A Conversation with Lianne Dillsworth, author of Theatre of Marvels


Theatre of Marvels (Harper, 2022) takes place in Black Victorian London, a diverse, fascinating world with which many readers, even if they are steeped in 19th-century fiction, might not be familiar. As one peruses the novel—an experience that leaves one spellbound—it is impossible not to be fascinated with the complicated history that inspired the story, and one wonders to what degree the plot, its protagonists, and settings are based on fact. Fortunately, Lianne Dillsworth is willing to answer any questions that arise in the mind of the reader who comes to care for her courageous and complex heroine, Zillah, and is eager to accompany her on the sometimes treacherous, but always thrilling path towards self-discovery she travels in Theatre of Marvels.

As a Black British or mixed-race person, twenty-year-old Zillah must straddle two separate, conflicting spheres—that of the Victorian ‘freak show,’ where she portrays a mythic being called the Great Amazonia, as well as predominantly white, male, class-riven London. Since its privileged members feel entitled to make any woman taking their fancy their mistress—even though she hails from a different race and has little choice in the matter—Zillah must make up her mind whether she will choose to live as a kept woman in England, or follow the call of freedom to Sierra Leone, presented amicably by former slave and potential love interest, Lucien. However, affairs of the heart are not all that concern Zillah since she has made a terrifying discovery. So-called ‘exotic’ actors are not only exhibited on London stages to entertain white audiences. Rather, some, such as the Leopard Lady, are forcibly employed to take part in private performances, serving to titillate the more perverse tastes of so-called discerning, upper-class spectators, who crave a more intimate form of ‘theatre’ that disregards the difference between make-believe and scientific experimentation.

As Zillah becomes determined to put an end to such places as The Odditorium, the decision she makes about her own life is startling in its simplicity, while it harmonizes with the ways in which she comes to construct her identity over the course of her adventures. As Dillsworth explains: “I wanted Zillah to be bold and confident and she’s the sort of person who gets into scrapes and somehow manages to come out on top, but I think it’s also true that she doesn’t always realise how perilous her situation is and the reader will have a better grasp of that. She also goes on quite a journey in the novel, as you say, which is prompted by her first encounter with Lucien.”

She goes on to speak about her motivations for writing this novel. “I’ve always loved historical fiction and had struggled to find stories with Black British women at their centre. I was inspired by Toni Morrison’s words: ‘If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it’. There’s a tendency to think that the history of Black people in Britain began with the arrival of the Windrush Generation after the Second World War but the Black presence in Britain goes back so much farther and I wanted to honour that.”

author photo by Sophie Davidson

Asked which specific chapter of Black history she wishes to highlight in Theatre of Marvels, Dillsworth responds,  “It’s estimated that there were around 10,000 Black people in London in the early part of the 19th century – many lived in St Giles, which back then was the site of cheap unsanitary housing – the sort of place where the marginalised of society would congregate. Some were there as a result of the slave trade. Many had fought for the British in the US Civil War in return for grants of land on territories the British laid claim to as part of the empire. The record is quite scant, partly because the history of Black people in Britain has not been a major focus for academics over the years, but this is changing now and we’re starting to understand more. One of my favourite resources is a map created by researchers at University College London that plots the locations of Black people living in London from 1800-1900 and their occupations. That provided a great jumping-off point for populating the world of the novel. However, it’s also probably worth acknowledging that a person’s ethnicity and skin colour were not included in many archives such as the national census so it could easily be the case that an individual referenced was Black and it simply wasn’t recorded. This is why photographic archives, such as those kept by medical institutions for example, are so useful for original research in this area, albeit they only provide a glimpse of society at that time.”

As to the specific setting of the Victorian theatre for her story about Black British people, Dillsworth elaborates, “Newspaper reviews and handbills show the many Black people exhibited on stage in the 1900s. Saartje Baartman is perhaps the most famous, but there are several others. There was a child exhibited as the Piebald Boy, for example, and later in the century a group who performed as Farini’s Friendly Zulus. The Odditorium is a nod to the discourses of race science that were developing and that were the precursor to the eugenics movement. Sadly, I believe that places like that would have existed, and I found it very difficult to write those scenes, but it’s a part of the Victorian gaze that I think we need to acknowledge.”

Finally, asked to comment on her novel in the specific context of the history of slavery, Dillsworth wants her readers to note that: “the fates experienced by former slaves in London and across the UK could vary quite widely. In the novel, Lucien was initially cast out by the woman he was ‘gifted’ to, but subsequently found a supportive patron who made him a beneficiary in his will. The historical record shows that this was not an infrequent occurrence, but the majority of former slaves would have become indentured servants and others would have fallen into poverty. The Sierra Leone scheme was developed as a means of getting the so-called Black Poor off London’s streets, but it had some high-profile support from within the Black community, too, in the early days. I think it held the promise of self-determination and freedom.”

When I invited Dillsworth to imagine the future for Fortitude, the daughter to whom Zillah gives birth towards the end of Theatre of Marvels, I was thrilled to hear that she might be planning to write a sequel. I was furthermore delighted to hear that like myself and many other readers, she loves the 19th century.

“One of the main attractions of the Victorian period for me is how close it all feels,” she says. “When you walk the streets of London, its present in the alleyways, the place names, the architecture. So, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine yourself back in that time. There are also synergies in terms of the historical moment we find ourselves in. The 19th century is often characterised as a time of progress and anxiety and there are many parallels with today. The strides we’re making in technology now echo the seismic changes brought about by the industrial revolution for example. That’s why I think so many of us find the Victorians so interesting and return to that period in our fiction, but as you say, there’s been less focus on Black Victorians and then, as now, London is a diverse city. It was important for me to reflect that.”

In conclusion, there is no doubt that Lianne Dillsworth has achieved what she set out to do, creating a novel that does justice to Victorian England while shining a light into the parallel, yet interconnected worlds of its Black British and mixed-race citizens. Her Theatre of Marvels highlights those actors, whose complex personalities and talents were all too often dismissed under such simple epithets as ‘exotic,’ demonstrating how much more they had to contribute to society as agents of change, but most importantly, as human beings capable of empathy, because they themselves had greatly suffered.


About the contributor: Dr. Elisabeth Lenckos serves on the Social Media Team for the Historical Novel Society. She is at work on a novel about a German Jewish family in 20th-century Berlin.

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