Nights at the Circus
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|Cover artist||Barbara Kaiser|
|Publisher||Chatto & Windus|
|4 March 1984|
|LC Class||PR6053.A73 N5 1986|
Nights at the Circus is a novel by British writer Angela Carter, first published in 1984 and the winner of the 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The novel focuses on the life and exploits of Sophie Fevvers, a woman who is – or so she would have people believe – a Cockney virgin, hatched from an egg laid by unknown parents and ready to develop fully fledged wings. At the time of the story, she has become a celebrated aerialiste, and she captivates the young journalist Jack Walser, who runs away with the circus and falls into a world that his journalistic exploits had not prepared him to encounter.
Nights at the Circus incorporates multiple categories of fiction, including postmodernism, magical realism, and postfeminism. As in her previous works, Carter plays with many literary aspects and dissects the traditional fairy tale structure.
Nights at the Circus begins with American journalist Jack Walser interviewing Sophie Fevvers in her London dressing room, following her performance in the circus which employs her. Fevvers claims to have been left as a baby in a basket on the doorstep of a brothel. Until she reached puberty she appeared to be an ordinary child, with the exception of a raised lump on each shoulder; as she begins menstruating, however, she also sprouted complete wings. As a child, she posed as a living statue of Cupid in the reception room of the brothel, but as an adolescent, she is now transformed into the image of the "Winged Victory" holding a sword belonging to Ma Nelson, the madam of the brothel. This stage of Fevvers' life comes to an abrupt end when Ma Nelson slips in the street and falls into the path of a carriage. The house and its contents are inherited by her pious brother who plans to convert it to a house for fallen women, but Ma Nelson's employees burn the place down and go their separate ways.
Fevvers continues her story, although doubt is cast on the veracity of her narrative voice throughout. She and Lizzie, she tells Walser, next move in with Lizzie's sister and help run the family ice cream parlour. However, when the family falls on hard times Fevvers accepts an invitation from the fearsome Madame Schreck. This lady puts Fevvers on display in her exclusive combination of freak show and brothel, along with several other women with unique appearances. After some time Madame Schreck sells Fevvers to a customer, "Christian Rosencreutz", who wishes to sacrifice a winged 'virgo intacta' in order to procure his own immortality. Fevvers narrowly escapes and returns to Lizzie's sister's home. Soon after their reunion, she joins Colonel Kearney's circus as an aerialiste and achieves enormous fame. The London section concludes with Walser telling his chief at the London office that he is going to follow Fevvers, joining the circus on its grand imperial tour.
The Petersburg section begins as Walser, living in Clown Alley, types up his first impressions of the city. The reader learns that Walser approached Colonel Kearney who, taking advice from his fortune telling pig Sybil, offered him a position as a clown in the circus. The reader, and Walser, are introduced to the other members of the circus and Walser saves Mignon from being eaten by a tigress.
In the next scene the chief clown Buffo and his troupe invoke chaos at their dinner table. Walser ducks out of the meleé only to find Mignon waiting outside for him, as she has nowhere else to go after her husband and lover have both abandoned her. Not sure what to do with the abandoned woman, he takes her to Fevvers's hotel room. Fevvers assumes that Walser is sleeping with Mignon but, though jealous, takes care of the girl. On recognising the beauty of Mignon's singing voice Fevvers introduces her to the Princess of Abyssinia. The Princess, a silent tiger tamer, incorporates Mignon into her act with the dancing cats and Walser is recruited as partner to the redundant tigress. During rehearsals, the acrobatic Charivari family tries to kill Fevvers and the Colonel reluctantly kicks them out of the circus. Buffo the Great loses his mind during that night's performance and tries to kill Walser. The Princess has to shoot one of her tigresses when she becomes jealous of Mignon for dancing with her tiger mate during the tiger waltz. After her performance, Fevvers goes to a date at a mansion belonging to the Grand Duke. Here, she almost falls victim to his amorous advances but narrowly escapes into a Fabergé egg, reaching the circus train as it is about to pull out of the station. This last scene is deliberately bewildering, developing the sense of doubt cast upon the reader in Fevvers' early narrative and laying the foundations for the fantastic occurrences of the final section.
The Siberian section opens with the entire circus crossing the continent to Asia. The train is attacked by a band of runaway outlaws who think that Fevvers can help them make contact with the Tsar, who will then allow them to return home to their villages. As the train is now destroyed, the entire circus, other than Walser, is marched to the convicts' encampment; Walser is rescued by a group of escaped murderesses and their former guards, who have become their lovers and helped them to escape. As Walser has amnesia, the band of women leaves him for an approaching rescue party but he flees into the woods before they reach him and is taken under the wing of a village shaman.
Fevvers and the rest of the party are being held captive by the convicts. Fevvers tells the convict leader that she cannot help them as everything that they have heard about her is a lie. Depressed, the convicts sink into drunken mourning. Lizzie convinces the clowns to put on a show for the convicts, during which a blizzard comes, blowing the clowns and the convicts away with it into the night. The remnants of the circus begin to walk in the direction in which they hope civilization lies. They come across a run-down music school and take shelter with its owner, the Maestro. A brief encounter with Walser, now thoroughly part of the shaman's village, convinces Fevvers and Lizzie to leave the safety of the Maestro's school to search for Walser. Colonel Kearney leaves the group to continue his quest for civilization so as to build another, and more successful, circus. Mignon, the Princess and Samson remain with the Maestro at his music school. Fevvers finds Walser and the story ends with them together at the moment that the new century dawns and Fevvers' victorious cry "to think I really fooled you".
Nights at the Circus spans Europe and Asia as it carries the reader along with Colonel Kearney's circus on its Grand Imperial Tour. The characters begin in London and move on to Petersburg and then Siberia where they find themselves stranded for the remainder of the novel. While in London, the characters are primarily in Fevvers's dressing room above the Alhambra Music Hall but the action that takes place in Fevvers's autobiography spans across much of London and its environs. In Petersburg, the action takes place in three key locations: Clown Alley, Fevvers's hotel room, and the circus itself. The final section begins with the entire circus on a train traversing the Siberian wilderness separating Europe and Asia, but the chief action and culmination of the story takes place in the cold and wintry forests of Transbaikalia.
- Fevvers, christened Sophie – the self-defined winged aerialiste who acts as the focal point for the circus' success. She is six feet two inches tall, curvaceous, peroxide blonde, and the largest personality within the story
- Jack Walser – a California native that stowed away on a departing ship at a young age. He became a journalist and interviewed Fevvers before running away with the circus to try to discover the truth of her story.
- Lizzie – Fevvers' adoptive mother, a former prostitute, and political activist/revolutionary who may have occult powers
- Ma Nelson – the well-loved proprietor of the bordello where Fevvers grew up
- Madame Schreck – The owner of a female freak show that also functioned as a whorehouse of sorts.
- Toussaint – The male servant of Madame Schreck who was born without a mouth
- Christian Rosencreutz – a rich religious maniac who believes Fevvers is a fallen angel and attempts to sacrifice her
- Colonel Kearney – The extravagant capitalist and owner of the circus
- Little Ivan – the son of Olga Alexandrovna; attempts to run away with the circus but is prevented from doing so by Walser
- Sybil – Colonel Kearney's pet pig, intelligent and clairvoyant, whom he unquestioningly relies on to make nearly all of his business decisions
- Princess of Abyssinia – The tiger tamer and piano player who falls in love with Mignon
- Monsieur Lamarck – Mignon’s abusive alcoholic husband and the monkey trainer of the circus.
- Mignon – initially a circus hanger-on who transmutes into a beautiful singer who dances the waltz with tigers and falls in love with the Princess
- Samson – The strong man of the circus and Mignon's lover before she falls in love with the Princess
- The Professor – the head monkey who tricks Colonel Kearney into allowing the chimps to leave the circus
- Buffo the Great – The leader of the clowns
- The Charivaris – A family of trapeze artists and tightrope walkers who try to kill Fevvers out of jealousy and from then on carry a curse, doomed to never perform well again
- The Grand Duke – A member of the Russian aristocracy who unsettles and scares Fevvers with automata and insinuation to the point where she almost loses control of her own narrative
- Countess P. – a cruel and rich woman who kills her husband, gets away with it, but feels bad about the crime nonetheless. She builds a panopticon in Transbaikalia and tries to reform other murderesses but only succeeds in turning both the prisoners and the guards against her
- Olga Alexandrovna – a prisoner of the panopticon and the first to instigate contact with one of the guards. She is also the mother of little Ivan and finds Walser after the train wreck
- The Shaman – the spiritual leader of the village who takes Walser under his wing when he suffers from amnesia
- The Maestro – The master of a music school in Transbaikalia that has no students. He eventually provides shelter for what is left of the circus after they escape from the convict camp
The concept of time is hazy throughout this novel, beginning when Walser finds himself transfixed by Fevvers' narrative and hears the clock striking midnight three times within one night.
For the first time that night, Walser was seriously discomposed.
'Hey, there! didn't that clock strike midnight just a while ago, after the night watchman came around?'
'Did it sir? How could it have, sir? Oh, dear, no, sir!" [pg. 42]
Her voice. It was as if Walser had become a prisoner of her voice, her cavernous, sombre voice, a voice made for shouting about the tempest, her voice of a celestial fishwife. [pg. 43]
This blurred sense of time represents the difference between narrative time and story time. Fevvers' hold on Walser reveals the true power of narrative and its influence on an audience. Initially, it is through her narrative that Fevvers wields power over Walser. Carter emphasizes that the women in the novel are able to step outside of conventional nineteenth century gender roles, but only through the use of enchantment. Indeed, as Fevvers and Lizzie reveal in the Envoi, they had previously tricked Walser and purposefully played with his perception of time using Ma Nelson's clock. [pg. 292] During their narratives, they support an illusion of time coming to a standstill but only retain control in this magical or illusory sense.
Nights at the Circus can be categorized as a postmodern novel for its complexity of language and the inclusion of magical elements. The story itself is as intricate as the structure of the novel. The mystery surrounding Fevvers and the reality or otherwise of her wings drives the story and is reminiscent of many ambiguous postmodern pieces. The novel's turn-of-the-century setting is fitting, as modernism is generally acknowledged as encompassing the literature, music, arts and movements that occurred before 1914. As the characters make the transition into a new century, they begin to embrace new ideas and ways of life. This transition towards the new is reflected in every aspect of the novel, as the story itself is a new and unique concept. Walser's initial skepticism regarding Fevvers' wings is reflective of postmodern thought. The women in the novel embody postmodern thought in their questioning of patriarchal social norms.
Despite Angela Carter's reputation for feminist rhetoric, many feminists remain disappointed with this novel, arguing that it in fact promotes post-feminism. Many argue that the seemingly crude language used to describe women throughout the novel is anti-feminist.
My how her bodice strains! You'd think her tits were going to pop right out. What a sensation that would cause... [pg. 17]
The fact that women are depicted as strong, forward thinkers that can remain outside of restrictive gender roles is reflective of post-feminist thought, in which women are not seen as victims and traditional feminism is no longer relevant within a modern society. This claim is backed by the fact that Carter's novel was penned and published during the 1980s, when post-feminism was really beginning to emerge.
The argument for feminism may equally be justified through elements of the novel. Fevvers' wings might be a symbol of liberation, enabling her to escape an oppressive patriarchal society and progress into a twentieth century of feminist freedom. The women in the novel may ultimately represent suffragists and the entire Women's suffrage movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fevvers, Lizzie and the rest of the female characters represent the idea of the New Woman and a new way of thinking entirely. Even the innocent and vulnerable Mignon is able to escape her abusive husband and past life of oppression for an empowering existence outside of social norms.
Like many of Carter's earlier works, Nights at the Circus contains elements of magical realism. In this novel, Carter combines the mythical with the realistic, creating a playful, whirlwind adventure for the reader that is often as chaotic and lively as a real circus. In adding this magical, playful element to the novel, Carter is able to infuse the story with underlying political and social messages. The whimsy in her novel is a tool that enables Carter to address pertinent social issues such as patriarchy and individual rights. Furthermore, in the two main characters, Fevvers and Walser, she illustrates the contrast between the magical and the believable. Fevvers' status as half swan and half woman remains questionable and surreal while Walser's role as the pragmatic journalist looking for the facts grounds the story in reality. Through magical realism, Carter is able to address everyday concerns through an engaging and playful form.
Order versus chaos
Though the syntax in this novel is often as intricate and bustling as a circus itself, the novel itself is carefully structured. The story alternates back and forth from order to chaos, often when the narrative voice switches between Fevvers and Walser. While Fevvers remains hypnotizing in her narrative, she is also disorganized and bounces back and forth in time during her tales. Walser, on the other hand, is pragmatic and grounds the reader in reality as he searches for the facts. Fevvers represents the chaotic element of life while Walser represents the orderly. Together, they are an embodiment of our world and how order and chaos cannot exist without the other as a balancing force. Fevvers represents the indulgences that Walser will never allow himself to have and similarly, he is the force that grounds Fevvers, who is constantly trying to escape reality and the roles and rules of her society.
This novel itself is a proponent for individualism, as it is a fantastically inventive fusion of various genres. Many of the characters defy the conventional gender and social roles of their century and remain true to their individual selves. The women in the novel do not stick to their oppressive nineteenth century gender roles nor do the animals stick to their standard roles. Carter puts a magical twist on most aspects of her book, making it difficult for any object or person to remain conventional. Just as Mignon eventually discovers her strengths and escapes her abusive past, Walser finds himself through his journey in examining the phenomenon that is the aerialiste. Additionally, Fevvers' image as half swan and half human is ambiguous throughout the novel and Walser's quest for the truth behind her famous wings further emphasizes the value of true identity and self-reliance over facades and the dependence upon any external forces. Lizzie and the other women in the brothel support the concept of individualism, as they remain self-reliant and look down upon marriage as a social impediment.
Appearance versus reality
The idea of appearance versus reality is found throughout the whole story. The truth about Fevvers' wings is the crux of this concept in the novel, although further doubts are raised by Fevvers' final celebratory cry. The reader is left questioning whether the real deception relates to Fevvers' wings or to her much-lauded virginity. Though Fevvers appears human, she claims to in fact carry the wings of her avian ancestors. Similarly, though the women in the brothel work as prostitutes, they are simultaneously self-sufficient, forward thinking women whom Lizzie compares to suffragists. Nothing is as it seems in this novel, as even the animals are endowed with magical features and are taken out of their conventional boxes. Through these magical elements, Carter is able to test the reader's perception of reality and challenges all to question their surroundings.
Class and wealth
The issue of social class is also apparent in Nights at the Circus. Fevvers, Lizzie and even Walser are in a no man's land of celebrity and performance, outside traditional class structures, and Fevvers' recent wealth is rendered tawdry through its ostentation. The remaining characters, such as the prostitutes and circus performers, have no such pretensions and firmly inhabit a lower tier of society. Carter draws particular attention to the class dynamics in Chapter Five of Book Two where she describes the poor living conditions of the clowns in the circus. It is apparent that only wealth wields much power, because while Fevvers has many opportunities in London, once she is stranded in Siberia she loses all access to power and not even her previous celebrity can help her. Similarly, Walser loses his social power when he becomes a clown in the travelling circus.
Plot structure, form, and perspective
Nights at the Circus utilizes several different types of narrative techniques throughout its three very different parts.
The story opens with a third person narrative set in 1899 London. However, this narrator is biased and deceives the reader. The narrator has an omniscient perspective towards Walser but, as regards Fevvers and Lizzie, the narrator can only give hard facts that could have been picked up from any newspaper at the time. The narration can more or less, though third person, be seen as presenting only Walser's perspective. However, the reader is also given a very biased autobiography from Fevvers in a first person past narrative using dialogue. Here, the London section uses the form of the two narratives to confuse the reader over who the true narrator is. Even though it is obvious that the main narrator is not Fevvers, she nonetheless controls the pace and direction of the entire section; she steals the power of narration from the narrator and uses it to focus on herself while the narrator is left to merely comment on the information she presents. This formal trick is used to present Fevvers' ability to dominate an audience and hold the center of attention.
The narration of the Petersburg section is very similar to the narration of the London section in that is a third person narrative that is omniscient towards Walser. However, in this section the characters of the circus are introduced as well. Whereas in the London section, all past information is constructed by Fevvers and is contained within her story, in Petersburg the reader is given information about the characters from the actual narrator. Thus, the narration is used to show that even though Fevvers is present throughout the Petersburg section, she is not the focus. Rather, the narrator concentrates on the circus and the characters that make it up.
The exact style of narration in Petersburg is also used in Siberia with one exception: the first person perspective of Fevvers is also presented. Fevvers' internal dialogue is used to remove much, though not all, of the mystique surrounding her. Fevvers' perspective not only reveals her inner, human confusions, but shifts the readers focus from what she says to what she thinks. Still, by presenting only Fevvers' first person perspective, a unique treatment is applied to her that no other character receives, thereby distinguishing her in a similar manner to how her wings set her apart from the rest of the cast.
There are numerous biblical references throughout the novel. In one such instance, Carter references the fallen angel, Lucifer in describing Fevvers' first attempt at flight.
“Like Lucifer, I fell. Down, down, down I tumbled being with a bump on the Persian rug below me…” [pg. 30]
The reference to Lucifer, often described as the embodiment of evil in Christian texts, suggests that Fevvers herself is a fallen angel, rebelliously resisting the patriarchal doctrine of the nineteenth century. Like Lucifer who led the revolution against God during "The War of the Heavens", Fevvers may serve as a symbol for women’s suffrage and the fight for women’s rights in general.
“Azrael, Azrail, Ashriel, Azriel, Azarail, Gabriel; dark angel of many names. Welcome to me, from your home in the third heaven. See, I welcome you with roses no less paradoxically vernal that your presence, who like Perseophone, comes from the Land of the Dead to herald new life!” [pg. 75]
“Flora; Azrael; Venus Pandemos! These are but a few of the many names with which I might honour my goddess…” [pg. 77]
To Rosencreutz, Fevvers is far beyond any being he has ever come across. He is amazed by her existence, as he considers her neither woman nor bird. To him, she is no longer an entity, but rather a showpiece to be revealed. Rosencreutz believes Fevvers to be the fountain of youth and consequently wishes to offer her as sacrifice. His treatment of Fevvers reflects his overall view of women as only having value for their essence and aesthetics rather than their actual being.
Allusions to people
“She was prepared to make certain exceptions for exigent French dwarves”
refers to the painter Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted posters of the Parisian night life and exotic performers, and is mentioned as one of the hordes of Parisian admirers.
Allusions to other works
Büchner's Woyzeck: The story of Mignon's poor father killing her mother because she slept around with soldiers is a reference to Büchner's play Woyzeck which contemplated what it meant to be human and the plight of the lowest classes of society.
Hesse's Demian: Fevvers continually refers to Walser's need to break out of his shell and into self-realization and individuality. This image is borrowed from Hesse's novel Demian which presents the conflict between good and evil and its relationship to the individual. In addition, Hesse draws from the philosophies of Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung to present a theory of the subjectivism contained within the individual and man's ability to become human by breaking out of the shell that is the limitations forced upon him by society.
Shakespeare: many references are made to scenes, interactions, or characters from various plays. Twelfth Night's Malvolio and Macbeth's Lady Macbeth are both presented as parallels to characters within the novel, referencing either their modes of dress or attitude.
“Because, he implied [...]he himself, once, long ago, in a kingdom by the sea... Her highborn kinsmen arrived, in due course, and took her away [...]” [pg. 160]
“Call him Ishmael; but Ishmael with an expense account, and, besides, a thatch of unruly flaxen hair, a ruddy, pleasant, square-jawed face and eyes the cool grey of skepticism.” [pg. 10]
This comparison to both the biblical Ishmael and Melville's main character presents Walser as an outsider travelling the Earth. Additionally, like Melville's renowned narrator, Walser considers himself the sole narrator, hoping to expose Fevvers for the fake that he initially believes her to be. In a further parallel, Walser soon withdraws into the background and becomes a mere commentator as Fevvers and Lizzie take the reins as the narrators of their own mesmerizing tale.
Lewis Carroll: Many of the remarkable occurrences and exaggerated or absurd characters reflect Carroll's Alice books (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass), and the journey of the Hunting of the Snark. Walser himself quotes Alice after realizing that his watch stopped precisely at midnight: "Curiouser and curiouser"
Fairy Tales: Traditional fairy tales are invoked throughout the story, most of which only briefly resemble their original context. Carter often inverts the sex of the characters typically changing the protagonist to a female. For example, Fevvers often acts as Walser's Prince Charming, rescuing him from several situations where he was hopeless without her.
The turn-of-the-century setting dictates much of the novel's content and its personas. The female characters, in particular, encompass a transition between one century and the next and from one time period's ideals to another's. Specifically, Lizzie's character is not only a protector of the aerialiste, Fevvers, but of women's rights. She considers marriage a personal and social impediment and takes it upon herself to ensure that Fevvers does not fall into the trappings of a patriarchal society. Lizzie herself is a symbol of the nineteenth century's suffrage movement. The women of Ma Nelson's brothel similarly defy the female mold of previous centuries as Lizzie refers to them as suffragists in Chapter Two of Book One. The duality of prostitutes and suffragists again depicts the females as novel, forward-thinking women.
Jack Walser's character also encompasses nineteenth-century thought in his pragmatic approach to life, while the many members of the circus represent a transition towards a new century with different ideals as they struggle to find themselves, leaving their dark circus pasts behind.
Literary significance and reception
Though it was one of the later books of her career, Nights at the Circus was the first to bring Angela Carter widespread acclaim, winning that year's James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Carter's penultimate novel was met with mixed reviews, some uncomfortable with the underlying politically driven content, while others praised it for its playfulness and originality. Many critics viewed Fevvers as a winged version of the New Woman, able to escape the trappings of a patriarchal nineteenth century and move on into the twentieth century of feminist liberation. However, some feminists were disappointed with the novel, criticizing it for upholding a post-feminist stance. Since Angela Carter's death in 1992, both the novel and her reputation have reached even greater levels of popularity. Since then, the novel has made its way onto many academic syllabi and was adapted for the stage by Tom Morris and Emma Rice in 2006.
Nights at the Circus inspired British musician Bishi's first album, which has the same title.
Awards and nominations
- 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction
- 2012 Best of the James Tait Black, winner
- Page at www.isfdb.org
"100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. 5 November 2019. Retrieved 10 November 2019.
The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
- Russell Leadbetter (21 October 2012). "Book prize names six of the best in search for winner". Herald Scotland. Retrieved 21 October 2012.
- "Authors in running for 'best of best' James Tait Black award". BBC News. 21 October 2012. Retrieved 21 October 2012.
- Alison Flood (6 December 2012). "Angela Carter named best ever winner of James Tait Black award". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 December 2012.