The story behind the story

07 February 2011

Ellen Bryson talks about the ideas behind her new novel, The Transformation Of Bartholomew Fortuno

by Ellen Bryson

The Transformation Of Bartholomew Fortuno started with an image of six bearded sisters in a circus tent. I'd been reading Angela Carter at the time - she loved to write about bawdy burlesque women, and I'd just finished her amazing Nights at the Circus. I woke up at three that morning to a vision of these six fabulous sisters lined up in the shape of a half-moon, their bearded faces lifted to the tent's canvas ceiling. One after the other, they shouted out their names, a spotlight glimmering off their cheekbones and their luscious beards.

Today, I remember only two names: the first, Esmeralda, a spry young thing who still whispers to me for space on the page. The second was Iell. I can still see her calling out, "Iell," her beard a stunning, burnished red, her face the face of an angel. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. How could a woman with a beard be so beautiful? And so feminine? As the rest of the sisters dissolved into a sepia background, I couldn't help but wonder if others would see her beauty or only see the beard? What would it have been like to be her? What was her story?

Iell will tell me, I thought. But, for the life of me, no matter how clearly I could see her, Iell would not speak.

So, hoping for inspiration, I hit the Internet looking for juicy tidbits about the circus and bearded women. There was Julia Pastrana, billed as Monkey Girl at the turn of the twentieth century, and the Baroness Sidonia de Barcsy, a member of the Hungarian aristocracy who gave birth to a dwarf, then promptly grew a full beard. Then I came across the saucy Annie Jones, who started out as the Bearded Girl, and the elegant Mme. Clofullia, the Bearded Lady of Geneva, both of whom worked for P.T. Barnum in the mid-nineteenth century. This was well before Barnum became the circus impresario I'd expected to find, and I was thrilled to discover that he was the world's first advertising man and all but invented public hype. Best yet, his showplace was the American Museum in New York City, an audacious place full of curios and theatrical events, and destined to burn to the ground that very year. Perfect.

Pictures of the freaks from his Museum gave me all I needed for characters. Fat women, giants, midgets, albinos, anyone not of the norm. But it was a picture of one of his resident skinny men, Isaac Sprague, that really started things. Billed as the Living Skeleton, Sprague soon morphed into the character Bartholomew Fortuno, who, once he was renamed, proved to be so proud and distinctive, it became evident who my narrator would be. How interesting to find out that he loved his emaciated body and saw it as a gift to mankind. What better way to ensure these Prodigies would be seen as real people?

What I didn't expect was that it would end up to be Fortuno's story, and that through him, more questions would arise. What was gift and what was providence? How are we made? How much can perception mold our sense of self? What does mommy really have to do with it all?

Once I realized that Fortuno found Iell beautiful not despite her beard, but because of it, the story came alive. To live in his world had its own hierarchy. Difference equated to value. What made one separate instilled worth. But beyond that, his life was the same as anyone's lives, buttressed by ego, flattened by illness, buffeted about by love and envy, just like the rest of us. Fortuno's story is about bodies, to be sure. Strange, unique, uncommon bodies that were an art form for him. But heart still ruled, and the rules of his society still applied.

And truth, no matter who you are, is still truth.

Ellen Bryson's novel The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is available now from Picador.

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