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The Circus and Victorian Society

Brenda Assael

BUY Cloth · 256 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813923406 · $39.50 · May 2005

It was during the Victorian era that the circus, whose origins lay in the fairground world, emerged as a commercialized entertainment that we would recognize today. This development was intricately tied to a widespread demand for circus acts by a broad range of classes. In The Circus and Victorian Society, Brenda Assael examines this interest in the circus as an artistic form within the context of a vibrant, and sometimes not so respectable, consumer market. In doing so, she provides not only the first scholarly history of the Victorian circus but also a new view of nineteenth-century popular culture, which has usually been seen as the preserve only of the working class.

The Victorian circus ring was a showcase for equestrian battle scenes, Chinese jugglers, clowns, female acrobats, and child performers. In addition to their wondrous qualities, unabashed displays of physical power, and sometimes subversive humor, however, Assael reveals how such acts were also rendered as grotesque, lewd, or dangerous.

The consuming public’s desire to see the very kinds of displays that reformers wished to regulate put the circus establishment in a difficult position. Wishing to create a respectable reputation for itself while also functioning as a profitable business, the industry was engaged in a struggle that required the appeasement of both the regulator and the consumer. This conflict informs us not only of the complicated role that the circus played in Victorian society but also provides a unique view into a collective psyche fraught by contradiction and anxiety.


"With the high quality of its research, its scope and enlightening insights, and its eloquence, Assel’s The Circus and Victorian Society is highly recommended for professional historians, social scientists, and cultural critics, as well as for those generally interested in British history, and the history of culture and art- and of course, for circus fans and lovers."

Yoram Carmeli, University of Haifa · H-Net Reviews

"This is an intelligent and well-researched engagement with an area of Victorian life that is, if understudied, not of course quite known to us."

Howard L. Malchow, Tufts University · American Historical Review

"Assael’s wide-ranging archival research has unearthed intriguing information about circus performers and their working conditions…Scholars of the periodical press will find this study valuable not only for its mining of the press as a resource but also for its thoughtful considerations of method, material practices, and popular culture."

Mary Elizabeth Leighton, University of Victoria · Victorian Periodicicals Review

"This book will constitute an invaluable starting point for any future work, whether in the field of cultural history or theatre studies, on the circus in Britain during this, or indeed any other period."

Helen Stoddart, University of Keele · European Historical Review

About the Author(s): 

Brenda Assael, Lecturer in History at the University of Wales Swansea, is the author of numerous articles on circus history, including several contributions to the New Dictionary of National Biography.

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