Random Research: The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael

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.


2 thoughts on “Random Research: The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael

  1. I have to say that this sounds like a fascinating read, because of the effort the author has put in to separate the elements that made the circus so popular and within their isolation from each other view the aspect of Victorian society they reflected.

    I approve of this idea, because I, for one, have not taken upon myself such projects, which demand that much research, though I have to say that I’m growing more into the role of where I would have to research. So I’d be thrilled to see what treasures you have found.

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