Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (review)

In Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter presents us with the story of Sophie Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’, the most famous aerialiste of her day, and what a dazzling, sprawling tale it is. The novel opens at the tail end of the nineteenth century, and the scene is Fevvers’ dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall, London. Here, in a setting littered with her dirty underwear, Fevvers entertains American journalist, Jack Walser, with the tale of her biography to date. There is an aura of mystery surrounding the mercurial Fevvers – here we have a creature who claims to be part woman, part bird, and her slogan adds to the mystique: ‘Is she fact or is she fiction?’ Walser is all set to gain the inside track on the aerialiste’s story, and if at all possible, to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Fevvers claims she was ‘hatched out of bloody great egg’ to the sound of Bow Bells, and the aerialiste paints a vivid picture of her backstory. We hear of Fevvers’ early years raised in a brothel, and how, aged thirteen, her wings burst through and she learns to fly. We follow the young Fevvers as poverty forces her to join Madame Schreck’s Museum of Women Monsters, where she is sold to the rather sinister Mr Rosencreutz.

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As Fevvers recounts her tale to Walser, she is aided by foster mother, Lizzie, and Carter whips up a quick pen-portrait of the aerialiste’s guardian in just a few lines:

Lizzie was a tiny, wizened, gnome-like apparition who might have been any age between thirty and fifty; snapping, black eyes, sallow skin, an incipient moustache on the upper lip and a close-cropped frizzle of tri-coloured hair – bright grey at the roots, stark grey in between, burnt with henna at the tips. (pg. 10, Vintage Books)

This first section of the novel (London) is a glorious piece of writing, full of incident and intrigue, and the artist recounts her story with considerable brio. Fevvers is a wonderfully earthy, bawdy individual – she swigs champagne, belches away and flirts with Walser as the hours of the night slip by:

She pulled a coil of hair out of her chignon and wrapped it round her finger, twisting it and biting it thoughtfully; then, suddenly, she whirled away from the mirror on her revolving stool and leaned confidentially towards Walser.

‘Now, sir, I shall let you into a great secret, for your eyes alone and not for publication, because I’ve taken a liking to your face, sir.’ At that, she batted her eyelids like a flirt, She lowered her voice to a whisper, so that Walser needs must lean forward in turn to hear her; her breath, flavoured with champagne, warmed his cheek,

‘I dye, sir!’

‘What?’

‘My feathers, sir! I dye them! Don’t think I bore such gaudy colours from puberty! I commenced to dye my feathers at the start of my public career on the trapeze, in order to simulate more perfectly the tropic bird. In my white girlhood and earliest years, I kept my natural colour. Which is a kind of blonde, only a little darker than the hair on my head, more the colour of that on my private ahem parts.

‘Now that’s my dreadful secret, Mr Walser, and to tell the whole truth and nothing but, the only deception which I practice on the public!’

To emphasise the point, she brought her empty glass down with such a bang on the dressing-table that the jars of fards and lotions jumped and rattled, expelling sharp gusts of cheap scent, and a cloud of powder rose up into the air from a jogged box, catching painfully in Walser’s throat so that he broke out coughing. Lizzie thumped his back. Fevvers disregarded these proceedings. (pg 24-5)

Towards the end of the novel’s London section, Fevvers joins Colonel Kearney’s circus, signing a six-figure deal to tour Russia and beyond. And Walser, who still senses something feral, almost dangerous about Fevvers (especially when he’s alone with this formidable creature) decides to go undercover and tag along as a clown.

As the action moves to St Petersburg (in part two), Carter introduces us to a variety of remarkable characters and anecdotes. We meet the inhabitants of Clown Alley, chimps, tigers and all manner of circus performers. As one might expect, there are thrills and spills aplenty, and Carter treats us to more of her lush, rich prose. In this scene, the Strong Man is caught in flagrante delicto with the Ape Man’s partner as a tiger escapes and pursues, Sybil, Colonel Kearney’s pet pig:

The tiger ran into the ring, hot on the scent of Sybil.

It came out of the corridor like orange quicksilver, or a rarer liquid metal, a quickgold. It did not so much run as flow, a questing sluice of brown and yellow, a hot molten death. It prowled and growled around the remains of the chimps’ classroom, snuffing up its immense, flaring nostrils the delicious air of freedom fragrant with the scent of meat on the hoof. How yellow its teeth were; the festering teeth of carnivores.

The Strong Man tore off the woman’s clinging arms, clutched his loincloth round his privates and made for the auditorium door. He was a fine specimen, in prime condition; he swung from tier to tier, past Walser struck like a pillar of salt, up and away. The exit banged to behind him. Walser heard the sound of the shooting of the bolts.

Now the only way out of the ring was that by which the tiger had entered it.

I am in a perfect death trap, thought Walser. (pg.129)

At the end of their stay in St Petersburg, an eventful final evening leaves the circus somewhat depleted as they depart for Japan – a journey that takes the troupe across Siberia by rail (forming part three of the story).

I love the first two sections of this energetic and humorous novel. Carter blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary, and even though the story becomes increasingly surreal, I was fully engaged right up to the end of events in St Petersburg. But then, just as I was anticipating a grand finale, partway through the final section the story veers off course deep into the realms of fantasy. During the troupe’s travels across the Siberian hinterland, Carter really lets rip with her imagination, but for me, this is where the narrative gets lost in the wilderness.

Despite my reservations about the Siberian section – Carter does pull it back, just – I would recommend Nights at the Circus for its sheer verve and imaginative scope. There are several references to gender and feminism threaded through the novel, too. The women in this novel tend to form the strongest, most supportive relationships with other females, whereas their encounters with men are often characterised by violence and/or abuse of some kind. As the story draws to a close and we approach the dawn of the 20th century, Fevvers foresees a future when ‘all the women will have wings the same as I’. Lizzie, however, believes the new era will be more complicated and predicts struggles on the horizon:

‘This old witch sees storms ahead, my girl. When I look to the future, I see through a glass, darkly.’ (pg. 339)

Reading Nights at the Circus is an intoxicating, heady and entertaining experience, and I’m sure it won’t be long before I return to Angela Carter.

Nights at the Circus is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy

26 thoughts on “Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (review)

  1. hastanton

    Thanks for reviewing this ….and sparking the interesting debate on Twitter.having read your review I am now reminded of what I didn’t like about AC ( it’s all just a little bit silly) and I’m happy to file it under 1980s !!!!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Loved the twitter debate about this author, Helen. It’s interesting to hear that my review reminded you of what you didn’t enjoy about Carter; I certainly got lost in the Siberian wildness!

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    I loved this book – my old edition is falling apart – but given Helen’s comment perhaps it falls into the Marmite category. Nice to see a review after all these years and that you found your way back to enjoying it after the Siberian diversion, Jacqui.

    Reply
  3. realthog

    Thanks for an excellent essay. I confess I’ve had this book on my shelves since the 1990s, if not even perhaps longer, and have never gotten around to reading it; I read one of Carter’s earlier novels, had mixed feelings about it, bought Nights at the Circus anyway . . . then bottled out a bit. I really must, thanks to your encouragement, steel myself to give it a try.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you. I’ve been putting this one off for a while, I must admit! I’d always thought of Carter as daunting, but the first two sections of Circus are quite accessible and more fun than I’d expected. And despite my reservations about the diversions in the final act, I admire Carter’s sheer brio and imagination. It’s definitely worth giving this book a shot, especially if you have a copy. She does divide opinion, though…

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I really, really want to read Angela Carter soon.

    I have heard a lot about this book and your commentary makes me want to read it more.

    Carter sounds like she is such an imaginative writer who has serious and thought provoking underlying themes in her work. This is right up my alley.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s good to hear – thank you, Brian. Imaginative is the right word, for sure; possibly an excess of imagination with several ideas swirling around in the final section of Circus, but you’ve got to admire Carter’s ambition. And yes, she does weave some thought-provoking themes into this book. I’d love to hear how you get on with Angela Carter if you do give her a try.

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    Enjoyed your review – I can see why you quoted so much as Carter is a real stylist – perhaps that’s why she divides opinion. Ashamed to say I hadn’t read any Carter until last year!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Grant. Yes, I wanted to give a feel for her style — or the style of Circus, at least — by way of the quotes. I’m also a latecomer to Carter; I’d felt quite daunted by the prospect of reading her, I must admit.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      This book certainly isn’t for everyone, Guy, and Carter does divide opinion. It’s good that you know it’s not for you – there’s nothing more disappointing than starting a book only to discover it’s not to your taste.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, very much so, Cleo. And for me, the symbols of feminism in the first two parts of the book feel more nuanced and compelling than those in the final section.

      Thank you!

      Reply
  6. Fleur in her World

    I was bedazzled by this book at a young age, and now you have me wanting to read it all over again. Angela Carter has her failing, but few can touch her when it comes to spirit and colour.

    Reply
  7. Cathy746books

    What a great review! I read it a few months ago and was completely dazzled. For me, the opening section was far superior to the rest of the book, but I still loved it.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Cathy! Yes, I recall you reviewing it, and I must go back and read your post again. The first section is quite something, isn’t it? I loved Fevvers’ earthiness and her intoxicating command over Walser.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    The fantastic can be tricky stuff. It needs to make sense on its own terms, or at least thematically (Winterson is very strong on that front). The risk otherwise is that anything can happen, in which case it doesn’t matter what does. Is that what went wrong in Siberia?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Good question, Max. Now I think about it, there is a distinct feminist theme to elements of the Siberian section — more specifically, women breaking free from the constraints of oppression — so yes, I guess it does make sense from that perspective. I just lost the plot somewhat and found myself checking out of this part – too many ideas swirling about, perhaps? And stylistically, the Siberian section feels quite different to the first two, almost as though it’s a different book and this jarred with me. I love the way David Mitchell handles these switches of style and tone (and elements of fantasy) in Cloud Atlas, though – your question got me thinking about other examples.

      I still need to read Winterson….Soon. She’s been sitting on my shelf for way too long.

      Reply
  9. Seamus Duggan

    I liked this and Wise Children but it’s a long time since I read them. I’ve got The Bloody Chamber recently and may dip into that just to see if Carter is a s good as I remember. I enjoyed the quotes in your review..

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you. I’m keen to try some of Carter’s short stories, and others have recommended The Bloody Chamber. I’m a relative latecomer to Carter and wonder how I would have reacted to her books had I read them in my early years.

      Reply
  10. Bellezza

    How interesting that you say you “got lost” (not your words) after the first two parts. I didn’t make it even that far, although I was entranced by Fevvers initially. It just became to bizarre, and pointless, for me. Murakami can be bizarre, but I find he always has something for me to hang on too underneath the fantastical world(s).

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Haha! I was totally with it for the first two parts, although the opening section is the strongest. I can see why you were entranced by Fevvers initially as she puts on quite a performance for Walser, doesn’t she? The story is pretty bizarre in places, although Max’s question prompted me to think whether it makes sense thematically and in a way it does.

      I need to read more Murakami, and he’d make a good comparison with Carter – thanks for the reminder! I hope your copy of his new one arrives soon…

      Reply
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