The Cultural Afterlife of the Victorian Freak Show

Ashley Orr

Ashley Orr

The book ‘Neo-Victorian Freakery: The Cultural Afterlife of the Victorian Freak Show’, draws upon work from both freak studies and disability studies to address the issue of bodily difference in a series of nineteenth-century and neo-Victorian texts, an area that has drawn little critical attention in the field of neo-Victorian criticism to date.

Her book returns again and again to the ethical quandaries of the neo-Victorian genre — what is at stake in representing the lives of others? Particularly those others who — like the freak performer — were marginalised during their lifetimes? Neo-Victorian texts are in danger of re-enacting the historical oppression of these performers but, crucially, they also have the potential to offer a more empathetic engagement with the figure of the freak.

For Helen Davies, it is this “learning about different ways of being and living which can lead us to question our presumptions about ‘freakish’ Victorians as well as about bodily diversity in our cultural moment” (15).

The key to moving beyond such exploitative relations, Helen Davies suggests, is through metatextual strategies that encourage both author and reader to interrogate their desire for knowledge of the freak body.

In Chapter One, ‘Mixing (re)Memory and Desire: Constructing Sarah Baartman,’ Helen Davies focuses on the tension between representing Sarah Baartman, also known as “The Hottentot Venus” as a dignified subject and a sexualised, colonised “Other.”

The nineteenth-century texts included in this chapter include legal documents, letters to newspapers, the ballad ‘The Hottentot Venus: A New Song’ (1811), and Marie-Emmanuel-Guillaume-Marguerite Théaulon de Lambert, Darts and Braiser’s play ‘The Hottentot Venus, or Hatred of Frenchwomen’ (1814). These texts reflect the cultural preoccupation with determining Sarah Baartman’s status as a free woman or a slave.

This ambivalence is taken up by Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel ‘Hottentot Venus’ (2003) and Susan-Lori Parks play ‘Venus’ (1990). In Suzan-Lori Parks’ play, Sarah Baartman is reimagined with a level of subjectivity and interiority absent from nineteenth-century accounts of her, while in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel she exists as a ghostly presence.

While Helen Davies argues that ghosts are not inherently passive, she notes that Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sarah Baartman “has remained impotent to change the course of history” (49).

Both neo-Victorian texts resist offering definitive conclusions regarding Sarah Baartman’s choices and motivations. However, Helen Davies suggests that this very ambivalence is crucial in re-asserting Sarah Baartman’s humanity.

Chapter Two, ‘Separation Anxieties: Sex, Death, and Chang and Eng Bunker,’ reads the Siamese twin performers as a reflection of cultural anxieties toward conjoined bodies. Three non-fiction nineteenth-century accounts of the twins are included: Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ article ‘Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins’ (1869) and two autopsy reports (1875). However, Helen Davies also analyses Twain’s short story ‘Those Extraordinary Twins’ (1894).

Linking these various genres is an overarching concern with the morality of conjoined sexuality — Chang Bunker and Eng Bunker’s marriage and parenthood fascinated Victorians. The analysis of neo-Victorian representations of the brothers, in Darin Strauss’ novel ‘Chang and Eng’ (2000) and Mark Slouka’s novel ‘God’s Fool’ (2002), is concerned with whether these texts can transcend the limitations of nineteenth-century accounts.

In Darin Strauss’ novel, Eng, the narrator is attracted to his brother’s wife. For Helen Davies, this novel’s representation of deviant sexuality repeats Victorian moral panic toward conjoined bodies. In contrast, Mark Slouka’s novel refuses to represent this sexuality as inherently perverse or transgressive.

Instead, it “compels the reader to interrogate their own role as spectator,” through the metatextual engagement Helen Davies argues is necessary for ethical encounters with the past (91).

In the third chapter, ‘Excessively Feminine? Anna Swan, Gendering Giantesses, and the Genre of the ‘True Life Story’ Pamphlet’, Davies explores the links between monstrous and feminine bodies.

Nineteenth-century textual representations of Anna Haining Bates, a giantess, include an anonymous pamphlet: ‘The Nova Scotia Giantess, Miss Anna H. Swan, A Brief Account of her Birth and History’ (1894), Edward S. Wood’s book ‘Giants and Dwarves’ (1868) and a newspaper article from 1865.

Helen Davies argues that the pamphlet reinforces Anna Haining Bates’ femininity despite her masculine proportions. Edward S. Wood’s book and the newspaper account take this approach further, by emphasising the passivity and weakness of giants, which is not dissimilar to Victorian ideals of femininity.

These intersections, between freakery and femininity, are explored in relation to two neo-Victorian novels: ‘The Biggest Modern Woman of the World’ (1983) by Susan Swan and ‘Among the Wonderful’ (2011) by Stacey Carlson.

While Susan Swan’s novel affords Anna Haining Bates a degree of sexual agency, its conclusion reinforces repressive Victorian gender ideologies. Carlson’s novel is more ambivalent: ‘Ana’ authors her story, but it is then posthumously appropriated.

Helen Davies suggests that this refusal to be definitive enables reflection on neo-Victorianism’s appropriation of freak bodies.

Chapter Four, ‘Innocence, Experience, and Childhood Drama: Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren,’ explores the lives of these two short-statured performers. Historically, dwarfism connotes both innocence and sexual knowledge, an anxiety reflected in the nineteenth-century texts Helen Davies analyses: Albert Smith’s play ‘Hop O’ My Thumb’ (1846), a pamphlet (1863), Phineas Taylor Barnum’s account of Charles Sherwood Stratton, Mercy Lavinia Warren Stratton’s ‘Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb’ (1979) and Sylvester Bleeker’s ‘General Tom Thumb’s Three Year Tour Around the World’ (1872).

These themes remain important in Jane Sullivan’s novel ‘Little People’ (2011) and Melanie Benjamin’s ‘The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb’ (2011). For Helen Davies, the key difference between Victorian and neo-Victorian representations of Charles Sherwood Stratton and Mercy Lavinia Warren Stratton lies in the latter’s invocation of contemporary discourses surrounding child abuse and trauma to account for the lived experience of Charles Sherwood Stratton and Mercy Lavinia Warren Stratton as performers. Despite this, Helen Davies concludes that both Jane Sullivan’s and Melanie Benjamin’s novel struggle to move beyond nineteenth-century stereotypes of dwarfism to give them any real agency.

In Chapter Five, ‘The Strange Case of Joseph and Jack: Joseph Merrick and Spectacles of Deviance,’ Helen Davies pairs Joseph Carey Merrick, also known as “The Elephant Man,” and Jack the Ripper to explore Victorian anxieties concerning sexuality and the link between physical deformity and moral depravity. She focuses on a single twentieth-century text: Frederick Treves’ memoir ‘The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences’ (1923).

Frederick Treves, a London surgeon, feminises Joseph Carey Merrick by constructing him through the fallen woman rhetoric often aligned with prostitution. Despite casting himself as Joseph Carey Merrick’s saviour, Helen Davies argues that Joseph Carey Merrick’s “degraded, victimised identity is not fully rehabilitated” (171).

She draws on a range of neo-Victorian texts with a common theme: Joseph Carey Merrick’s status as victim or villain. These include: Bernard Pomerance’s play ‘The Elephant Man’ (1979), David Keith Lynch’s film ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980), Ian Sinclair’s novel ‘White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings’ (1987), the graphic novel ‘From Hell’ (1999) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell and its film adaptation (2001) by the Hughes Brothers; BBC TV series ‘Ripper Street’ (2012).

Each appropriation selects a different target for villainy: sexual repression (Bernard Pomerance), the working classes (David Keith Lynch), the medical profession (‘From Hell’), and Joseph Carey Merrick himself as a Hyde-like double for Treves (Ian Sinclair). However, Helen Davies argues that Joseph Carey Merrick’s characterisation in ‘Ripper Street’ confers the most agency upon him by eliminating Treves from the narrative and imagining Joseph Carey Merrick as “witness […] rather than […] spectacle” (192).

In an Afterword, ‘The Neo-Victorian Enfreakment of P.T. Barnum,’ Helen Davies examines neo-Victorian representations of the American showman. This survey leads Helen Davies to conclude that, in contrast to medical representations of bodily difference, which tend to be fixed and (supposedly) objective, freak shows have the potential — though this is not always realised — to offer multiple and fluid identities and interactions to both performers and audiences.

While Helen Davies is optimistic about the genre’s capacity to redress historical silences, she cautions that such representations are necessarily inflected by our own anxieties and desires.

As such, texts which are self-consciously aware of this danger, and which encourage the reader to question their own assumptions toward freak bodies are, Helen Davies suggests, best placed to offer an ethical engagement with the period.

Neo-Victorian Freakery, in its nuanced pairing of nineteenth-century and neo-Victorian texts, will be of interest to Victorian and neo-Victorian scholars alike, as well as those interested more broadly in the cultural construction of bodily difference.

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