The Wonders: : Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age
John Woolf

The Wonders: : Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age


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 nineteenth 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 marginalized 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 showbusiness, 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'.

Book Details:

  • Author: John Woolf
  • Published Year: 2019
  • Rights Sold
    • UK: Michael O'Mara
    • US: Pegasus
John Woolf

John Woolf

John Woolf was born in 1988 and read History at Downing College, Cambridge, where he was awarded two scholarships before gaining two further scholarships at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he worked on his fully-funded PhD. His doctorate explored nineteenth-century ‘freak shows’ and was awarded in August 2016. John has co-written a twelve-episode Audible book on Victorian History with Stephen Fry and Nick Baker of Testbed Productions. John also works as a freelance researcher, most recently with Channel 5 and What Larks Productions, and made his first onscreen appearanc...
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Book Reviews

  • "A wonderfully rich, compassionate and pungent potpourri of the extraordinary, the unusual and the rare. Turns our notions of Victorian prudery, propriety and voyeurism upside down. Brilliantly researched and written with great verve."
    Neil McKenna, author of Fanny and Stella and The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde
  • "A promising young historian with a taste for the exotic."
    Stephen Fry
  • "Highly readable. The life stories of those paid to be gazed at and ridiculed have been deftly teased from the archives, providing a sympathetic account of these amazing individuals."
    Sarah Wise, author of Inconvenient People and The Blackest Streets
  • "The Wonders shines a bright light on the real human experiences behind Victorian freak spectacles. With carefully-researched historical detail and a knack for storytelling, Woolf reveals the off-stage struggles and success for a series of performers known mainly for their unusual bodies. The Wonders traces the development of the freak show from its roots in the royal courts of Europe, to the fairs and travelling entertainments of the British working class, and across the Atlantic to the museums and circuses of America. Along the way, it uncovers the surprising complexity of life in the freak show—a life in which exploitation, empowerment, and economic opportunity can be hard to untangle"
    Dr Lilian Craton, author of The Victorian Freak Show
  • "John Woolf's book is an intriguing and fascinating look into the world of "freaks" beautifully researched and well written."
    Richard Butchins, Award winning artist and disabled filmmaker
  • "John Woolf’s book will dazzle you with details of extraordinary lives, long underestimated by history."
    Matthew Sweet, broadcaster and author of Inventing the Victorians
  • "As an actor and writer who has also performed in contemporary freak shows for many years, I find this book a refreshingly integrated and balanced account of these amazing lives."
    Mat Fraser, actor, writer, Disability Artist and actor in American Horror Story: Freak Show
  • "Explores with subtlety and consideration the many facets of humanity's strangeness. A really excellent book and an important study of the physically marginalised and neglected."
    Clive Bloom, author of Victoria's Madmen
  • "A remarkable book. Painstakingly researched, and beautifully written, John Woolf tells a brilliant and vibrant history. By illuminating a world which we have done our best, as a society, to forget, The Wonders contextualises our current obsession with celebrity and the lives of others."
    Katharine Norbury, author of The Fish Ladder
  • "  Fascinating and thought-provoking. A marvellously researched account of the freak industry - an extraordinary side of Victorian life which has been ignored for too long."
    Jane Ridley, author of Bertie
  • "A personality-driven history of the ‘freak’ show… alive and informative."
  • "Woolf traces the rise and fall of the freak show from the beginning of the 17th century to the turn of the 20th…Nuanced and complex, [he] deftly shows there are stories of empowerment alongside those of exploitation…Woolf gives these marginalized performers a voice – a voice that was rarely heard in life."
    BBC History Magazine
  • "Historian Woolf’s lively debut asserts that the height of the West’s 19th-century study of disease and public health reforms was also the “heyday of the freak show.”… Woolf balances his colorful, detailed storytelling with sharp-eyed cultural unpacking, such as discussing how the traveling freak shows were exploitative and demeaning but also provided income and social networks for outsiders with limited employment opportunities. This rich, resonant cultural history takes a solid look at the oft-explosive intersections of commerce, wonder, ethnicity, and morality. "
    Publishers Weekly