Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Guest Post (T2T): Y. S. Lee!

Y.S. Lee is the talented author of The Agency series, starring an unusual and resourceful Victorian-era woman named Mary Quinn in a historical mystery trilogy worthy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Today she's here on my blog to talk about a famous Victorian figure as part of her "Notorious Victorians" guest post series for the Traveling to Teens tour for The Agency, Book 2: The Body at the Tower!


Welcome to part six of Notorious Victorians – the blog tour supporting my second novel, The Body at the Tower. Today, I’m continuing the mini-theme of “Scandal and spectacle”. Yesterday, I talked about Oscar Wilde’s hunger for celebrity. Today, I want to look at the reluctant spectacle of Joseph Merrick – better known in some circles as the Elephant Man.

One of the less appealing aspects of our culture is its fondness for pointing and staring at those who are different. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took this further: if you were affluent and bored, you could take a tour of a lunatic asylum. It was a bit like going to the zoo, but with people as your subjects. Sometimes, the people came to you.

Joseph Merrick was born in 1862, an average-looking baby. During early childhood, his body began to change: his lips swelled, his skin thickened and developed a loose, lumpy appearance, and he grew a lump of bone on his forehead. As he grew up, his right hand and both feet swelled and a childhood accident to his hip left him permanently lame. He had to sleep sitting up, because of the size of his head, and his swollen lips made it very difficult for him to speak clearly. Merrick’s disfigurations were blamed on an accident his mother had while pregnant, in which she was frightened by a fairground elephant.

Merrick tried different jobs, but he wasn’t dexterous enough for factory work and his speech difficulties and appearance frightened people. At the age of 17, rejected by his father and unable to support himself, he entered a local workhouse – an institution for the desperate. Workhouses were places of punishment and humiliation. Merrick had no desire to remain. After another failed attempt to find a job, he concluded that his best chance for survival lay in exhibiting himself as a freak. He found a manager and embarked on a tour that ended up in East London. While in London, he was examined and interviewed by a doctor called Frederick Treves.

These were the waning days of the human freak show. Shut down by London authorities, Merrick travelled to Brussels, where his manager stole his savings and abandoned him. Merrick made his way, with difficulty, back to England. Rediscovered by Treves (whose card Merrick carried), Merrick was taken to the London Hospital. Through a newspaper campaign, Treves arranged for him to live there permanently, funded by public donations. As a minor celebrity and tragic public figure, Merrick continued to receive visitors. He even made friends, and it was these human connections that most delighted him. He died, aged 27, of suffocation. Treves, who knew him best, theorized that he’d broken his neck by lying down to sleep, in an attempt to be more like an ordinary person.

Joseph Merrick’s life was a succession of tragedies. It was also a series of utterly practical decisions by a man intent on achieving some level of independence. That he achieved it by trading on his grotesque appearance makes him one of the most interesting reluctant spectacles of his age.


Wow, freaky! I looked up more about Joseph Merrick after reading this guest post. Turns out he has what's called Proteus Syndrome, which is an unexplainable accelerated growth of random parts of the body. Apparently only 200 cases of this disease have been documented, and there is no known cure for it. Scary!

Thank so much, Ying, for that fascinating guest post! Be sure to follow the rest of the Traveling to Teens tour, with the schedule below:

Mon. 8/2 - Kristi (The Story Siren)
Tues. 8/3 - Kristen (Bookworming in the 21st Century)
Wed. 8/4 - Sarah GreenBeanTeenQueen
Thurs. 8/5 - Lizzy (Cornucopia of Reviews)
Fri. 8/6 - Ari (Reading in Color)
Mon. 8/9 - Mariah L
Tues. 8/10 - Steph Su
Wed. 8/11 - Cecilia (The Epic Rat)
Thurs. 8/12 - Laura (Laura’s Review Bookshelf)
Fri. 8/13 - The Book Smugglers


  1. Definitely an interesting post! Thanks Ying!

  2. This is definitely the most interesting guest post I've ever read! Actually, this is one of the few I've read all the way through. I'm going to check out all of the other stops now.

  3. Interesting and sad, too, to think what Merrick had to do to even begin to live independently or try to be accepted by society. His story reminds me of Frankstein's monster, though I hope that doesn't sound terribly insensitive!


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