7 Novels About the Theatre Set in Victorian London

Lianne Dillsworth, author of "Theatre of Marvels," recommends books that peek behind the velvet curtain

Royal Circus, designed and etched by Thomas Rowlandson
London Royal Circus, designed and etched by Thomas Rowlandson. May 1, 1809

The theatre is a perennially popular setting for novelists and no wonder. The tawdry glamour and sense of spectacle make it a rich gift for any author, but it’s what happens behind the scenes that I find the most interesting. This is particularly true for those novels set on the 19th-century London stage or in the circus ring, where the gap between perception and reality is so acute. London was, and is, a city of contrasts and nowhere epitomizes this better than the theatre, one of the few public spaces where social classes could mix and risqué displays that fly in the face of today’s notions of Victorian decorum were encouraged. 

My debut novel Theatre of Marvels is set in 1848 and opens in a variety theatre on the Strand in London’s West End. At that time, so-called “freak shows” were at the height of their popularity and the Victorian fascination with difference gives my mixed-race protagonist Zillah her big break. Though she was born and raised in London, Zillah portrays the role of an African warrior on stage. Each night, she fools the watching crowd with her performance and they find it fascinating and titillating in equal measure, but when another act—a vulnerable woman—goes missing in mysterious circumstances, Zillah must risk everything in order to find her.

While many theatre-set novels focus on the acts on stage, it can be helpful to think of the audience as a character in and of itself. In some ways they are a stand in for we readers, giving us a chance to reflect on our own response to the show and how it affects us. In this list of books set on the 19th-century London stage, we get the chance to peep behind the curtain. 

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Nan King is music hall star Kitty Butler’s number one fan. When they are introduced, she follows her to London and soon becomes part of Kitty’s daring act, as a male impersonator. Through her relationship with Kitty, Nan gets the chance to explore her sexuality. This novel, Sarah Waters’ debut, was also made into a BBC TV series. Both are unmissable.   

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

In this alternate version of Victorian London, the circus appears only between sunset and sunrise. Magical and dreamy with beautiful descriptions, this novel is part fantasy, part romance; and it’s famous for the author having created a first draft during National Novel Writing month, which takes place every November. 

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

While Phoebe Turner watches her aunt perform on stage, her mother is part of a campaign to close down all the theaters in London. This novel, filled with secrets and dark truths, features Wilton’s Music Hall which provided entertainment for East London’s working classes in the 1850s and is still open today. 

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Two illusionists battle for pre-eminence on the Victorian music hall stage, taking more and more risks as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. This novel is beautifully atmospheric and has as much to say about the class system as it does about magic. 

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal

This second novel from the author of best-seller The Doll Factory is set in 1866, not long after the Crimean War. Nell’s birthmarks pique the interest of showman Jasper Jupiter who makes her a star in his traveling show. For the first time in her life Nell is loved and celebrated, but will there be a price to pay?  

The Trial of Elizabeth Cree by Peter Ackroyd

This slim gothic novel features music hall star Dan Leno who finds himself implicated in a series of murders attributed to the fearsome “Limehouse Golem.” Published as Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem in the U.K., this is a detective story that glories in its London setting with guest appearances from Karl Marx and writer George Gissing. In 2016, a film version was released starring Bill Nighy.  

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux 

This novel is actually set in Paris, but I’ve included it as a wildcard because the musical adaptation is synonymous with London’s West End. The Phantom takes talented singer Christine as his protégé, but when she falls in love with a handsome viscount, the Phantom is consumed by jealousy. 

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