Random Research: The Giant Circus Book

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For this week, I’m sharing the book that has been wickedly helpful for my book set in a circus.

The Circus Book - Linda Granfield et al (Taschen, 2010)

Product Description from Amazon:

During its heyday, the American circus was the largest show-biz industry the world had ever seen. From the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, traveling American circuses performed for audiences of up to 14,000 per show and crisscrossed the country on 20,000 miles of railroad in one season alone. The spectacle of death-defying daredevils and strapping super-heroes gripped the American imagination, outshining theater, comedy, and minstrel shows of the day, and ultimately paving the way for film and television. The circus offered young Americans the dream of adventure and reinvention. This book brings to life the grit and glamour of the circus phenomenon. Images include photographic gems by early circus photographers Frederick Whitman Glasier and Edward Kelty, many of the earliest color photographs ever taken of the circus from the 1940s and 1950s, iconic circus photographs by Mathew Brady or Cornell Capa, and little-known circus images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. For the first time, contemporary readers can experience the legend of the American circus in all its glory.

Me with the Circus Book. Note that I am 6 feet tall, so it's not like I'm super petite.

Firstly, this book is absolutely massive. It’s definitely a book that can only be read at home.  It’s also extremely heavy. This is not something you can cart around with you, unless you want some decidedly odd looks on the street. And a good workout.

The book is divided into different subsections:

Introduction: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Chapter 1: Worldwide Roots of Circus: Invention, Performance, and Play

Chapter 2: Wonders of the World Await You

Chapter 3: Venuses of the Age: The Female Performer Emancipated

Chapter 4: Strange Beasts from Foreign Lands

Chapter 5: Circus Acts: Controlled Mayhem to Dazzle and Delight

Chapter 6: Eating Fire, Throwing Knives: Freaks & Wonders of the Sideshow

Chapter 7: Tent City: Backstage at the Circus

Chapter 8: Seconds from Death: Risking Life & Limb for the Crowd

Each essay is also translated into French and German, but the hundreds of photographs are captioned in all three languages. I speak French passably well and German rather poorly, so it was also a chance to practice my language skills. Bonus!

But this book was absolutely extraordinary and showcases why print books will never leave us entirely: this is a work of art. It’s solidly made and the colour plates are fantastic. The photographs and old circus artwork truly brought the circus to life. There are plenty of full-page spreads and a good range of time periods, though there’s a bit more of the more recently 1940s-1950s than the 1870s, for instance.

The essays were also extremely helpful, especially the chapters about the freak shows and the daily life in the circus, as most of my other research focused far more on the acts and their social significance than the day-to-day details of living in a nomadic circus. I loved the candid photos of circus folk laughing and fooling around on the back lot to pass the time between shows. I also really enjoyed reading about how the circus was a way for the audience to learn and experience foreign lands, and nevermind that most of the people in the fantastic costumes were not from the land they pretended to be.

Of all the research I’ve done in the circus, this was the source that best showcased the wonder and magic the circus evokes.

I desperately, desperately want the Taschen book on magic, but it’s £98 on Amazon, whereas the Circus book was only £27. I keep hoping it will go on sale because I know it’ll be invaluable for my sequel. If it doesn’t, I’ve decided that if I sell my first book, I’m buying this as a well-deserved treat. Maybe I’ll be able to write it off my taxes, heh.

Random Research: The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael

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I do a fair amount of research for my books, most notably on: Victorian society, the circus, magicians, Victorian medicine and science, gender studies and sexuality, and various postulations on the future of architecture, technology, weapons, et cetera. I figured that once or twice a week, I’ll post a bit about some sort of research I’ve done–a short book review of a book I’ve read, podcasts I’ve found inspiring, links and photos, what have you. As I’m always researching, I’ll always have plenty to share.

This week I’m posting a review of a book I first read several years ago, and have recently been flipping through to refresh my memory.

The Circus and Victorian Society

The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael – 168 pages (5 stars) 

When I first started researching my novel, I was not sure if there would be any books about circuses and Victorian society…but thankfully Brenda Assael, a history professor in Wales, wrote about just that. It’s an amazingly well-researched book that clearly lays out how the circus integrated itself into Victorian culture and played upon its imagination and fears.

The introduction gives an overview of the beginnings of the circus from the fairgrounds into lavish, fixed affairs in amphitheatres. The line between high theatre and the circus became blurred, and those from the highest to the lowest class enjoyed them all just the same.

Each chapter afterwards focuses on a specific aspect of the circus and then links it to Victorian society. First, Assael focuses on equestrian shows and trick riding, and how the elaborate staged battles paralleled the growing patriotic spirit as England became a world power. Next, she focuses on clowns, who were often sad, destitute, and on the lowest rung of the circus performers’ hierarchy. The last section focuses on women and children performers—specifically the sexual threat of women in their costumes and earning their own way, and the fight against children performers in the Industrial Era.

Throughout its formation, the circus has been both loved and despised by the public. It was hugely successful, but that success made it dangerous and various sects have tried to shut it down due to their perceived lack of morality of the circus. While a little pricey for the casual researcher, this book was an excellent insight into the role of the circus in Victorian society and well worth the read if the subject interests you.

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