Page 51. " Hokey pokey penny a lump, The more you eat the more you jump- "
Anglo-Italian ice-cream vendor
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumAnglo-Italian ice-cream vendor - Credit: Candida Martinelli

'Hokey-pokey' was an American term for ice-cream, and particularly for cheap, inferior brands often sold on the streets by Italian vendors.  The rhyme which Fevvers recites was taken up by 'hokey-pokey' men, who called it out as they walked the streets in a precursor to today's electronic ice-cream van jingles.  

The rhyme passed from the USA to Britain and is part of a repertoire of well-known playground rhymes surviving from the Victorian era.  A variant, perhaps created by children envious of others' ice-cream, ran 'hokey pokey penny a lump, the more you eat the more you pump'.

Page 53. " A hop and a skip and a jump away from the good Old Vic at Waterloo "

Mirrored curtain reflecting the audience at the Royal Coburg, 1822
Public DomainMirrored curtain reflecting the audience at the Royal Coburg, 1822 - Credit: US Library of Congress
The Old Vic Theatre still stands close to Waterloo Station in London, with Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey now acting as Artistic Director.  The theatre opened as the Royal Coburg in 1818, and after struggling against repeated threats of closure in the 19th century enjoyed years as a leading national theatre, attracting actors including Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft and Alec Guinness as well as Spacey himself.

Fevvers recounts visits to see several Shakespearian productions; the romance of Romeo and Juliet, the history of Richard III, known as Crookback Dick, and the comedy of Twelfth Night in which the pompous Malvolio is tricked into appearing in yellow stockings, worn cross-gartered (ie with the ribbons criss-crossed on his shins).

The Marriage of Figaro presents a satire of the aristocracy in a comic opera by Mozart.  The Count Almaviva, seeks the attention of Susanna, fiancee of his servant Figaro; between them the couple expose him, restore his love for his own wife, and are happily married.  The play upon which the opera was based was originally banned in Vienna for its undermining of the aristocracy, but the opera was one of Mozart's most successful and Lizzie's words are ironic, since its focus is distinctly on the comic rather than the political.

The heroine of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen is a Spanish gypsy from Seville, an alluring dancer who warns, "If you love me ah! then beware".  The opera ends with her murder at the hand of her spurned lover Don Jose.  Fevvers herself is heard singing the 'Habanera' at the close of the novel.




Page 57. " But, as for Madame Schreck, she catered for those who were troubled in their...souls "
Watson's Living Curiosities poster, 1885
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumWatson's Living Curiosities poster, 1885 - Credit: The British Library

Freak shows were a popular form of entertainment in the Victorian period, rising in popularity alongside - and sometimes as part of - the music hall and theatre.  Dwarves and contortionists (like Esmerelda's Human Eel) were a common feature of the variety performance and circus, whilst freak shows went one step further by displaying human bodies as entertainment in themselves, without asking their exhibits to perform or interact with their audiences.  In a society with little exposure to disability or different ethnicities, anyone who did not conform to the common appearance could be considered a 'freak' and exhibits included the very fat, the very thin, the tall and the short, conjoined twins, people with different coloured skin or with physical deformities.  Bearded ladies were a popular feature, although not every act was necessarily genuine; 'Hairy Mary from Borneo', for example, was in fact a monkey.  One show, featured in the Illustrated London News in 1851, was in fact of a child dwarf known as 'the Fairy Queen' - perhaps an inspiration for the Wiltshire Wonder's story on page 65.

Living conditions for exhibits were not always as dreadful as those in Madame Schreck's establishment.  In the late 1890s, freak shows provided decently paid work for individuals who may have struggled to find employment in other walks of life.  Some of the most successful of them could earn up to £20 per week; the equivalent of over £1000 today.  The success of a show often depended as much on its frontman and advertising as on its actual content, and posters illustrated their exhibits as still more fantastical, grotesque or titillating than the reality.  Many shows travelled from town to town in covered wagons with their exhibits enclosed inside, drawing in new crowds at each venue.

One of the key success stories in the development of the freak show was 'General Tom Thumb', born Charles Sherwood Stratton, a dwarf who appeared in PT Barnum's circus.  Barnum (1810-1891), whose name lives on in the 'Ringling Brothers' and 'Barnum and Bailey' circuses, was a pioneer of the circus in the 19th century, discovering acts like singer Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale'.  His career began as the owner of a travelling freak show and museum of human curiosities.  His life is celebrated in the musical Barnum!

Born with maternal and paternal grandmothers who were identical twins, Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) was born as a normal sized baby but stopped growing at the age of six months and reached only 3'4" (102cm) as an adult.  He was discovered by Barnum, a distant relative, who taught him to sing and dance and launched his career to great acclaim when he was just five years old.  He married another dwarf, Lavinia Warren, in 1883 and died a wealthy man with over 10,000 mourners at his funeral.

Joseph Merrick (1888)
GNU Free Documentation LicenseJoseph Merrick (1888) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A less happy story was that of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), known as 'The Elephant Man'.  From birth Merrick began developing abnormally large skin growths on his head and hands, and a childhood fall left him lame.  He was rejected by his parents and entered the workhouse aged 17 as his deformities prevented him from finding employment.  By 1884 he found it difficult to speak due to the growth on his lips, and voluntarily left the workhouse to join a travelling freak show.   He was later based in the back of a London shop run by Tom Norman, sometimes called the 'English Barnum', who drew audiences in using posters and sales patter.  The act was only moderately successful, perhaps because Merrick's appearance was too hideous to attract any but the most hardened visitors.  At the same time, public attitudes to freak shows were changing and they were increasingly recognised as a challenge to public decency.  Norman's shop was closed down in 1885 and Merrick returned to the travelling fair in Europe.  His new manager eventually robbed him of his savings and he was left to make his own way, destitute, back to London where he was taken in by Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital, who had examined him during his previous stay in the capital.  His life improved in his final years as Treves befriended him and introduced him to 'normal life' with trips to his own house and to the countryside, and visitors including the then Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra.

Merrick's story was immortalised in a 1977 play, The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, and more famously in David Lynch's film of the same name, released in 1978.  

Although the public began questioning the propriety of freak shows in the late 19th century, displays of human novelties continued in some form until the 1970s when proper structures came into place to support disabled children and their families, at least in Britain and the USA.  Fevvers joins Madame Schreck's establishment in the 1890s, when concerns about the shows were starting to grow; the poor conditions of the exhibits' employment, the necessity of bribing Kensington Police and the sexual root of many visitors' interests, may have been exacerbated by the marginalisation of the freak show in light of public disapproval.

Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) also contains a sexually ambiguous character named Albertina, and sees the protagonist enjoying sexual relations with a young girl, Mary Anne, whilst she is in a prolonged sleep. 

Page 62. " in she comes like Virgil in Hell, with her little Dante trotting after "

The Divine Comedy is a three part epic poem by Italian Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).  It tells the story of Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, guided by the Greek poet Virgil.  Their journey represents the rejection of sin, Christian life and the eventual arrival of the soul with God.

The first part of the poem, Inferno, describes a mediaeval Hell with nine circles of suffering located within the earth.  At each stage, sinners receive a poetic justice; for example, fortune tellers are made to walk forwards with their heads on backwards.  In each circle Dante places figures recognisable from literature, mythology and history, so that Helen of Troy and her lover Paris are punished for their lust whilst Alexander the Great suffers for his violence.

The poem is recognised as one of the great works of world literature, and gave us the quote 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here'.  The line appears early in the poem as part of an inscription on the gates of Hell, the complete text of which reads:

“Through me you pass into the city of woe:

Through me you pass into eternal pain:

Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:

To rear me was the task of power divine,

Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things

Eternal, and eternal I endure.

All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

Page 64. " the Wonder was as perfectly formed as any of those avatars of hers "


The official recognition of a dwarf is any adult under 4'10" (147cm) tall.  However, the connection with dwarves in fairy tale and mythology has given dwarfs a special place in popular culture and society.  Some, like General Tom Thumb, had successful careers upon the stage and in the freak shows; even today many dwarfs with otherwise everyday careers are drawn to the theatre each Christmas for pantomime productions of Snow White.  

Mrs Tomysen was a dwarf in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.  Little is known about her, except that she appears in the records as having received 2 oz of gilt plate from the queen at Christmas in 1561.  Dwarfs often lived as something of a novelty at courts in Europe, Russia and ancient Egypt, with a role somewhere between that of page or lady-in-waiting and jester.  Mrs Tomysen (possibly also known as Thomasine of Paris) was only one of a number of dwarfs employed by Queen Elizabeth throughout her life.

Richard and Anne Gibson were dwarfs in the court of Charles I, employed by Queen Henrietta Maria in the 17th century.  They are some of the earliest court dwarfs for whom detailed information survives, and were married at the queen's wish.  Richard painted miniatures for the king and acted as drawing masters to the Princesses Mary and Anne, the king's grand daughters.  His wife bore nine children, five of whom lived and were of normal stature. 

I can find no record of Anastasia Borculaski, nor of famous dwarfs who were brother and sister.  However, many married couples travelled and performed together, perhaps most notably General Mite and Millie Edwards, and as some forms of dwarfism are genetic it is not unlikely for a brother and sister to share the condition. 


Page 71. " He gives his name as 'Christian Rosencreutz' "

Christian Rosencreutz is an adopted name, illustrating the beliefs of Fevvers' purchaser.  Rosicrucianism is a philosophical secret society founded in mediaeval Germany by the original Christian Rosenkreuz.  In his lifetime it consisted of no more than eight members, each having sworn an oath to heal the sick, to maintain the secrecy of the fellowship and to find a replacement for himself before he died.  The early manifestos of the Order caused excitement in Europe by hinting at the existence of a secret brotherhood preparing to transform the artistic, scientific and religious landscape of the day.   However, its associated secrecy resulted in a myriad of public theories and interpretations of its purposes and beliefs, which now form a complex and often contradictory history.

The Rose Cross
Public DomainThe Rose Cross - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rosicrucianism is associated with Christianity and particularly Protestantism, and is said to have had an influence on the development of the Freemasons society.  The name of the order literally means 'Rose-cross' (from Latin 'rosae' and 'crux'), based on the symbol of a red flower and gold crucifix shared with the Knights Templar.  This symbol had both public and secret meanings, allowing members of the Order to distinguish their true fellows from uninitiated outsiders.

The inner meaning of the name and symbol derives from different origins, 'ros' and 'crucis'.  Ros is Latin for dew, in alchemical terms the pure essence refined through the power of vitriol and heat.  Crucis implies transformation, as Christ transformed the fate of humanity through his suffering at the crucifixion.  The colour red symbolises the sacrifice involved in achieving transformation.

Today there are several distinct orders bearing the name Rosicrucian, and their beliefs are bound up with Gnosticism, alchemy, Kabbalah, Masonic orders and esoteric Christianity.  Like Gnostics, Rosicrucians seek not earthly love but esoteric and spiritual standards and inner, individual truth, and it can be argued that any temporary order or fellowship is secondary to each follower's personal quest for enlightenment.

Rosicrucian beliefs and rituals are at the root of the religious conspiracy theory developed in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) and its forerunner, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, R ichard Leigh and Henry Lincoln.  

Read more about Rosicrucianism at:

The Rosicrucian Archive

Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis

The Rosicrucians - Rites and Mysteries (1870) by Hargrave Jennings

Carter's Christian Rosencreutz appears to follow a distinctly confused version of Rosicrucianism, bound up with fear of the female.  The interpretation of the cross as phallus, and the rose as femininity, is not unique but in traditional Rosicrucianism it is more often celebrated as a union of opposites than portrayed as a battle between conflicting forces.  In the next chapter he goes on to call upon figures from Greek, Roman and Christian religion and mythology, and to distort alchemical theories into exhortations to sacrifice.  The next few bookmarks unwrap some of these references to illustrate the full range of his personal mythology.