Neo-Victorian fiction delights in freaks, curiosities and the monstrous, as did the Victorians. Carol Birch’s new book, a biographical novel about Julia Pastrana, a genuine performing freak, self-consciously incorporates several common characteristics of contemporary neo-Victorian writing. The novel is ‘based on a true story’ and follows the high road of the historical record rather than burrowing into the suggestive gaps. Birch also employs a double narrative. Julia’s story begins in the 1850s with her debut on Broadway, while a parallel, modern narrative set in Thatcher’s England (remember her famous suggestion that we should all embrace Victorian values) opens in a household of marginal eccentrics and aged-hippy types living on society’s border.
The real Julia Pastrana was a bearded lady, variously known as the ape woman, the baboon lady, the bear woman or the missing link. Her entire body was covered in thick hair. Her genetic condition is now known as