Monday, 1 August 2011

The Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture



The Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture

By Nadja Durbach.
University of California Press (2009)

Publisher's description

In 1847, during the great age of the freak show, the British periodical Punch bemoaned the public's “prevailing taste for deformity.” This vividly detailed work argues that far from being purely exploitative, displays of anomalous bodies served a deeper social purpose as they generated popular and scientific debates over the meanings attached to bodily difference. Nadja Durbach examines freaks both well-known and obscure including the Elephant Man; “Lalloo, the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy,” a set of conjoined twins advertised as half male, half female; Krao, a seven-year-old hairy Laotian girl who was marketed as Darwin's “missing link”; the ”Last of the Mysterious Aztecs” and African “Cannibal Kings,” who were often merely Irishmen in blackface. Upending our tendency to read late twentieth-century conceptions of disability onto the bodies of freak show performers, Durbach shows that these spectacles helped to articulate the cultural meanings invested in otherness--and thus clarified what it meant to be British—at a key moment in the making of modern and imperial ideologies and identities.


List of Illustrations
Introduction: Exhibiting Freaks

1. Monstrosity, Masculinity, and Medicine: Reexamining “the Elephant Man”
2. Two Bodies, Two Selves, Two Sexes: Conjoined Twins and “the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy
3. The Missing Link and the Hairy Belle: Evolution, Imperialism, and “Primitive” Sexuality
4. Aztecs and Earthmen: Declining Civilizations and Dying Races
5. “When the Cannibal King Began to Talk”: Performing Race, Class, and Ethnicity

Conclusion / The Decline of the Freak Show


“This is a marvelously researched and engagingly written work of history.”—Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Nadja Durbach's work generates fresh insights on familiar phenomena such as the Elephant Man, but pushes its enquiry substantially further, extracting significant conclusions from other sensational but hitherto critically unplumbed wonders of the showman's world in the nineteenth century. An excellent piece of historical research."—Peter Bailey, author of Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City

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