Orphans of the Carnival: Julia Pastrana and the Neo-Victorian novel

Daryl Cox read BA English Studies at Teesside University and MA Disability Studies at University of Leeds. In October 2017, he will begin a North of England Consortium of Arts and Humanities (NECAH) funded PhD, exploring representations of freaks in neo-Victorian texts from a disability studies perspective. He can be found on Twitter: @realdarylc.


What is it about historical freaks that make them ripe for fictionalised versions of their lives? The experiences of such people are certainly interesting and varied; many toured as part of circuses, sideshows, and freakshows, exposing them to places and cultures that many people may not have, indeed, do not now have, the chance to experience. Whether viewed as exploitative or otherwise, this industry was particularly popular in the nineteenth century, with performers such as General Tom Thumb, Sarah Baartman, and Julia Pastrana touring much of the world. Audiences flocked to see different bodies; extremes of height and weight, missing limbs, anything deemed unusual and/or exotic drew huge crowds, eager to see people that did not look like them. Whatever we think of this, whatever the politics of this, the display of extraordinary bodies was undeniably a lucrative business, not only for managers but for performers; General Tom Thumb was incredibly rich and famous, meeting American presidents and European royals and aristocrats, for example (Davies, 2015).

Although the freakshow is broadly extinct in the Victorian sense, the fascination with the extraordinary body is not and so the freakshow has largely moved into other media; notable examples include ‘real-life’ documentaries, the Paralympic games (Jönsson, 2017), and the arts. Neo-Victorian novels about the lives of freaks have become popular subjects for authors and readers as a sub-genre of historical fiction. Such novels often run a very fine line between ethical and sensitive representation and simply using the body as a vehicle for an agenda. Carol Birch’s novel, Orphans of the Carnival (2016) is firmly in the former group as it presents a version of Julia Pastrana who is as kind and intelligent as the few primary sources suggest (Hermann, 1895). Little is known of Julia’s origins though most sources agree that she was born in Mexico and was part of an indigenous tribe. Born with generalised hypertrichosis languinosa and gingival hyperplasia, Julia’s ‘face and body were covered in long dark hair and her gums were so overgrown as to appear to be a second set of teeth’ (Stern, 2008, 201). She was abandoned and then taken in by the governor of Sinaloa and raised as a servant until she was ‘discovered’ and convinced to become a performer. By focusing on the life experiences of Julia as she travels, performs, makes friends, marries, and dies, rather than what they ‘mean,’ Birch gives us a well-rounded ‘character,’ not a two-dimensional vehicle.

The novel is comprised of three stories: Julia’s life from 1854 to her death in 1860; her husband Theo Lent’s life after her death; and a separate story set in 1983 concerning a young woman named Rose and her link to Julia. Julia’s story follows her success and popularity in the U.S.A., Europe and Russia and explores her relationships with other performers, friends, managers, and Lent. Birch explores not only her audience’s reactions to her but her reactions to them, allowing the reader to witness an imagined dialogue between the observed and their observer. After her death, due to post-partum complications, in 1860, Lent becomes the focus. He has Julia and their child mummified and placed in a glass case so that he can display them for profit. Lent also finds out about Marie Bartel, a woman with a similar appearance to Julia, marries her and convinces her to take the name Zenora Pastrana and perform as Julia’s sister. After settling in St Petersburg, Lent’s mental health deteriorates and he is committed to an asylum where he later dies. Zenora retires to Paris with her son. The nineteenth-century section of the novel ends with a description of what happened to Julia and her son’s bodies and finally links to Rose’s story. Rose is a young woman who finds what she thinks is a strange doll in a skip that turns out to be the mummified corpse of Julia’s son that, through a series of events, finds itself in London.


The UK paperback version of Orphans… , featuring cover art by Andersen M. 

It is interesting to consider the status of Orphans… as a neo-Victorian text. Most of the novel takes place during Queen Victoria’s reign. Even Rose’s story, set in 1983, has a Victorian temporal link; in January of that year, Margaret Thatcher famously discussed what she called ‘Victorian values,’ and was re-elected as Prime Minister in the summer. However, the settings of the novel are not restricted to Victorian Britain; Julia’s story takes place in the U.S.A., Europe and Russia and Lent remains in Europe and Russia after her death. Although a small segment takes place in London it is very much overshadowed by the number of other places Julia visits. Clearly, Birch is bound by the historical facts of Julia’s travel and performance but she takes care to name many places that Julia could have visited, often as a list on the way to a main plot setting. This complicated, but ultimately successful, approach to the temporal and geographic aspects of the novel reflect Helen Davies’ (2015) suggestion that ‘the temporal and geographical reach of ‘neo-Victorianism’ is neither fixed nor self-evident’ (4). Like the popularity of the freakshow around the world in the nineteenth century, neo-Victorianism broadens its reach into areas that might not immediately be such. In Orphans… Birch takes nineteenth century U.S.A., Europe and Russia, combines it with Thatcher’s return to Victorian values and creates a neo-Victorian novel.

Birch draws on the basic facts of Julia’s life to ‘fill the gaps’, creating a version of Julia who is kind, intelligent and sensitive to the reality of her appearance. She is aware that she does not ‘have a particularly beautiful voice’; rather, people are surprised that she has ‘any voice at all that isn’t a grunt or a howl’ (Birch, 2016, 69). Julia recalls a conversation with Don Pedro, her guardian in Mexico, who tells her that people ‘don’t care about your talent, Julia […] they only want to see the freak’ and refers to her talent ‘Such as it is’ (81). Biofictional representations of historical figures, as opposed to entirely fictional characters, bring with them a range of ethical issues such as the responsibility of the author to their subject (Lackey, 2016) and the risk of relegating subjects to ‘supporting roles’ in their own stories by deploying them as vehicles to explore issues in current society (Kohlke, 2013). Birch appears to be aware of these issues; in an interview with The Guardian she acknowledges that ‘you owe it to them to find out what you can’ and that she resists ‘ists’ and ‘isms’ when creating characters as ‘Character comes first’ (The Guardian Online, 2016). When writing about real people, Birch learns everything she can about them from books of and about their time and memoirs, for example, sticking to the known facts as far as possible (Hedlund, n.d.). Her research into Julia was particularly interesting as Julia left nothing ‘in her own words. It’s all people talking about Julia- people’s interpretations of Julia’ (Hedlund, n.d.).

Birch intentionally does not dwell on the specifics of Julia’s body and there is no lengthy description of her difference at any point in the novel. Instead, the details creep out at different points as Julia meets different people and performs. We might compare this tactic with the life pamphlets and handbills that accompanied freak performers in the Victorian period which described in detail what exactly the audience could expect to see of the freak they viewed. In an example on JuliaPastranaOnline, there are nine pages of description, physical and intellectual, which include certificates of examination from three eminent doctors and a newspaper advertisement for a performance in London. The appearance of Julia’s ‘Nose, Forehead, and entire Face, Shoulders, Arms, […] Eye […] Nose, […] upper and lower jaw, […] Hands, Feet and Ankles’ are all described in more detail than this space allows; I would advise anyone interested to visit the link provided. The function of these pamphlets was to excite in its reader an interest in viewing its subject whereas Birch’s intention is to explore ‘what [it must] be like to be someone whose face scares people’ (The Guardian Online, 2016), a goal the novel achieves sensitively.

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A harrowing example of this exploration occurs when Julia performs at a circus just outside of Vermont. She goes to see her friends Ezra and Cato perform and leaves early to prepare for her own show later in the evening. She gets lost on her way back to her wagon and wanders into a group of children and a peddler who has been telling them about her. One of the boys takes her veil from her face, exposing her to the group. Some of them throw stones, others scream in shock and then begin to laugh at her and one boy calls her ‘the most horrible thing in the whole wide world’ (Birch, 2016, 110). The culmination of this scene is Julia on her knees expecting to die as one of the boys holds a knife in front of her. This is drawn out over six pages and retains its intensity throughout, even in frequent, repetitive description of the same actions. Birch’s version of Julia keeps much of her dignity throughout this ordeal, always asking to be let past, asking them to stop what they are doing to her, even apologising to a baby for scaring it. However, this incident and the children haunt her for the remainder of the novel; after receiving a negative review of her performance in which she is called an insult to decency, for example, she claims that ‘It’s like those children all over again’ (Birch, 2016, 159-162).

Birch does something rather interesting with a pamphlet written by Theo Lent about Julia as a response to the negative review just mentioned. What he writes is found as stuffing inside what Rose assumes is a doll she finds in a skip and names Tattoo. The significance of this is not revealed until much later in the novel, after Julia has died and Lent has married Marie, when Marie is tearing up Lent’s work as she rewrites it and uses some of it to re-stuff the body of Theo Junior. Theo Junior’s body is the link between Julia’s and Rose’s stories and, although Rose’s story is a strange addition to the novel apparently driven by Birch’s need to do ‘something’ for Julia’s son (Tethered By Letters, 2016), it serves a complex function; to suggest that he would not only have inherited a face that scares people, but also the kind of textual legacy that Julia was subjected to and, through novels about her, still is. Further, Marie’s rewriting of Theo’s words echoes Birch’s (fictional) re-telling of Julia’s life. In rewriting Theo’s ‘old-fashioned’ (Birch, 2016, 340) words, Marie claims that hers are better suited for describing Julia. Through this kind of textual play with pamphlets and the novel itself, Orphans… raises the question of who is best suited to tell the stories of historical figures and suggests that, as language and attitudes evolve (or perhaps do not as the temporal reference to Thatcher’s values suggests), it will be possible for the same story to be told differently.

Orphans of the Carnival raises interesting questions about the representation of people with extraordinary bodies and the texts in which they are represented. Carol Birch’s version of Julia is sensitive, intelligent to the reality of her appearance, and kind, even in the face of terrible actions against her and, as such, is likely a realistic representation of her, made possible through Birch’s rigorous research and unwillingness to deal in ‘ists’ and ‘isms.’ Through some complex textual play with geography, two stories temporally linked by ‘Victorian values,’ and the issue of writing about someone and the ‘updating’ of such writing, Orphans… is secured as a neo-Victorian novel that deals sensitively and appropriately with the issues it raises. If the stories of Julia and other freaks are to be told again and again, I would hope that they are done so with the skill of Carol Birch.


Works cited:

Birch, C. 2016. Orphans of the Carnival. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.

Davies, H. 2015. Neo-Victorian Freakery: The Cultural Afterlife of the Victorian Freakshow. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Godfrey, K. 2016. Julia Pastrana Online. [Online]. [Accessed 29 May 2017]. Available from: http://juliapastranaonline.com.

Hedlund, D. [no date]. Tethered By Letters. [Online]. [Accessed 30 April 2017]. Available from: https://tetheredbyletters.com/an-interview-with-carol-birch/

Hermann, O. 1895. Fahrend Volk. Leipzig, Weber.

Jönsson, K. 2017. Paralympics and the Fabrication of ‘Freak Shows’: On Aesthetics and Abjection in Sport. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy. 11:2, pp223-237.

Jordan, J. 2016. Carol Birch: ‘I am amazed at how people come through extreme things – at the strength of people’. The Guardian. [Online]. 26 August. [Accessed 30 April 2017]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/26/carol-birch-interview-orphans-of-the-carnival

Kohlke, M-L. 2013. Neo-Victorian Biofiction and the Special/Spectral Case of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Hottentot Venus. Australian Journal of Victorian Studies [Special Issue: Neo-Victorianism]. 18:3, pp4-21.

Lackey, M. 2016. Locating and Defining the Bio in Biofiction. a/b: Auto/ Biography Studies. 31:1, 3-10.

Stern, R. 2008. Our Bear Women, Ourselves. In: Tromp, M. ed. Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain. Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, pp200-233.


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