Considering how long it took for women bodybuilders to gain acceptance in their field, the idea that there have been professional strongwomen around since at least the Victorian era is quite something. Unfortunately for women like Vulcana, the statuesque goddess from Wales, this fact remains an obscure one, though Rebecca F. John’s eponymous biography will hopefully elevate her profile.
Before Vulcana was Vulcana, she was Kate Williams, an ambitious female weightlifter looked down on by a controlling father and judgemental, church-going community in 1890s Abergavenny. With ambition as great as her biceps, Kate moved to London and found a home in theatres and music halls as part of a double-act with fellow strong person William, aka Atlas, with whom she fell madly in love. Thus began an unconventional life between an unconventional couple: globetrotting, pageantry, passion, family and tragedy.
As anyone who visits her Wikipedia page will note, separating fact from fiction is difficult in Vulcana’s case. Did she really rescue a dog from a burning building, or help solve a murder investigation? How much is the real story of the smalltown girl literally too big to fit in, and how much is the legend of Vulcana, made mythic by the power of good, grassroots marketing?
None of this really matters when reading Johns’ fictionalised, highly romanticised account. Her research is clear and thorough, but with a life this large, fact needn’t get in the way of a good story – which Vulcana is. Offering a unique sideshow view of Victorian times full of warmth and verve, Johns’ book glides through its subject’s life in connected vignettes (even pausing between each ‘Act’ for theatrical ‘Intermissions’ to mirror Atlas and Vulcana’s stage life), while her lyrical prose is filled with the wonder and sensuality of a woman discovering both herself and the wider world around her. To see Vulcana in photos gives you an idea of her strength; to know her through this book puts a beating heart underneath all that.
Vulcana, Rebecca F. John (Honno)
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words HANNAH COLLINS
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