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Book Review – Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter – 4 1/2 Stars


Nights at the Circus book cover

I have spent many pleasant hours over the past week enthralled by Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus (published in 1984). Carter created some very interesting characters with complex and fallible personalities. Much of the story is fantastical and the unique skill in Carter’s writing lies in making the fantastical believable. It’s refreshing to read a European approach to magic realism that is different to the Latin American approach that is becoming a bit overused. Nights at the Circus was named in 2012 the best ever winner of Britain’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black award (established in 1919 and awarded each year to the best novel and best biography). I’ve linked to several good reviews of the book that cover the central themes of the book so rather than go over the same territory I’ve written my own thoughts on the book. This synopsis from the Guardian provides a good summary:

Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake? Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

The book starts in the dressing room of the most famous aerialiste of her day: Sophie Fevvers. We join Fevvers as she relates her life story to a handsome, young but world-weary journalist Jack Walser. Fevvers is the ‘Cockney Venus’. She is literally and figuratively larger than life, standing over 6 feet tall with exceedingly long hair, long eyelashes, large blue eyes and … huge wings. By her own account she was:

Hatched out of a bloody great egg

and her slogan is ‘Is she fact or is she fiction?’. Fevvers was found and adopted as a baby by a Sicilian prostitute (Lizzie). Fevvers was raised in a brothel in a poor part of London, hence the Cockney pronunciation of Feathers. After the feminist socialism ideal of the brothel disbanded Fevvers lived in destitution with Lizzie’s family before being lured into a sexual fetish dungeon where she worked essentially as a slave, before a narrow escape from a madman and then to international stardom and wealth as an aerialist in a circus.

As Fevvers relates her story to Walser, Lizzie uses some ‘everyday’ magic to stop time and it is perpetually midnight. Fevvers is a genuinely fascinating and 100% female protagonist, her dressing room is a mess of silk stockings, underwear, costumes and redolent of sweat, cosmetics and perfume. Fevvers’ tale is relentlessly intriguing. Walser is enthralled and falls in love with Fevvers and so did I. In the later section we realise that Fevvers the seductress and performer who was in total control of the situation during the interview had fallen in lust with Walser in return. I found the account of Fevvers life story that occupies the first 1/3 of the book so intense that I was disappointed when it ended yet mystified that the book could keep on going because it felt like nothing could be left to say.

After the retelling ends, the story moves entirely into the present and we follow Walser as he joins Colonel Kearney’s circus. It was decided by the ‘seer’ Colonel Kearney’s pig Sybil that Walser should join the circus as a clown despite his lack of experience and skill. In this section of the book we meet many of the circus characters and learn about their unusual lives. The insight offered into the motivation and work of clowns was fascinating and disturbing. I have done some classes in clowning with a women only circus and after reading Nights at the Circus I wouldn’t ever want to be a clown!

I avoid attending circuses and zoos due to the mistreatment of animals. This book caused me to feel unsettled on numerous occasions due to the fate of the animals and the insufficient concern shown for their welfare by the people. We discover that the apes in the circus are extremely studious and in between performances they are mastering literacy. The escape of the apes is an amazing scene. We observe the tigers dancing to the music of the Princess and when the tigress was torn by jealousy of Mignon I cried for the fate of the tigress. The elephants long for freedom and test their chains daily and it’s a bitter irony when that freedom finally occurs.

Carter is concerned with Victorian era (1890’s) women’s rights, roles and options, particularly of women born into poverty. Her concern is obvious in Fevvers retelling of the lives of the different prostitutes with whom she grew up and the difficult histories of the other women enslaved in the fetish dungeon. Once Walser joins the circus we then learn the tragic ‘back-story’ of  a damaged young woman, Mignon, in the circus. We observe a lot of domestic violence, particularly in Russia

…her husband repeated with relish old Russian proverbs in praise of wife-beating

In Siberia we encounter a startling prison for female murderers. In a nice touch the inmate that we get to know is the mother of the boy we got to know in Saint Petersburg and who was given a fist full of diamonds by Fevvers. The uprising of the prisoners and prison guards and formation of a Utopian feminist community is a fascinating touch. Finally, when we reach the tribe of Mongolians/Siberians in the final section of the book we learn about the appalling treatment of a mother and her newborn baby due to superstition.

At the end of the book as the reader moves towards finding out whether Fevvers and Walser will ever find one another, Carter is careful to show the reader that she is not writing a typical love story:

Don’t you know the customary endings of the old comedies of separated lovers, misfortune overcome, adventures among outlaws and savage tribes? True lovers’ reunions always end in a marriage

Fevvers response is reassuring:

But it is not possible that I should give myself. My being, my me-ness is unique and indivisible. To sell the use of myself for enjoyment of another is one thing: I might even offer freely, out of gratitude or in the expectation of pleasure… But the essence of myself may not be given or taken, or what would there be left of me?

The prose of Carter is astoundingly good and I loved her large vocabulary and insightful comments about life and our self deceptions:

We must all make do with what rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity

I read an excellent review of this book on a blog and promptly requested it from the library then forgot all about it. When it arrived I was surprised and couldn’t recall why I had requested it! It’s the first book recommendation I’ve followed from a blog. I wonder if anyone will ever read a book as a direct result of reading one of my reviews?

Other Reviews


2 comments on “Book Review – Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter – 4 1/2 Stars

  1. Cathy746books
    July 3, 2014

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it, what an excellent review!

    • strivetoengage
      July 3, 2014

      Your review was not only insightful and enjoyable to read but it compelled me to read the book and for that I’m grateful to you!

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