Book review: Orphans of the Carnival – meet ‘ugliest woman in the world’
Author Carol Birch’s novel reimagines 1800s freak-show poster girl Julia Pastrana, a woman born with two rare conditions who was alternately feted and shunned by a society both fascinated and repelled by physical anomalies
Orphans of the Carnival
by Carol Birch
In 2013, more than 150 years after her death, Julia Pastrana was finally returned to her birthplace in Mexico for a proper burial.
Famed during her lifetime as “the ugliest woman in the world”, Pastrana, born in 1834, had two rare conditions: generalised hypertrichosis lanuginosa, which left her face and body covered with thick hair, and gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums and gave her an unusually protruding jaw. The result, combined with her diminutive, curvaceous figure, led contemporary scientists to claim her as the “link between mankind and the orang utan”.
At the age of 20, Pastrana was sold to a Mexican customs administrator who exhibited her across the US and Canada before bringing her to New York. There she met and married Theodore Lent, an impresario on his uppers with whom she travelled to Europe, where again she was toured exhaustively.
These were the boom years for freak shows, an era of seemingly insatiable appetite for human oddity, and Pastrana was their poster girl, exciting the curiosity and disgust of medical professionals and paying punters alike. When she died in childbirth, Lent refused to let it get in the way of what was by then very good business. He had mother and child stuffed and continued to put them on show, twin exhibits in glass cases.
It is no surprise that Pastrana’s strange and macabre story caught the imagination of a novelist such as Carol Birch. Birch’s previous novel, the terrific, Booker-shortlisted Jamrach’s Menagerie, took its inspiration from a true-life collector of exotic animals, among them a pair of armadillos bought by Gabriel Dante Rossetti which proceeded to burrow under the lawns of his neighbours in Chelsea. In that book, Birch showed herself to be a master storyteller, venturing into those richly coloured landscapes where everyday life tips into the fantastic.
Like Jaffy, the protagonist of Jamrach’s Menagerie, Julia Pastrana is an impoverished orphan granted by chance the opportunity to travel the world. Unlike Jaffy, however, she is not the seeker but the sought. In Orphans of the Carnival, Birch explores what it feels like to owe one’s success to other people’s fascinated revulsion; to be imprisoned in a body that is at the same time a golden ticket and a curse.
The uneasy relationship the Victorians had with the human oddities they found so compelling meant that Pastrana was alternately feted and shunned, one day the toast of the town, the next an abomination to be hidden from children and expectant mothers for their own safety.
Birch’s Pastrana is a gentle, intelligent soul, soft-hearted enough not only to be hurt by but also to feel pity for those she terrifies; clear-sighted enough to appreciate the slightness of her talents as a performer: “It’s not that I have a particularly beautiful voice, she thought. It’s that they’re surprised I have any voice at all that isn’t a grunt or a howl.”
She knows all too well that her appearance is a double-edged sword. While she longs for normality, to be “out in the world, free, unafraid”, she understands, too, that her life “is more interesting now”. She relishes having money to spend. She takes pleasure in performing, in travelling the world and meeting new people. Her tragedy lies in the certainty that “everyone loved her because she made them so glad they were themselves and not her”.
Birch has clearly done her research and the novel sticks closely to Pastrana’s real-life story. But, although Birch writes beautifully and creates some wonderful moments, the narrative never quite takes off. There is too little of the spark of gloriously unfettered imagination that ignited Jamrach’s Menagerie in Orphans of the Carnival, especially once Pastrana leaves her motley crew of fellow freaks to travel alone.
Touring has always been a drearily repetitive business – “a long stretch of tedium punctuated by shows”, as Birch puts it – and the book reflects this truth rather too accurately for its own good. It is only when Birch turns her attention to the conflicted Lent that the story gains real momentum.
Meanwhile, the modern-day thread that runs through the book proves a distraction, its connection to the main story coming too late to make sense of its inclusion. When Lent first meets Pastrana, he tells her that “nobody wants the truth. They want a story. A good one.” Unfortunately, and despite its rich material, this one is not quite good enough.