About thirty years after the events of Caraline Brown’s The Candlelit Menagerie, the London Zoo would be founded as one of the first scientific zoological parks. As I learned in Isobel Charman’s The Zoo, animals were frequently brought to England for centuries before zoos. The royal and the wealthy would import exotic animals to live in cages or small enclosures on their property, to show off to other royals and rich people. Life for the animals was brutal and short. No one knew—or cared to learn—how to care for these animals. Not only were their accommodations inadequate, they were poorly fed and veterinary (and human) medicine were still in a highly experimental phase. The Candlelit Menagerie takes place in those early days. This is a hard read for animal lovers, but I found it fascinating to watch a woman’s romp through the world of animal menageries and emporia at the end of the eighteenth century.
Lillian is out of place among her fellow humans. She’s far too tall for a woman, so she’s always drawing stares. She also feels a lot more comfortable in breeches and shorn hair. When we meet her, Lillian is working as a ladies’ maid to a madam who took pity on the tall gawk. A small piece of paper with an advertisement for Grady’s Emporium—and the fact that she can hear Grady’s lion every morning—change Lillian’s life forever. Lillian visits on her afternoon off and never goes back to her old life. Lillian has an amazing ability to calm and commune with animals. That lion she heard roaring every morning, in fact, becomes one of her greatest animal friends.
The Candlelit Menagerie takes place over a jam-packed eighteen months. The pacing is picaresque-level, but the plot beats are tragic as often as they are happy or comic. Through it all, I was thankful that Lillian is our protagonist. Her employer, Grady, is always looking to maximize profits by acquiring new attractions…but rarely making sure that there’s enough room for the new animals. Lillian’s husband, John, was another animal lover until overexposure to scalpel-loving surgeons turn him into an eager devotee of new medicine. (This sounds like a good idea but this is decades before anesthetic and antisepsis.)
The end of The Candlelit Menagerie, although tragic, left me feeling hopeful for the future of animal rights and zoos. It felt strange to feel that hope when I knew that it would be a long time before things would get better for the menagerie animals. Lillian’s stubborn insistence that her charges be taken care of to the best of their abilities—and the fact that she and some of those charges are able to relocate to an early zoological park—are a great tonic to the book’s primary tone of gritty hustle.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.