Review: Artistes of Colour: Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus by Steve Ward

Review by Revely Rothschild

To some, history books may seem boring– everything they discuss has already happened, so what’s the point? But from the moment I picked up Steve Ward’s Artistes of Colour: Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus, I knew this wasn’t the case: the rich details and approachable writing make it a valuable and enjoyable read. Whether you know the ins and outs of Victorian circus as well as Ward, or whether this is as new of a subject to you as it was to me, you will find Artistes of Colour to be a compelling and accessible take on a largely unexplored aspect of circus history. 

Artistes of Colour is Ward’s way to celebrate those circus artists who have been unjustly forgotten, and to honor the memories of those who experienced racial discrimination during life. While the book does an excellent job of covering such a deep and important theme, it’s also a very accessible read. Each chapter covers one performer, so whether you intend to read the book cover to cover, or would prefer to read the chapters individually, you will find yourself immersed in a narrative that’s compelling for a variety of reasons. 

For one, he paints an awe-inspiring picture of all these artistes and their terrific skills (for example, one woman, Leona Dare, hung from her teeth from a hot air balloon). But it’s by using interviews, press clippings, and posters or photographs from the time that Ward really brings the performers (and society’s response to them) to life. Not only does Ward use media about the artistes, he also investigates their personal lives, and through that, these admirable circus heroes become lively, complex individuals in their own right.

Ward pays great attention to detail, not only in the lives of each individual performer, but also in the connections between all of them. One of my favorite elements of this book was the way that Ward makes references to previously-discussed performers in later chapters and describes the interactions or relationships between all the artistes. By drawing unifying ties between all the artistes, Ward reminds us of something that has always, and still is true about the circus community: no matter who you are, it can be your home.

Review by Stacy Gubar:

One may think that a non-fiction, historical novel would be overly dense and boring, but Artistes of Colour: Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus by Steve Ward is anything but that. This work contains fascinating personal stories accompanied by broad overviews of the time period which creates a beautiful balance between entertaining anecdotes and important historical context. For this reason, I really enjoyed reading this book and did not find it overbearing in content at all. I also loved looking at the included timelines and pictures because they provide wonderful visuals of the discussed people and events. Additionally, they further dilute any possible insipidness and make the book very entertaining to explore. The timelines also work to contextualize and chronologize the book’s events, which ensures the work is accessible and easily comprehensible to a varied audience including adolescents like myself. In fact, the entire text is extremely well organized in a clear, logical order and includes a glossary at the end which allows readers to quickly locate sections they might wish to re-read. Furthermore, each chapter is concluded by a list of cited works which can be an invaluable resource for those wishing to learn more about the subject. I personally admire the citations because they allowed me to trust the information I was reading, and feel confident about the author’s integrity. In conclusion, I feel everyone would enjoy perusing this brilliant, accessible, and trustworthy look into the history of POC representation within the circus, and I highly recommend you give it a try.

Purchase your copy here!

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