Of Elephants and Men: the Freak as Victorian and Contemporary Spectacle



Queen Victoria’s lifespan (1819–1901) just manages to link two centuries, one renowned for Britain’s industrial and imperial might, strict values and moral codes, the other, a century which posterity may record as a period of British decline and decadence, of devolution from the international stage and fragmentation within the queendom. Further juxtapositions — between the years of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) and the final bi-centennial years of the twentieth century — reveal more substantial contrasts. Historically, Britain’s part in the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ (1880s) can be contrasted directly with African decolonisation eighty years later. Economically, Britain emerged from the Industrial Revolution with a strong production-base and colonial distribution network, whereas now, post-structuralists and postmodernists claim that Britain has entered a post-industrial age of computers and information technology where knowledge is (industrial) power.3 Sociologically, British society now no longer reflects the working/leisured class divisions which the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson once chronicled,4 for all members of the public can now work towards becoming politicians and archbishops, bankers, and officers in the armed forces — traditionally the blue-blooded pursuits of the aristocratic. The Victorian ‘Zeitgeist’, if you will, is modern and progressive, despite harping back to the civilising ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment: the Aquarian Zeitgeist, in contrast, is postmodern, characterised by a New Age barbarity and Jean-François Lyotard’s terse ’incredulity toward metanarratives’.5


Popular Culture Social Alienation Harvester Wheatsheaf Stage Persona Time Literary Supplement 
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  1. 2.
    Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 1991), p. 113.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p. 133.Google Scholar
  3. 26.
    Erving Goffman, Stigma — Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 12.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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