At an unspecified date in Victorian London, Alice Peasbody is born without a nose. She is of course teased mercilessly for her disfigurement. Other children call her ‘Pancake-face’ and wave smelly objects in her face. However, somewhat to the reader’s surprise given the period in which the book is set, Alice is allowed to attend school.
Alice together with her parents visits a circus. Unseen in the dark, Alice is content. When the lights go on, the audience spot Alice and laugh. A clown who is wearing a false nose tells Alice she also needs a false nose. Her parents act on the clown’s advice and have their daughter fitted with a prosthetic nose. The question now is how the world will cope with a girl with a false nose, and how will Alice cope with the world? Without a circle of friends, Alice becomes a voracious reader. As her reading advances, she realises that the stories on offer feature no characters with impairments like hers. More broadly she realises that conventional literature ignores the majority of people in Victorian England who live like herself in the shadow of physical or economic disadvantage. She finds her social circle in the company of have-nots.
Alice’s story is significant because it reveals someone with a serious and highly visible impairment fighting a determined battle to be accepted and have a life. Gary Blythe’s illustrations tread a delicate and candid line, depicting Alice’s impairment accurately without becoming sensational. The double page spread of Alice and the clown following page 13 is a genuine work of art.
From our privileged modern vantage point, we look with disdain at the cruelty of the Victorian era. But as we read Byng we are constantly reminded that some of the same prejudices that disfigured Victorian society still afflict our times.