Behind the spectacle there are always secrets.
Unruly crowds descend on Crillick’s Variety Theatre. A black, British actress, Zillah, is headlining tonight. An orphan from the slums of St Giles, her rise to stardom is her ticket out – to be gawped and gazed at is a price she’s willing to pay.
Rising up the echelons of society is everything Zillah has ever dreamed of. But when a new stage act disappears, Zillah is haunted by a feeling that something is amiss. Is the woman in danger?
Her pursuit of the truth takes her into the underbelly of the city – from gas-lit streets to the sumptuous parlours of Mayfair – as she seeks the help of notorious criminals from her past and finds herself torn between two powerful admirers.
Caught in a labyrinth of dangerous truths, will Zillah face ruin – or will she by the maker of her fate?
Length: 320 pages (kindle edition)
Publisher: Hutchinson Heinemann
Content warnings: racism
I received a free copy of the this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not change my opinions.
I picked Theatre of Marvels up because I love most things set in or based on the Victorian period. There’s something about the era that fascinates me, perhaps partly because it’s the era where a lot of our modern ideas originated. The 19th century saw monumental shifts in the way we live and work, and a lot of the debates that began then are still happening now.
Theatre of Marvels centres on a black actress called Zillah, who is trying to escape the poverty she grew up in. She’s made it so far, but only through using her ‘novelty’ status as a black actress to her advantage. She’s a sympathetic character, and as Dillsworth tells the story in first person perspective, exclusively from her point of view, we get to know her quite well. It’s easy to see her character developing throughout the book, and I liked the slow way she had realisations. Dillsworth did a really good job of showing Zillah’s understanding of the world around her grow. Though I, as a reader from the 21st century, could see what was wrong, and what Zillah needed to understand, it was still fulfilling to see Zillah come to those realisations and understandings.
The other characters in the novel felt realistic, and I enjoyed the friendships played out in the book. I suppose because Theatre of Marvels is set in the underbelly of the Victorian world, rather than ‘proper’ society, as we see in a lot of novels set in this time period, the relationships between characters are quite free (in the sense that they don’t worry so much about their reputation or what society will think of them for having sex outside of marriage). This side of Victorian society feels much closer to our own. Yes, there are concerns about pregnancy, but this is something the central character feels confident she can prevent. As a result, the relationships are messy, and feel quite contemporary.
Thematically, the book is most obviously about race. But it’s also about class too. In a promotional video on Twitter the author says that she hopes people come away from reading Theatre of marvels with a better understanding of the black population in London in the Victorian period. As she says, most people aren’t aware that there was a black population in Britain at that time, and I will admit that I know little of that part of Victorian history. And this is why I love historical fiction: it can teach you something that you otherwise might not have even been aware that you don’t know.
Dillsworth sets Theatre of Marvels at the time when the UK government were trying to encourage the ‘Black poor’ to leave Britain for Sierra Leone to start a new life there. So there is this undercurrent of political tension running through the narrative. Zillah differentiates herself from the ‘Black poor’ as she prides herself on having been ‘born free.’ Whereas her mother was a slave, she was born outside of that system.
This serves as a stark reminder that slavery didn’t just end in a clean, easy way. There were many ex-slaves left without homes, without incomes, without any means of gaining those things. As Zillah finds in her life, getting work as a black person was extremely difficult due to the extreme (and legal) prejudices that existed against non-white people. These ideas all tie into the central question the novel asks about identity: who are we really? And what creates and defines that identity?
As for class, Theatre of Marvels deals with that alongside race, in a way that I really appreciated. For me, Dillsworth suggests that the two things are interlinked. Zillah cannot escape either – though one is obviously harder to hide than the other. Zillah attempts to fit into upper-class society, and finds she struggles. She never seems to feel at home in the big house with the fancy clothes. Yet she doesn’t feel at home in the slums anymore either. She is caught between two worlds. And that resonated a lot with me.
I have two main criticisms of Theatre of Marvels. The first is about the relationship that Zillah develops with another character throughout the book. For me, there just something missing in the development of her feelings for this person. I felt like Dillsworth could have shown Zillah’s feelings a little more, and really helped me, as the reader, to understand how Zillah’s feelings were developing. Instead, I felt like, towards the end, that I’d missed something. I felt disconnected from that side of the story.
The second criticism regards a secondary character and the way Dillsworth represented them.. This character felt, to me, queer-coded. But Dillsworth never explicitly gave an answer to the question she had asked for the entire story: is this person queer? For a story written in contemporary times, I feel a bit let down that authors still do this. I understand that in Victorian society queer relationships weren’t at all acceptable and were in fact illegal. But for a contemporary reader, there is no reason to never explicitly say one way or the other. For a story that otherwise concludes in quite a satisfying way, this one thing bothered me.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Theatre of Marvels. It was a refreshing take on an historical fiction novel set in the Victorian period, and I really liked reading about characters who weren’t part of upper-class society. I also enjoyed learning about an aspect of history that I don’t know much about, and it has inspired me to do more research and learn more. Theatre of Marvels is well-written, with engaging characters, and a storyline that kept me intrigued all the way through. I hope to read more from Dillsworth in the future.