the Bible.

Tent shows have often pitched in nearby towns, but never in their village. Her father even visited Sanger’s when it set up in Hastings. He told stories about boys with painted lips, men who rode horses upside down and fired pistols at pint pots. Marvels you wouldn’t believe. And the doxies—oh, as cheap as— He broke off, winked at Charlie. In the fields, news of circus disasters passed gleefully from mouth to mouth. Tamers eaten by lions, girls who tiptoed across high wires and tumbled to their deaths, fires that consumed the tent whole and roasted the spectators inside, boiled whales in their tanks.

There is a lull in the shouting, and into that a voice calls, “Are you in it?”

It is Lenny, the crate builder, his red hair falling into his eyes. He is grinning as if he expects everyone to join in. Those around him fall silent and, encouraged, he speaks more loudly. “Show us a handstand! Before the other wonders arrive.”

From the way her brother flinches, at first Nell thinks Lenny is talking to him. But it is impossible; there is nothing unusual about Charlie, and it is her who Lenny watches, his gaze sliding over her hands and cheeks.

The silence hangs, broken only by whispers.

“What did he say?”

“I didn’t hear!”

A shuffling, fidgeting.

Nell can feel the familiar burn of eyes on her. When she glances up, they startle, focus too intently on their fingernails, at a stone on the ground. They mean to be kind, she knows, to spare her the humiliation. Old memories split open. How, two years ago, the storm cast salt onto the violets and shriveled them, and her father pointed at her with a wavering finger. She’s a bad omen, and I said it the day she was born. How her brother’s sweetheart, Mary, is careful not to brush her hand by mistake. Is it catching? The bare stares of passing travelers, the mountebanks who try to sell her pills and lotions and powders. A life of being both intensely visible and unseen.

“What did you say, Lenny?” her brother demands, and he is poised, taut as a ratting terrier.

“Leave him,” Nell whispers. “Please.”

She is not a child, not a scrap of meat to be fought over by dogs. It is not their fight; it is hers. She feels it like a fist in her belly. She covers herself with her hands as if she is naked.

The crowd moves back as Charlie pounces, his arm pounding like the anvil of a machine, Lenny pinned beneath him. Somebody tries to pull him off, but he is a monster, swiping, kicking, flailing.

“Please,” she begs, reaching for her brother’s shirt. “Stop it, Charlie.”

She looks up. Space has opened around her. She is standing alone, fidgeting with the hem of her cap. A jewel of blood glints in the dust. Sweat circles the armpits of her dress. The minister hovers his hand over her shoulder as if to pat it.

Her bee stings throb, her hands bruised purple with sap.

Nell forces her way through the crowd. Behind her, the grunt of fighting, fabric tearing. She starts to walk toward the cliffs. She craves a swim, that low ache as her limbs fight the current. She will not run, she tells herself, but her footsteps soon hammer the ground and her breath is hot in her throat.
This reading group guide for Circus of Wonders includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Macneal. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In Circus of Wonders, circus mania sweeps 1860s England. Crowds jostle for a glimpse of the lion tamers, the dazzling trapeze artists, and, most thrilling of all, the so-called “human wonders.”

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders pitches its tent in a poor coastal town, the life of one young girl changes forever. Sold to the ringmaster as a “leopard girl” because of the birthmarks that cover her body, Nell is utterly devastated. But as she grows close to the other performers, she finds herself enchanted by the glittering freedom of the circus, and by her own role as the Queen of the Moon and Stars.

Nell’s fortune quickly begins to glitter—and with it, a chance for Jasper Jupiter to realize his dreams of world renown. But what happens when her fame eclipses his, when even Jasper’s loyal brother, Toby, becomes captivated by Nell? No longer the quiet flower-picker, Nell knows her own place in the world, and she will fight for it.

Discussion Questions

1. In her village, Nell finds herself “both intensely visible and unseen” (p. 5). How does Nell’s perception of herself change throughout the course of the novel?

2. Both Jasper and Toby are haunted by Crimea. How does their experience in the war echo throughout the events of this book? What role does Dash play in the novel?

3. In Jasper’s vision, Nell “was Icarus, and he had crafted those wings from iron” (p. 124). The story of Icarus is referenced frequently in the novel. How do you think Circus of Wonders adheres to or deviates from myth?

4. Throughout the novel, the performers are often referred to as “living wonders” or, later on, “living monsters.” What effect does this have on their humanity? How does the change in wording reflect the shift in Jasper’s own vision?

5. When Jasper takes a loan from the Jackal, a man warns “‘Every so often he’ll make an example of a man, when he knows the debt won’t be paid. You should be careful” (p. 140). In what ways does this turn out to be true? How does the loan further fuel Jasper’s ambitions?

6. Both Toby and Jasper note that “all of history is fiction.” Where do you see evidence of that in this novel? How do stories, including fairy tales like The Little Mermaid, come to illuminate the action here?

7. Nell’s father sells her to the circus for twenty pounds, but when her brother, Charlie, comes for her to take her home, she tells him, “I like it here, Charlie. I’m happy” (p. 154). Why do you think Nell chooses to stay with the circus when she could be free? What does it cost her to tell her brother to truth?

8. Stella’s dream for her circus is for the Flying Sisters to “belong only to ourselves” (p. 189). How does this theme recur for the women in this novel? By the end of the novel, do you believe Stella has achieved her goal?

9. “The line . . . between success and failure is so thin” (p. 198), Jasper reflects. Where do you think Jasper begins to step over that line? How does his desire for fame intersect with Nell’s?

10. Toby keeps several secrets; among them are his many tattoos of “flowers, vines, fruits, tiny birds with their beaks dipped into peaches” (p. 209). What do you think these represent?

11. Jasper thinks that “if Toby is jealous of him, then his life is worth something” (p. 214). Discuss the complicated relationship between Jasper and Toby in this novel. What consequences does their jealousy and love have for those around them?

12. Nell forms a fiercely protective relationship with Pearl. What binds them together? How does Pearl’s experience mirror Nell’s and vice versa?

13. Animals, including Minnie the elephant, Benedict the mouse, and the wolf the metaphor, make frequent appearances in this novel. Why do you think this is? What do animals represent and how do they interact with the characters here?

14. Toward the end of the book, Jasper notes that “human beings are the collateral of progress—jobs lost, skills fallen away. Soon, there will be no need for most of mankind, the world ruled by those who have had the ingenuity to innovate, to evolve” (p. 299). Does this prove true in the novel? How can this be applied to the present day?

15. What do you think of the epilogue, which takes place ten years later? Is it what you expected?

Enhance Your Book Club

1 The circus is fertile ground for artists and novelists. Ask members of your group if they have read other bestselling novels like The Night Circus or Water for Elephants. Discuss other depictions you’ve seen of the circus in art and media. How does Circus of Wonders differ?

2. Read Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory, set slightly earlier, in 1850. Discuss both novels as a group.

3. Visit the author’s website elizabethmacneal.com to learn more about her work as a novelist and ceramicist.

Author Q and A

Q: Congratulations on the success of The Doll Factory and Circus of Wonders in the UK! Your novels have been translated into dozens of languages. What was the experience of writing your second novel as opposed to your first?

A: It was extremely different! My experience of writing The Doll Factory was very quiet, where I had no expectations of anybody reading it. I think the book is actually quieter as a result—it’s more introspective and about solitary creativity and small spaces and little intricate works of art. But I wrote Circus of Wonders with the expectation that it would be published and that there would be an audience for it. While this was occasionally intimidating, the book itself reflected this bigger world. It’s about spectacle, imposter syndrome, publicity, and how it feels to have your life change.

Q: Both The Doll Factory and Circus of Wonders follow characters who are outsiders in some way and give them a broader community, in the form of the Pre-Raphaelites in The Doll Factory or the performers in Circus of Wonders. What draws you these kinds of stories?

A: This is such an interesting observation that nobody has asked me about before! Even though I don’t write about my life directly, sometimes it feels like all my experiences are being composted and reused in some way. I think I’ve always been particularly interested in friendship and belonging after my own experience of being bullied as a child. Luckily it didn’t last too long, and the impact wasn’t huge, but it did lead to an acute sense of how it feels to be on the outside of things, and how important friendship is. While Nell’s experience is very much her own, the sense of kinship in the circus (especially her friendship with Stella) means everything to her. I really wanted to explore the power, solace, and love found in female friendships.

Q: You do a tremendous amount of research for your books. How did you approach the research process for this novel? What fact did you find most surprising?

A: I love the research stage! In fact, I love it too much, which is why I do as little as possible before writing the first draft. I do enough to build the world and its parameters, but my focus has to be on the characters and on finding the right shape for the story. If I do too much research up front, I struggle to sift through thousands of facts and ideas, and find that the narrative is pulled in too many directions, the descriptions bogged down.

Once I’ve finished a first draft and have the bones of a story, I research meticulously—I shut myself away for at least a month with books ranging from P. T. Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting to books on elephant behavior! Then I can be a magpie and pick out the relevant (and fascinating) vignettes.

In terms of the most surprising facts, it’s so difficult to choose just one! It was a world that traded on the preposterous, on the surreal—the slogan “You won’t believe your eyes” was very fitting! But I think it has to be one of P. T. Barnum’s publicity stunts. When trying to make his name in England, he tried to buy Shakespeare’s house and have it transported to his museum in New York brick by brick. Whether his intention was genuine or not, it certainly guaranteed him some column inches from the (no doubt) enraged Brits!

Q: The researching, writing, and revising process can be lengthy. Did characters or storylines change in ways you didn’t expect?

A: Definitely! I plan each book meticulously before I begin, but I always end up taking a different course. When I began my first draft, the novel was told only from Nell’s perspective. When I was a third of the way through, I realized that something was missing. Her perspective seemed a little too naïve, too narrow—I wanted to explore so much more about circus and showmanship, especially why somebody might come to run a show for themselves. That was when I realized Jasper was so important, and then Toby too. I also wanted to explore the idea of bias and perspective, so it felt right that the novel was told in a similarly kaleidoscopic way. It was interesting to look at how events can be different from how they first appear depending on whose side you see.

Q: The Crimean War plays an unexpectedly large role in this novel. Why did you choose to center part of the narrative during that conflict? Did you ever consider setting the novel during a different war?

A: I remember reading about the Crimean War a few years ago and thinking what a fascinating war it was. When it came to beginning Circus of Wonders, I realized that it was the perfect complement for the Victorian circus, where both settings would draw out the dark and light side of each other.

I’ve always thought that so much of the military is about spectacle—the brass bands, the shining epaulets, the martial feats. But I think you see it in the Crimean War more than any other. It was very much about performance; at night the amputating house was used as a theater, with farces like Slasher and Crasher put on for the troops. More than that, the war itself became a tourist destination—lady tourists traveled to the region and watched the action from the top of hills, or from the sea in steamers. So, this has obvious parallels with the circus, of witnessing dangerous or uncomfortable things as entertainment.

It was also a war of propaganda, of mythologizing. New inventions meant that the Crimean War could be a public war, where even paintings were made of it and poems written (for example Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”). It was the first war with regular reporting, thanks to the invention of the telegraph, where articles—often contradictory—could be wired back to London quickly. Those in charge became obsessed with spinning the conflict in a positive light and tried to conceal the truth. The war itself became an almost circus-like performance, using tactics of illusion, trickery, and deceit.

Q: The novel alternates between the perspectives of Nell, Toby, and Jasper. Which felt most natural to write?

A: I really enjoyed the challenge of all three characters. I like writing novels from differing perspectives (The Doll Factory was written in a similar way), because of the variety—one day I would spend time with Jasper and his swagger and entitlement, another day with meek and desperate-to-please Toby, or Nell and her longing to belong, to be noticed. I hope that I pass my enjoyment of these different perspectives to the reader—and that they feel that each character is interesting and offers something different.

Q: Did you have a favorite scene to write and why?

A: It was an interesting challenge to write the scene where Nell meets Queen Victoria. It’s what I love most about historical fiction: being imaginative within tight factual boundaries. I did a great deal of research into everything from the interior of Buckingham Palace (down to the wall color and friezes!) to how typical audiences with the Queen would run (for example, her interaction with Charles Stratton, the little person who played Tom Thumb). I enjoyed stitching these facts into the story as lightly as I could.

Q: In addition to your work as a novelist, you’re also a potter! How does your ceramics practice influence your novels and vice versa?

A: They work brilliantly together—though I’ve definitely chosen two very antisocial careers! While I love writing, there are some days where I feel like I’m not getting anywhere or I’m forcing an idea. It’s then that I really enjoy making pottery. My mind wanders, and I end up coming up with ideas that I wouldn’t have considered if I’d just stayed at my desk. It also has the added bonus of making me feel like I’ve achieved something. A book can take years, so it’s pretty satisfying to make something tangible quickly—at the end of an afternoon I can have ten mugs to show for my time.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’ve just had a baby, so my approach to writing has changed pretty drastically! But when nap times allow, I am really enjoying writing my third novel. It’s about the construction of a Victorian cemetery, and it has a trick plot.
Photography by Mat Smith

Born in Scotland, Elizabeth Macneal is a writer and potter based in London. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, was an international bestseller, has been translated into twenty-nine languages, and has been optioned for a major television series. It won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is her second novel.

"Circus of Wonders is a soaring, tumbling, whip-cracking book. Elizabeth Macneal has brought an extraordinary group of characters together in these pages; the result is a glittering world, a story as moving as it is deeply entertaining."

– Daniel Mason, New York Times bestselling author of THE PIANO TUNER

"I loved THE DOLL FACTORY and I loved CIRCUS OF WONDERS just as much ... An intriguing and beautifully written love story as well as an exploration of the journey from rejection to adoration ... Elizabeth Macneal explores the nature of exploitation, pride and vanity through her vibrant and believable characters."

– Jenny Quintana, author of THE MISSING GIRL

"A glittering, begrimed tale of love and self-determination flush with richly detailed prose. Sumptuous, macabre, enthralling; a perfect slice of Victoriana."

– Jane Healey, author of THE ANIMALS AT LOCKWOOD MANOR

"Elizabeth Macneal's novel is spectacular - a book of wonders!"

– Alix Nathan, author of THE WARLOW EXPERIMENT

"A beautifully told and immersive look at a complex dance between exploitation and empowerment, and the question of what it really means to have control over your own life. I adored its characters, I was utterly gripped throughout, and I loved having my eyes opened to the troubling yet fascinating world of Victorian circuses."

– Naomi Ishiguro, author of ESCAPE ROUTES

"The dark and evocative story drew me in immediately. What a rich world Macneal has created--both harrowing and deeply human. The ending is defiant in the best ways and wonderfully satisfying."

– Megan Campisi, critically acclaimed author of SIN EATER

"Utterly captivating. CIRCUS OF WONDERS is rich with historical detail that will transport readers into the grittiness of Victorian England, and teeming with the very best and worst of humanity. Elizabeth Macneal has crafted a powerful and immersive story that is by turns unsettling and enchanting." 

– Molly Greeley, author of THE CLERGYMAN'S WIFE and THE HEIRESS

"A tremendous read. Richly imagined, vividly rendered, each scene is like an old painting in which light gleams off the detail . . . The story is full-bodied and addictive from the outset, told with pace and verve but never compromising style . . . CIRCUS OF WONDERS displays in abundance everything readers loved about THE DOLL FACTORY . . . an ambitious, enlightening novel."

– Emma Stonex, author of THE LAMPLIGHTERS

“Macneal develops an intimate tale of passion, longing, and self-preservation.”

– Kirkus Reviews

"Macneal successfully balances thrilling action sequences with poignant passages…The author brings her fully developed characters to life, highlighting the exploitation of people with visible differences during Victorian times. This makes for a worthy spectacle of its own."

– Publishers Weekly

"Soaring . . . A great pick for book clubs and all those seeking a wondrous story awash in atmospheric details and fully lived characters."

– Booklist (starred review)

More books from this author: Elizabeth Macneal