Elizabeth Macneal’s second novel Circus of Wonders, set in the latter part of the 19th century, tells the story of a young girl named Nell from a seaside town in southern England whose father sells her to a travelling circus. Trained as an aerialist, and dubbed ‘leopard girl’ because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell soon becomes an international sensation. As her fame grows – outstripping that of showman Jasper Jupiter who bought and nurtured her – readers are drawn into an acutely observed exploration of the nature of fame and power, ownership and identity. We catch up with Elizabeth as she and her wide book collection settle into new surroundings.


Tell us about the bookshelves in your home

Pitifully, I have none at the moment! I’ve recently moved house and all of my books are in boxes, hogging most of the sitting room. I feel quite bereft without them – usually, I’ll find myself flicking through my books, singling out my next read, or just the sight of a title on a spine will remind me of a different world or century or character. Though that said, I put aside a few of my absolute favourites before we moved, and they’re in my study alongside foreign translations of The Doll Factory and new proofs. So it isn’t all bad!

Which books are your most recent bookshelf additions?

I’ve recently been listening to the audiobooks of the Women’s Prize shortlist. At the moment, what with launching Circus of Wonders and moving house, I find I have very little time to read physical books. I’ve loved the range of the novels on the shortlist, which I’ve happily listened to while painting walls or plastering the cornicing (glamorous!). My favourite to win is Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – an astonishing account of addiction and control and faith, and the bonds that unite and break us.

Do you judge people by their bookshelves?

Absolutely! I’m a complete bookshelf perv. I’m sorry to say that my husband fell in my eyes when I saw that his bookshelves consisted almost entirely of books about airplanes. But if I ever need to know about the differing engines of a Messerschmidt versus a Spitfire, I’ve got a library at my fingertips.

Which is your most treasured book?

To redeem my husband for a moment, when The Doll Factory was published, he tracked down a first edition of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. I’d listened to it on repeat while writing The Doll Factory, and I adore it for its verve, wit and brilliant characterisation. I couldn’t believe it when I saw what he’d got me; it was just so thoughtful.

What do your bookshelves say about you?

At the moment, very little! I like to keep them as uncurated as possible – there’s no colour co-ordination or alphabetising. But even that, I suppose, is me projecting an image, like, hey! I’m so into books I don’t even have time to organise them!

I get very attached to books, so I can’t bear to borrow them. When I’ve loved a book, I like to put it on my shelves, and just the sight of it will make me a little bit happy.”

What’s the oldest book on your shelf?

I’ve actually got lots of antiquarian books. I had a misspent youth where I traipsed round charity shops and church sales picking up old sets and editions. My friends used to groan whenever I called them asking them to come along to Oxfam and get on the other end of a box containing the complete works of George Eliot. I think the oldest book I own is a 1790s set of Alexander Pope’s poetry. The bindings are all unravelling and the covers have cracked off, but I love them. I bought them in a charity shop in Oxford for £40 when I was a student, and then had to live off pasta and melted cheese for about a month.

Do you rearrange your bookshelves often – and where do your replaced books go?

I have to clear out my books every so often as they just get unmanageable – in my last house, I’d even run out of double-stacking space, so they quickly started to pile up on the floor. In the interests of a healthy marriage I try not to let this happen too often. I only keep the books I truly love or definitely want to read. I charity-shop a lot of them, provided they aren’t proofs. I really want to get a little ‘free books’ cabinet to put outside my house.

Do you have any books from your childhood on your shelf?

Many! I have a real attachment to the books I loved as a child. They really transport me to those comforting, exciting times either being read to, or reading late into the night. I’ve got a set of tattered Beatrix Potters, and Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, as well as Anne of Green Gables, Coram Boy and most of Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Book lender, book giver or book borrower?

Extremely resentful book lender; happy as a book giver; and rarely a book borrower. My sister has a habit of helping herself to my books and then returning them two years later (if at all), after they’ve been dropped in the bath or have half their pages torn out for some inexplicable reason. It’s definitely a bone of contention between us! But then again, I love nothing more than gifting someone a book that meant a huge amount to me. I get very attached to books, so I can’t bear to borrow them. When I’ve loved a book, I like to put it on my shelves, and just the sight of it will make me a little bit happy.

Whose bookshelves are you most curious about?

Ooh, I’d never thought about this. I suppose I’d like to see my baby’s bookshelves (he’s due in a couple of months) in twenty years’ time, just to see if he turned into a bookworm like me and what kind of reading he enjoys. Hopefully there’ll be some of my favourites in there and not just 400 books about Second World War pilots. (I suppose he’s got to take after one parent, right?)

Elizabeth was talking to Farhana Gani


Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in The City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Picador.
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Author portrait © Mat Smith; click on images below to enlarge and view in slideshow

The author’s former workspace

Part of the antiquarian collection

Settling in

The challenge ahead