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Circus performers in Victorian England - how would they be viewed?
yellowsub no idea
ladystormcrow wrote in little_details
Time: the late 1880s
Place: London, with flashbacks to Baltimore and the American South
Search terms used: "circus performers in victorian england", "circus performers in victorian society", "circus performers outside of work"

Hi everyone,

I've been working for a while now on an urban fantasy novel set in the late 1800s. The heroine is a young, widowed black woman from the United States, and works as an acrobat in a traveling circus where most of the employees are (secretly) various were-animals, who use the circus as a cover for their need to transform once a month - the heroine herself is a were-leopard. During the course of the story, the circus (which in-universe is fairly famous) travels to London, where the heroine and her colleagues get involved in a murder mystery and she meets her eventual love interest, a police officer.

My question is, how would the circus employees be viewed/treated by London society when they're not performing? I've found a lot of articles that talk about how popular and subversive circuses were in Victorian society, due to the way they attracted people from all classes and walks of life (and some amusing notes about how moral guardians objected to the female acrobats), but not much about how the performers themselves were viewed off-duty. I know that actresses were looked down on - would my heroine be subject to the same treatment? What places would be acceptable for someone like her to socialize in the city? How would her relationship with the hero be viewed? (From what I understand, unless you were very high up in the ranks, police were considered working class.)

I'm aware that American and English social rules could be quite different - I'm mostly looking for English ones, although American ones are good too, and could help set up some moments of culture clash for the characters.

There are a number of book titles I've come across that look promising, but before I start delving through all of them, I thought I'd see if anyone had any recommendations, or other sources I should check out?

I don't think that circus performers got the respect then that they do now. Traditionally a lot of carnivals and circuses have been refuges for some pretty shady people--grifters, pickpockets, con artists, people on the lam, etc. but these were mainly the roustabouts, not the main performers. While there have been old school performing families who were considered circus royalty because their acts draw in the money any woman performer especially if she has a dangerous or unusual act and/or wore what was considered a skimpy costume would probably be regarded as a 'easy' woman much as the stage actresses of the time were. I doubt if she would be invited to high tea with the cream of society. More likely some rich aristocrat would try to acquire her as a mistress. She would be considered an exotic amusement not an equal. She would probably hang with the merchant class at pubs and coffee houses and feel more comfortable there.

Yeah, I guessed circus performers probably wouldn't be accepted in the higher ranks of society. And like I said, my heroine's an acrobat, so tight-fitting, skimpy-by-Victorian-standards costumes are kind of a requirement (and even when she's in her civvies, she often wears clothes that unfasten easily - a were-animal's clothes don't change with them in this universe, so she's learned to be prepared to strip if she's likely to run into danger and have to transform).

Pubs and coffee houses sound perfect, and they might be a good place for her to cross paths with people involved in the murder and its underlying conspiracy. Thank you!

Edited at 2014-02-20 06:36 am (UTC)

Disrespectable working class - it was acceptable for all classes to go to the circus, but not to fraternise with the circus people (ditto any other carney/fair travelling types).
Police were respectable working class, so it would be a bit of a come-down to socialise with her and lots of piss-taking from colleagues at a minimum.

The series "Ripper Street" addreses this when a sergeant gets together with Rose, an actress/ex-prostitute - they eventually get married and mostly ignore her 'past' from the on. Worth watching.

Ah, thank you. I'm still learning all the distinctions between the social classes, and I wasn't aware of the difference between reputable and disreputable working class, so I appreciate it.

Also, I looked up Ripper Street just now (hadn't heard of it before), and oh man, it looks awesome! I love historical drama shows, and this looks like it's exactly to my tastes. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

A lot would depend on the circus. You've said it was fairly famous, so you might want to look at 'Lord' George Sanger (the 'Lord' was a nickname, not a title). Sanger was the greatest showman of his time and his circus performed for the Queen, who was said to be a great fan of the circus. Later in his career he became involved in public affairs, representing the interests of all showmen, many of whom, as other posters have said, were much less well regarded.

Where do you want her to socialise? She might not be invited to tea in aristocratic private houses, but there's nothing to stop her attending any public place or event if she dresses and acts appropriately. She'd likely attract some attention because she was black, largely because there were not that many non-white people in the UK at the time and those there were, would be mostly men and found in seaports - that is, East End of London, not the West End. However, 1887 was a Jubilee year when there were many overseas visitors in London, and her speech of course would mark her as being not local.

If your story is moving between the UK and the American South, you do need to be aware that the history of black people and race relations in the UK is very very different from the US.

As to feeling more comfortable among the merchant class, many of the middle class were far more conscious of respectability than the upper classes, and wouldn't be seen in pubs themselves. A respectable hotel would be more the thing. The merchant could encompass anything from a small trader, who might go to a pub, to a major ship owner or industrialist, who might end up with a knighthood

Ooh, I hadn't thought of having the circus's visit to England be connected to the Jubilee. Thanks for the idea! When the story begins, I don't think they'd be considered famous enough to perform for the Queen, but that could certainly change after plot events.

I've seen Sanger's name come up a few times in my searches so far, though I hadn't gone into much detail on him because his heyday was a few decades before my story takes place. What you're saying now sounds fascinating, though - I'm definitely gonna do more research on him.

Yeah, I know there was a lot of difference in race relations between the UK and the US. It's actually a minor plot point - the heroine grew up in the American South, and she has to reconcile her experiences there with the cultural differences in England (and not just when it comes to how black people are treated).

I don't have anywhere specific in mind for her to socialize at this point - I'm mostly thinking in terms of where she might hang out when she's not actively involved with the mystery plot, and where she might be likely to cross paths with other characters who are involved, so pubs are a good bet. She comes from a working-class background herself, so she'd probably feel most at home there.

What time of year is the story set? If it's spring/summer, that gives you a lot more options. Everybody went to the Derby, in early June. It's a few decades before your period, but check out W.P. Frith's painting 'Derby Day'. In fact, check out Frith's work generally. The ladies' fashions changed over time, but the general scene and atmosphere didn't.

London has a huge number of parks and open spaces in or nearby which were very popular on Sundays and holidays.

Taking a trip on a river steamer was very popular with working class/lower middle class Londoners. One could take a short trip to somewhere such as Greenwich or a day trip to Margate or Southend, or various places in between.

And lots of places were accessible by train. Parts of the Underground were operating by then, which might be a new experience for her.

If it's winter - if she's from the American South, she probably won't like the weather! There were museums, if that's to her taste. Not sure when the various South Kensington museums opened, but there's always the British Museum. There were theatres, concerts and music halls to suit all tastes and social classes. Roller skating was popular, with purpose built indoor rinks, but I'm not sure exactly what was available when. And there were some big stores in Oxford Street and elsewhere, where she could go shopping.

Don't forget that 1888 was the year of the Whitechapel murders, so you might want to avoid it. IIRC it was also the year the first Sherlock Holmes story was published.

You might want to look at Lee Jackson's terrific Dictionary of Victorian London. Take coffee and doughnuts, you'll be there a while.

Also, it's a bit before your period, but check out also 'London, a Pilgrimage' by Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Dore. I know the illustrations are online in various places, and the text should be too.

The story takes place in late spring (I haven't decided the exact month), so it sounds like the Derby could definitely be an option. At the very least, people could mention about how they're looking forward to it. Parks are also good, especially ones with a lot of trees and dense groves, which could, ahem, provide space for a big cat to prowl. I do know that at some point, characters will visit the Crystal Palace Park (the dinosaur statues are a plot point).

Those all sound like great possibilities! One of the heroine's main interests is educating herself (she doesn't have a lot of formal schooling), so museums would definitely appeal to her. She tends to be pretty frugal with money, so I'm not sure shopping would be high on her list of things to do for fun, but it could work - maybe some of her friends could drag her along XD

Yeah, I don't plan on characters becoming involved with the Whitechapel murders, if only because it's been done so often in fiction.

I've got the link bookmarked, and I'll check out all your other recommendations too. I really, really appreciate the tips about paintings and illustrations - I'm a very visual person, so those are especially helpful. Thank you so much!

Edited at 2014-02-21 03:10 am (UTC)

If you want trees, check out Epping Forest. (Don't have time to hunt up links at the moment.)

If you like visual sources, look up the London Metropolitan Archives'/City of London image collection online. Individual London Boroughs often have their historical image collections online too, so if you're focusing on a particular part of London, it might be worth finding out the present day local authority and searching around its website. Where will the circus be pitched?

You can find old maps of London online too. Again, no time to hunt up links at the moment.

If she's into self-improvement, she'll find plenty of public lectures she can attend. Look up Birkbeck College, or Mechanics' Institutes. Or the Bishopsgate Institute. I think that's a bit late for you, but it gives you an idea, and you can always invent your own to suit your purposes. If you want somewhere she could go for an evening out with her policeman friend and hang out with highly respectable working class and lower middle class people, an Institute lecture would be ideal.

(I know all this stuff either because I've researched it myself at some point for my own purposes, or friends of mine have, or because I've visited the places in question.)

Going to an institute lecture together would be perfect. Mutual love of learning and education is one of the things that attracts them to each other, so it would be exactly the kind of thing they might do for an outing.

I'll definitely look up maps as well - I do that a lot when I'm writing, whatever the setting, and I'm relieved to hear they'll probably be easy to find. I haven't yet decided where the circus will be set up.

I envy you, getting to visit all these places XD I've been London once in my life, with my family when I was 13, and we visited the usual tourist spots, but I really want to go back again for research's sake. Someday!

Edited at 2014-02-21 09:58 pm (UTC)

Here's one map site: There are others.

Oh, and the Booth Poverty Maps:

She sounds like a very interesting character, even without the were-leopard element. I wish you luck with the story. Is it something you're hoping to have professionally published?

I hope you do get back to London one day. Once you've done the big tourist sites, the best thing to do is to get a good street map and some comfortable shoes and just walk. You come across all sorts of unexpected places. Alternatively, ride around on top of a bus - an ordinary red one, not a tourist bus. It's the best way to see the buildings.

Aw, thank you! That means a lot, and I hope the story really will be interesting when the time comes. I do hope to have it published, although it may be a long time before it's ready - I've been working on various permutations of it since high school (which was about 10 years ago), and it's only in the last couple of years that I firmly decided on the setting and started doing hard research.

*bookmarks the links with many thanks!*

Edited at 2014-02-21 11:49 pm (UTC)

You might want to look at the careers of some of the Circus celebrities of the 19th Century. General Tom Thumb is one who springs to mind. He brought to London by PT Barnum in the 1840s and performed in private for Queen Victoria. He died a very wealthy man.

If your circus is fashionable, your character skilled, entertaining and celebrated and genteel in appearance, there is no reason why she would not be accorded the same level of patronage. Her colour would not be bar (Queen Victoria displayed a paternalistic but apparently sincere appreciation for individuals of colour throughout her life. She took tea with Mary Seacole, the nurse, several times, and provided grace and favour apartments and patronage for several exiles of India and African origin - including the orphaned crown prince of Ethiopia, and her clerk, Abdul Karim, to whom she left a substantial grant of land in her will. No doubt her attentions were, to our sensibilities, patronising, but then she probably patronised everyone who wasn't actually a Empress!

In addition - if your character is attractive, she might very well receive more personal and private attentions from the more Bohemian part of London society, where Artists and Actors mixed with Gentlemen - such as the Prince of Wales, who rather liked Actresses....

Also - just to second the point made above, she would, in general, face more overt prejudice from the respectable middle-class, rather than those at the top of the pile.

I recommend Angela Carter's magical-realist novel "Nights at the Circus" - its fiction, but its fabulous.

And even then one can't be sure. I recommend the Sherlock Holmes story "The Yellow Face".

Or indeed, accounts of Conan Doyle's own involvement in the George Edalji case:

Hee, I've read "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" - it was actually one of my inspirations for this particular story. I didn't know about the Edalji case, though!

Edited at 2014-02-20 06:55 am (UTC)

I first read it in a bound volume of the Strand Magazine: Sidney Paget's picture of the new husband with his stepdaughter in his arms is particularly lovely. I also like it for being one of the rare occasions where Holmes has to eat humble pie!

Her attitudes were pretty patronising to everybody, so probably not a big deal. She learned enough Urdu to keep a diary in it, which would have taken a fair bit of work.

I could easily see her attracting that kind of interest - she's young and attractive, and exotic-looking even by non-white standards (unusual eye and hair coloring due to being a wereleopard). I'm not sure it would fit into the plot as it stands, though, except as a side mention, but I'll keep it in mind!

I don't know if this will help you, but I find the throwaway comments of characters written in that time period can be quite illuminating. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes canon, "carnies" were referred to in less than complimentary terms - dens of thieves and "loose women", more or less.

I found this useful for my own 1800s "circus novel":

And, bookmarked! Thank you :)

You're welcome! Hope it's helpful.

Ripper Street is excellent (a new series of it has just been commissioned after popular demand), and despite being a cop show in Victorian Whitechapel, so 100% male police force, manages to have a decent amount of strong female characters. The dialogue does very well at being plausibly Victorian yet comprehensible.

And eye candy. Lots of eye candy... :)

Earlier time period and probably not directly relevant, but there was a black British circus-owner in the mid-19th-century: "Pablo Fanque" (born William Darby). You've heard of him even if you don't remember it -- he gets a mention in the Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."

Can anyone tell me how performers actually lived their daily lives when not performing? How did they cook for instance and what did they do for bathing and sanitation?
Any info would be appreciated.
Many thanks,


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