A Conversation with Lianne Dillsworth, author of Theatre of Marvels


Theatre of Marvels (Harper, 2022) takes place in Black Victorian London, a various, fascinating world with which many readers, even when they’re steeped in Nineteenth-century fiction, may not be acquainted. As one peruses the novel—an expertise that leaves one spellbound—it’s not possible to not be fascinated with the difficult historical past that impressed the story, and one wonders to what diploma the plot, its protagonists, and settings are based mostly on reality. Thankfully, Lianne Dillsworth is keen to reply any questions that come up within the thoughts of the reader who involves take care of her brave and sophisticated heroine, Zillah, and is raring to accompany her on the typically treacherous, however all the time thrilling path in direction of self-discovery she travels in Theatre of Marvels.

As a Black British or mixed-race particular person, twenty-year-old Zillah should straddle two separate, conflicting spheres—that of the Victorian ‘freak present,’ the place she portrays a mythic being known as the Nice Amazonia, in addition to predominantly white, male, class-riven London. Since its privileged members really feel entitled to make any lady taking their fancy their mistress—despite the fact that she hails from a unique race and has little alternative within the matter—Zillah should make up her thoughts whether or not she’s going to select to stay as a stored lady in England, or comply with the decision of freedom to Sierra Leone, introduced amicably by former slave and potential love curiosity, Lucien. Nevertheless, affairs of the guts will not be all that concern Zillah since she has made a terrifying discovery. So-called ‘unique’ actors will not be solely exhibited on London phases to entertain white audiences. Fairly, some, such because the Leopard Girl, are forcibly employed to participate in non-public performances, serving to titillate the extra perverse tastes of so-called discerning, upper-class spectators, who crave a extra intimate type of ‘theatre’ that disregards the distinction between make-believe and scientific experimentation.

As Zillah turns into decided to place an finish to such locations as The Odditorium, the choice she makes about her personal life is startling in its simplicity, whereas it harmonizes with the methods wherein she involves assemble her id over the course of her adventures. As Dillsworth explains: “I needed Zillah to be daring and assured and she or he’s the form of one who will get into scrapes and by some means manages to return out on high, however I feel it’s additionally true that she doesn’t all the time realise how perilous her state of affairs is and the reader may have a greater grasp of that. She additionally goes on fairly a journey within the novel, as you say, which is prompted by her first encounter with Lucien.”

She goes on to talk about her motivations for scripting this novel. “I’ve all the time cherished historic fiction and had struggled to seek out tales with Black British girls at their centre. I used to be impressed by Toni Morrison’s phrases: ‘If there’s a guide you wish to learn however it hasn’t been written but, then it’s essential to write it’. There’s a bent to suppose that the historical past of Black individuals in Britain started with the arrival of the Windrush Era after the Second World Struggle however the Black presence in Britain goes again a lot farther and I needed to honour that.”

writer picture by Sophie Davidson

Requested which particular chapter of Black historical past she needs to spotlight in Theatre of Marvels, Dillsworth responds,  “It’s estimated that there have been round 10,000 Black individuals in London within the early a part of the Nineteenth century – many lived in St Giles, which again then was the location of low-cost unsanitary housing – the form of place the place the marginalised of society would congregate. Some have been there on account of the slave commerce. Many had fought for the British within the US Civil Struggle in return for grants of land on territories the British laid declare to as a part of the empire. The report is sort of scant, partly as a result of the historical past of Black individuals in Britain has not been a serious focus for lecturers over time, however that is altering now and we’re beginning to perceive extra. One among my favorite assets is a map created by researchers at College Faculty London that plots the places of Black individuals residing in London from 1800-1900 and their occupations. That offered a terrific jumping-off level for populating the world of the novel. Nevertheless, it’s additionally most likely value acknowledging that an individual’s ethnicity and pores and skin color weren’t included in lots of archives such because the nationwide census so it may simply be the case that a person referenced was Black and it merely wasn’t recorded. This is the reason photographic archives, similar to these stored by medical establishments for instance, are so helpful for authentic analysis on this space, albeit they solely present a glimpse of society at the moment.”

As to the precise setting of the Victorian theatre for her story about Black British individuals, Dillsworth elaborates, “Newspaper evaluations and handbills present the various Black individuals exhibited on stage within the 1900s. Saartje Baartman is probably essentially the most well-known, however there are a number of others. There was a baby exhibited because the Piebald Boy, for instance, and later within the century a gaggle who carried out as Farini’s Pleasant Zulus. The Odditorium is a nod to the discourses of race science that have been growing and that have been the precursor to the eugenics motion. Sadly, I imagine that locations like that might have existed, and I discovered it very tough to write down these scenes, however it’s part of the Victorian gaze that I feel we have to acknowledge.”

Lastly, requested to touch upon her novel within the particular context of the historical past of slavery, Dillsworth desires her readers to notice that: “the fates skilled by former slaves in London and throughout the UK may fluctuate fairly broadly. Within the novel, Lucien was initially forged out by the girl he was ‘gifted’ to, however subsequently discovered a supportive patron who made him a beneficiary in his will. The historic report exhibits that this was not an rare incidence, however the majority of former slaves would have develop into indentured servants and others would have fallen into poverty. The Sierra Leone scheme was developed as a method of getting the so-called Black Poor off London’s streets, however it had some high-profile help from throughout the Black neighborhood, too, within the early days. I feel it held the promise of self-determination and freedom.”

Once I invited Dillsworth to think about the longer term for Fortitude, the daughter to whom Zillah offers start in direction of the top of Theatre of Marvels, I used to be thrilled to listen to that she could be planning to write down a sequel. I used to be moreover delighted to listen to that like myself and plenty of different readers, she loves the Nineteenth century.

“One of many important points of interest of the Victorian interval for me is how shut all of it feels,” she says. “Whenever you stroll the streets of London, its current within the alleyways, the place names, the structure. So, it’s not an excessive amount of of a leap to think about your self again in that point. There are additionally synergies when it comes to the historic second we discover ourselves in. The Nineteenth century is usually characterised as a time of progress and nervousness and there are numerous parallels with in the present day. The strides we’re making in know-how now echo the seismic modifications caused by the economic revolution for instance. That’s why I feel so many people discover the Victorians so attention-grabbing and return to that interval in our fiction, however as you say, there’s been much less give attention to Black Victorians after which, as now, London is a various metropolis. It was essential for me to replicate that.”

In conclusion, there is no such thing as a doubt that Lianne Dillsworth has achieved what she got down to do, making a novel that does justice to Victorian England whereas shining a light-weight into the parallel, but interconnected worlds of its Black British and mixed-race residents. Her Theatre of Marvels highlights these actors, whose advanced personalities and abilities have been all too usually dismissed beneath such easy epithets as ‘unique,’ demonstrating how far more they needed to contribute to society as brokers of change, however most significantly, as human beings able to empathy, as a result of they themselves had significantly suffered.


Concerning the contributor: Dr. Elisabeth Lenckos serves on the Social Media Staff for the Historic Novel Society. She is at work on a novel a few German Jewish household in Twentieth-century Berlin.