Cross-dressing circus performer turned novelist

Posted on 29th March 2017 by simonbeattie

One of the (almost daily) joys of working with old books is discovering something you never knew before.  With this book, a novel published in Berlin, 1862–3, it was a new author: Emil Mario Vacano.  Often cited in histories of gay writing, Vacano (1840–1892) is certainly ‘one of the strangest literary figures of the nineteenth century’ (Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie): a cross-dressing circus performer from Moravia who specialised in high-wire acts and feats of horsemanship before devoting himself to writing in 1861.  His circus life provided the meat for many of his early novels, such as Moderne Vagabunden, the fictitious autobiography of Speranza Orbeliani, born in Valparaiso to a German acrobat couple but now touring America himself with the circus.

As stated on the cover, the inspiration for the book came from the 1852 novel Die Vagabunden by the popular writer Karl von Holtei (1798–1880).  Critics at the time, however, accused Vacano of plagiarising an even earlier work, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1845).

The attractive lithographed cover illustration depicts various characters in the book, including Vacano’s own alter ego, ‘Miss Ella’, balancing en pointe on the back of a horse.

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