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Summary

The Wonders is a radical new history of the Victorian age: meet the forgotten and extraordinary freak performers whose talents and disabilities helped define an era.  

On 23 March, 1844, General Tom Thumb, at 25 inches tall, entered the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace and bowed low to Queen Victoria. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, this meeting marked a tipping point in the 19th century - the age of the freak was born.  

Bewitching all levels of society, it was a world of astonishing spectacle - of dwarfs, giants, bearded ladies, Siamese twins and swaggering showmen - and one that has since inspired countless novels, films and musicals. 

But the real stories (human dramas that so often eclipsed the fantasy presented on the stage) of the performing men, women and children have been forgotten or marginalised in the histories of the very people who exploited them.  

In this richly evocative account, Dr John Woolf uses a wealth of recently discovered material to bring to life the sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant, always extraordinary stories of people who used their (dis)abilities and difference to become some of the first international celebrities.

And through their lives we discover afresh some of the great transformations of the age: the birth of show business, of celebrity, of advertising, of 'alternative facts'; while also exploring the tensions between the power of fame, the impact of exploitation and our fascination with 'otherness'.

©2019 John Woolf (P)2019 Audible, Ltd

Critic reviews

"A promising young historian with a taste for the exotic." (Stephen Fry)

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Roll up for the different, weird and the wonderful

John Woolf has written a startling book about the history of Victorian freak shows telling the incredible stories of some of the unfortunate exhibits and how many of them were exploited for financial gain. Many of the dwarfs, giants, conjoined twins and disfigured people were considered to be "deviations of nature" and "living curiosities" who were paraded at circus side shows for the amusement and delight of the paying public. Some of the "unfortunates" however, including Leicester's giant Daniel Lambert and Charles Stratton's General Tom Thumb character managed to forge their own successful careers as showmen in their own right. Queen Victoria herself was a fan of the freaks and this royal patronage apparently did much to popularise their appeal, until that is, the more enlightened age of the 20th century when other forms of entertainment prevailed. The freaks then became the realm of the medical profession who themselves took delight in exhibiting as biological curiosities which was equally as degrading and humiliating as the freak shows themselves. We retain a fascination of the weird and the wonderful today through films depicting the lives of Barnum and the Elephant Man John Merrick, through our TV screens on shows such as Jeremy Kyle and Britain's Got Talent and, of course, books such as this.

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very interesting and detailed

really enjoyed this and the sympathetic and appropriate use of language to describe the evolution of the "freak" show

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A wonderful book!

Well-researched and tastefully written, a true tapestry of wonderful individuals who lived exceptional lives. Highly recommend!

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Wonderful wonders

This is a wonderful book. serious research but entirely readable. It brings stereotyped figures to life in powerful ways

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  • CaL Lambert
  • 19-04-20

Strikes the right chord

Not maudlin or voyeuristic or creepy or sad. Well rounded and well read. Loved it.

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  • Alex Palmer
  • 10-02-20

Excellent

Brilliantly academic and so very readable. Loved it. Learned. Highly recommend this to all interested in this subject

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  • Islandgirl
  • 21-12-19

Wonderful book - A real eye opener.

I loved this book, and the humanization all these performers are given. It really opened my eyes to the horrible men and or women that took advantage of these wonderful souls. I would love to see a book or movie focused only on P T Barnum, and the truth behind this monster.

3 people found this helpful