Dr John Woolf (PhD History, 2016) is a historian and researcher who has recently co-written the bestselling audiobook Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets. Having read history at the University of Cambridge, John went on to obtain a Goldsmiths PhD on nineteenth-century freak shows. Since then John has developed the BBC4 series The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar, which has featured on the BBC4 documentary Dwarfs in Art, and was Assistant Producer for Queen Victoria’s Letters: A Monarch Unveiled. In 2017, The Wonders was awarded the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize for the best proposal for an uncommissioned first biography.
Dr John Woolf tells us about his time at Goldsmiths and his current projects:
Ever since the age of 10 I have been interested in freaks.
This freakish fanaticism began when my mum showed me David Lynch’s film, The Elephant Man. I vividly recall that sense of horror as I observed a monstrous creature emerging from the shadows of Victorian London matched by a sense of compassion for the man, Joseph Merrick, who experienced such torment because of his body.
During the next eight years or so, I remained intrigued by difference: I recall going into my dad’s study and flicking through Leslie Fiedler’s Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. I was more interested in the pictures than the text, but the images continued to feed my fascination with the ‘other’.
When I went to the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate reading History, I quickly found myself overwhelmed and, within ten days, I dropped out (they called it ‘degrading’). But it was during my year out that I rediscovered Victorian freak shows at a more intellectual level: I re-watched Lynch’s film and began reading widely, devouring anything that mentioned freaks, freak shows and freak performers.
I learnt about ‘General Tom Thumb’, one of the world’s first international celebrities, a dwarf whose real name was Charles Stratton; Julia Pastrana, the so-called ‘Baboon Lady’, who was embalmed by her showman-cum-husband and who continued to display Pastrana after she died during childbirth; Daniel Lambert, one of the first notorious Fat Men on display; Chang and Eng Bunker, The Siamese Twins, who became slave-owning farmers and fathers of the American South. I discovered these characters and many more. I was hooked.
I returned to Cambridge, got my degree and immediately embarked on a PhD at Goldsmiths, exploring nineteenth-century freak shows under the wonderful supervision of Dr Vivienne Richmond with Professor Jan Plamper as my supportive second supervisor.
I immersed myself in archives around England and America, seeking to understand how freak identities were constructed: how society displayed, managed and comprehended the ‘freak’. I drew an important distinction between the ‘freak’ – a socially constructed identity – which is brought to life onstage by the ‘freak performer’, the individual who performs the role of the freak. I became more and more interested in the lives of the freak performers as I sought to untangle the interrelationship between realities and representations which engulf the history of the freak show.
During my time as a PhD student, I also got active in TV, working on my first documentary about General Tom Thumb. This gave me a taste for life outside academia and the numerous means of disseminating academic work beyond an academic audience. Once I was awarded my PhD, I returned to the world of TV and soon found myself in radio… quickly working on an Audible series, Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets, a 12-chapter audiobook that explored different aspects of Victorian history.
At the same time, I got to work on a ‘popular’ history of the freak show from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. I wanted to turn the PhD into an accessible but (hopefully!) intellectually stimulating read that would centralise, and not sensationalise, the freak performers. The result was The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age, which 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.
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 contemporary fascination with ‘otherness’. (I also have a word or two to say about the recent Hollywood blockbuster, The Greatest Showman…)
My overarching aim in The Wonders was to give a voice to the voiceless performers who created the world of the freak show. This was never a marginal affair but one central to Victorian society. Queen Victoria herself was an avid freak fancier as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle became a revolving door for all manner of freak performers. Moreover, as I discovered during my PhD, the freak show offers a new perspective on the discourses and concerns of the Victorian age – illuminating questions of race, identity, class, science, gender and the body.
It’s surreal to finally have the book out in print and I look forward to the American publication in November 2019. In the meantime, I will continue to explore the rich world of the nineteenth century, looking for more stories of those deemed different in the hope that I can resurrect their voices.
The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age by John Woolf is published by Michael O’Mara Books.