Q&A Dr John Woolf
The teacher, writer and acclaimed historian talks about his fascination with freak shows, the splendour of the Victorian age and has advice on how you can bring history to life in the classroom
Interview: Jenny Holder
I would be most surprised to walk into a school these days where the pupils are not aware of the film The Greatest Showman. The track This Is Me has become an anthem of self-confidence, especially for those who feel marginalised and has been performed in many end of year assemblies.
However, although the film features figures from history such as Charles Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb, and Chang and Eng Bunker, the reality of their stories is much different to how it was portrayed in the movie.
Dr John Woolf’s new book The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age< tells the real stories of these individuals, showing both the indignities and ignorance they faced as well as the ways that they were able to find a sense of agency in performance.
I had the opportunity to talk with John, who also co-authored the Audible show Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets, about his interest in the Victorian freak show, the impact of The Greatest Showman and the relationship between writing about history and teaching it.
What is it that drew you towards studying the history of the ‘freak show’?
I was first introduced to David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man when I was about 11. I remember watching this and feeling this combination of both a sense of childlike horror at the creature of the Elephant Man in the shadows of Victorian London but also profound compassion for Joseph Merrick as an individual.
As I got older and went to University, I became interested in how society labels and defines difference and how difference exists on the margins of society whilst also reflecting societal concerns and developments. It was a combination of a real interest in the human stories but also what that tells us about history and society’s construction of difference and how that shifts over time.
What was your main motivation when writing The Wonders
I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless performers of the past, particularly in light of The Greatest Showman. It’s a great film with great music and I’m sure children in primary and secondary schools are humming the tunes. But for me, it missed the more interesting story, which was the lives of these individuals who were defined by bodies deemed different; people who navigated a world which was quite literally designed against them.
There is an amazing mix of triumph and tragedy in the stories of these performers, who were marginalised in their own lives and have been forgotten through the passage of time. I wanted to centralise their stories and give them a voice.
What types of responses do you get when discussing your work?
Often you get a sense of discomfort when dealing with this subject of the freak show. You use the term ‘freak’ and that makes people feel uncomfortable as it doesn’t seem very politically correct. Actually, when I talk about the ‘freak’ I very much mean a performance created as part of a constructed identity. This character is different to the individual ‘freak performer’ who brings the character to life on stage.
So, you get that sense of discomfort, but you also get that simplified view of this world that has been propagated through the likes of The Greatest Showman.
How has the movie contributed to a more simplified view of the figure of PT Barnum?
In that film, PT Barnum is very much lauded as a hero. In reality, he was a complicated man of his time; he was a slave owner who first found fame on the back of Joice Heth, a senile paralysed slave who he lugged across the North East of America, displaying her in taverns (advertised as the 161-year-old former slave of George Washington). Indeed, when she died, he held a public dissection of her body and made a lot of money.
There’s a darker side to PT Barnum’s story that was whitewashed in the film. I think it’s right that we discuss Barnum warts and all. I also think that we should consider the freak show carefully, not simply rejecting it as exploitation. There’s a relationship of exploitation and power, choice and coercion in the freak show so when studying this we approach it with this sense of complexity.
Are there any parallels between the Victorian freak show and aspects of modern life?
The freak show still lives on through our TV screens in the likes of Love Island (and Jeremy Kyle, before it was cancelled). Reality TV is the monstrous offspring of the Victorian freak show, full of sensationalism, voyeurism and titillation – the central ingredients of the freakshow that have been co-opted in reality TV.
Outside of reality TV, it’s interesting speaking to people with disabilities and disability theorists because they often argue that the legacy of the freakshow still lives on in interrelationships between people without and people with disabilities.
In the book I talk about how people with disabilities often talk about how they feel the need to undergo a performance to make people without disabilities feel comfortable in the presence of a person with a disability. So, these dynamics, the performative side of freakery and freakshow still lives on in relationships between people with disabilities and those without.
‘Reality TV is the monstrous offspring of the Victorian freak show, full of sensationalism, voyeurism and titillation – the central ingredients of the freakshow’
Another project you’ve worked on has been the Audible show Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets. Why should we be interested in the Victorians
They’re the making of the modern world. Some of the great technological advancements came during the Victorian age – the development of science, medicine, zoology. There’s something about the optimism of that period that is quite appealing when living in the dark world we’re living in now. The Victorian age is so rich with stories that are fascinating in themselves but also tell us something unique about our own period.
What other non-fiction texts would you recommend for someone hoping to find out more about the Victorian era?
There’s lots of accessible historians out there. AN Wilson is very good. His biography of Queen Victoria provides a really accessible but intellectual insight into the breadth and depth of the Victorian age. The Butchering Art by Lindsay Fitzharris is a fantastic look at the development of modern surgery. Also, Catherine Arnold’s Bedlam: London and its Mad is great!
As well as researching and writing you also teach at university and at GCSE/A-level. Have you found any similarities between the roles of writing and teaching
In a way, the commonality is the communication of history and stories and how you can use individual lives and meaty anecdotes to illuminate a historical period. In media, like teaching, there is a pedagogic function. Leading with human stories provides a great way for connecting students, readerships, listeners or viewers to the period you’re discussing.
The breadth involved in the History curriculum is extensive. Indeed, the KS2 history curriculum covers Stone Age to 1066 (with a few other topics following this date). What tips would you have for a non-history specialist approaching a topic that’s new to them
I always find going to some of the educational resources really helps. Even as a PhD student I picked up GCSE and A-level textbooks to allow me to get to grips with the basics. This gives a chronological framework or thematic framework for the period that you’re going to be teaching.
Build those foundations and then try to find some stories of individuals, families or events that help to bring alive that subject. For me, that then becomes the way in for exploring a particular theme or period. For example, in my own work, following the life and story of Charles Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb, provides a brilliant way of illuminating different trends of the Victorian age, whether that’s the rise of commercial culture, views on marriage or a preoccupation with fairies and children’s literature
What would you say is one of the key skills in History that pupils should develop and how can teacher support pupils with this?
It sounds really cliched and simplistic but the thing I always say to my students is ‘think’- think, think and think again. It’s amazing how underestimated that can be in the curriculum. We need to really develop a student’s critical faculties.
Do they think through statements that they’re making, arguments that they’re advancing? Are they thinking through different interpretations of source materials? I’m encouraging students to get into the mindset of people at that time.
For example, if you’re studying industrialisation, what would it have felt like for someone who moved from the countryside into the sprawling metropolis of London in 1860 and was living in a tenement and working in a factory? It’s important to get students to think about the human element and to interrogate the nature of the sources that they are working with. Getting students to interpret, analyse and think is absolutely crucial.