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.
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‘Now, sir, I shall let you into a great secret, for your eyes alone and not for publication, because I’ve taken a liking to your face, sir.’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!’
‘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