Wednesday 28 September 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Circus of Wonders, Elizabeth Macneal (2021)

Welcome back to my blog and to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, in which I review books set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. Nearly three years ago I blogged about Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory (2019). Today, I’m reviewing her second novel, Circus of Wonders, which was published in 2021.

Circus of Wonders tells the story of Nell, a teenage girl covered in birthmarks, who works picking flowers in a small English village in the 1860s. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes to town, she, initially unwillingly, leaves her old life behind to become a “wonder” in the troop.

The novel moves between the point of views of Nell, circus owner Jasper Jupiter, and his brother, Toby. And there’s also a cast of secondary, but colorful, characters, many of them “wonders” like Nell. Jasper and Toby share secrets from their time in the Crimean War, which threaten to undo them today, while a key backer of Jupiter’s venture, known as the “jackal,” is in hot pursuit of a return on his investment.

As in The Doll Factory, the setting and subject matter are dark—perfect for fans of moody Victoriana. There’s even a cameo appearance by Queen Victoria herself, who was known to take an interest in human “wonders.” Complex sibling relationships and obsessive romantic attractions are also common themes between the two novels. 

Macneal does a great job building multi-faceted characters and ratcheting up tension. And the denouement of the novel (during a performance at the circus, of course!) is surprising, yet satisfying. My one small quibble was that the revelation of the big secret from the brothers’ time in Crimea was delayed a little too long, straining my belief in their viewpoints.

The Doll Factory and Circus of Wonders feel like they belong to a nineteenth century that’s recognizable and well-researched, yet uniquely Macneal’s own. I look forward to reading what she does next to build out this Gothic universe.

Which historical novel should I review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 11 September 2022

The Historical Novel Society Conference 2022, Durham, UK: A Review

I should have been a speaker and attendee at the HNS Conference in Durham two years ago, to coincide with the UK release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress. However, a global pandemic led to HNS 2020’s postponement, and so it wasn’t until two years later that we were finally able to gather in one of Northern England’s most charming and historic cities. 

On my way to #HNS2022

In today’s post, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the event, to help those currently on the fence about attending the 2023 HNS US conference, in San Antonio, Texas, or the 2024 HNS UK conference, in Dartington, Devon. 

Maybe you’re asking yourself whether you should prioritize attending the US or the UK conference… Ideally, I’d say try to get to both! But, if that’s not on the cards, hopefully this blog post will help. 

I like to think I’m a neutral party here, as I’m UK-born and raised, but currently live in the US. The UK and US branches of the international organization alternate years for conferences and there are some familiar faces you should expect to see at both. Before heading to Durham this time around, I attended the 2019 US conference in Maryland (see my roundup here) and I also spoke on a panel at the 2021 US virtual conference (check out key quotes from that conference here). 

Books on sale at #HNS2022

The first thing you should know is that the US conference is substantially larger, both for good and bad. There was more content at the Maryland and virtual events, which was great, and there were more attendees too (writers and other publishing professionals), which is good news if you love to mingle, or, alternatively, want to maintain anonymity in a crowd. The UK conference had only ~100 delegates, so over the course of two-three days you start to recognize more people, giving the conference more of the feeling of a class cohort. 

When it comes to location? Sorry, Maryland, but it’s no competition. Even if you didn’t book any of the optional excursions, in Durham you were in the heart of history, walking to the conference under the shadow of the cathedral and castle. While the US organizers do a great job finding American locations with historic links, the Brits simply have more history to choose from, meaning they’ve had some stellar venues over the years. 

Great Hall dining at #HNS2022

If it’s historical immersion you’re looking for though, the Americans are the ones who truly dress the part. There were no costumes to be seen at HNS 2022 in the UK, even at the mediaeval feast at Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle. Meanwhile, in Maryland, we were partying in historic dress on the first night and the last, representing our chosen eras in clothing as well as on the page.

When it comes to comparing costs, the UK conference ticket and accommodation were cheaper, but, of course, a major factor is going to be which conference you need to book transatlantic flights to attend. I often visit the UK to see my family, so, for me, going to Durham wasn’t a big financial decision or a major detour from my regular travel schedule. Whichever side of the pond you’re based on, I’d recommend combining a conference trip with other plans if you’re crossing the Atlantic—take a vacation or research that next book, rather than just jetting in and out. 

In conclusion, HNS may have started in the UK, but the sheer scale of the US organization means that the American conference is hard to beat when it comes to content, networking, industry links, and digital resources (I’m excited to see what a hybrid conference might look like in 2023!). But the UK conference is a gem for UK-based writers, who are seeking UK publication and/or local writer contacts, or for US-based writers with a passion for British culture and history. 

Were you at HNS 2022 too? Then make sure you stay in touch—I’d love to hear from you! Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and sign up for my monthly newsletter for regular updates on what I’m up to, in the US and UK.

Planning to attend HNS 2023 and/or 2024? As of right now, I hope to be there. So please come and say hi.