Taking Flight with Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a reader gets home, opens her front door, and is promptly crushed to death by the tower of books that has taken over every square inch of her home. Granted, it’s not a great joke, but it is my life. My stacks of books To Be Read are gradually taking over my living, work, and, um, everything space. In an effort to clear some out, I’ll be reading one book a week—fantasy, sci-fi, horror, whatever—and reporting back.

This week, I’m reading and spewing thoughts about Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Angela Carter was a writer who joyously blurred the lines between literary fiction, fantasy, and fairy tale, and who often used her work to examine gender roles and sexuality. Nights at the Circus was her eighth novel, published in 1984, and… well, the plot bumps and sprawls around half of the world through dozens of characters, but mostly follows a woman who might be part-swan. Cool, right? There is only one problem… this book is so overstuffed with ideas, plot points, conspiracies, and general insanity that it’s been difficult to find one element to focus on.

What would Angela Carter do?

I found the answer in the dead center of the book, 150 pages in: “You can do anything you like, as long as nobody takes you seriously.”

I didn’t always like this book. I often loved it. I often wanted to live inside of it. But I also needed to put it down and walk away from it. It took me days to read it because I had to keep taking breaks. It’s an exhausting read, overstuffed and tearing apart at the seams like an old couch, or like the main character’s shoulder blades when her wings finally sprout.

Carter takes us from Whitechapel to Siberia, and barely lets us stop for breath. From the opening scene we’re assaulted with the scents of champagne, pancake make-up, violets, perfume, powdered armpits, boiling tea, buckets of piss, much-worn underwear and sweat-stiff stockings. Jack Walser, the intrepid, globetrotting reporter who’d be the hero in any other book, is attempting to interview Sophie Fevvers, an aerialist who may actually be part-swan. The book gives us no real reason to doubt her, but Walser believes himself to be a cynic, and he’s determined to expose her fraud. At first, that’s the book I thought I was reading: young man tries to uncover a humbug, discovers there’s more to Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in his philosophy. But nope, the book drops that angle almost entirely to bounce through the consciousnesses of dozens of characters.

The first third of the book is Walser’s interview, as he is overwhelmed by the chaos of Fevvers’ dressing room. In the middle section Walser joins up with the circus with the idea of writing pieces about Fevvers while disguised as a clown…but he soon learns that dressing like a clown and being treated as a clown essentially make you a clown. The book jumps around to tell us the stories of the clown troupe, the Ape-Man and his educated chimps, the Abyssinian Princess who calms tigers with her music, and finally the long and tragic tale of the Ape-Man’s wife, Mignon. The final act of the story follows the troupe as they travel across Siberia, and run across both a horrifying panopticon-style women’s prison and a tribe of animistic shamans.

Did I mention this book is stuffed with stuff?

What the novel is really about, and what makes it worth reading, is that every single character contains an intricate world. Just as the initial plot—“cynical Schmendrick learns there’s true magic in the world”—is discarded, so are dozens of others: cynical man embarks on a relationship with the Ape-Man’s wife; Fevvers’ foster mother is a spy; Fevvers is ensnared by a rich Duke; the romantic intrigues of the circus continue to mount until the truth comes out in a hilarious-yet-tragic setpiece… Carter sets all of these possibilities up, flourishes her hands around them, and then knocks them out of the way like a cat pawing a wine glass off a coffee table.

Carter repeatedly introduces ideas and plot points involving Fevvers, seemingly to make us want to see the plot’s resolution. Instead, she redirects the book’s energy into extremely close looks at the inner lives and histories of “side” characters, until each “side” character becomes as important as her winged star. Most of these characters are women—specifically the types of women who are overlooked by history, society, culture. Fevvers is famous when we meet her, but she’s a self-made celebrity who started out in a brothel. Even she, however, has a more secure place in society than the women Carter chooses, over and over, to shove into the narrative spotlight: street urchins, prisoners, women with sleeping sickness, ancient Russian grandmas who don’t even remember how to pray anymore. Rather than waltzing us through the bright lights of Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo (as she initially promises), Carter takes us into squalid alleys, brothels, prisons, freak shows, and unforgiving tundra, and forces us to spend time with desolate people. Sometimes these people manage to create happy endings for themselves.

This is a book in which the women are not taken seriously, and still manage to accomplish extraordinary things. The Abyssinian Princess, whose race, class, and gender would almost certainly restrict her to life as a servant in most parts of the world, is able to tame tigers with her glorious music. Mignon the abused street urchin sings like an angel and uses her voice to create a new life with a new love. Nelson the one-eyed madame runs an empire successful enough that she owns a boat and regularly takes her working girls on picnics in the park. Lizzie, who used to make her money cleaning a brothel, runs an international anarchist network. Fevvers the hunchback prostitute can fly. Olga and Vera, a prisoner and guard, respectively, overthrow the prison warden and leave to create a new society.

Carter infuses her story with fabulist set pieces, but each time the characters begin to get carried away with whimsy, she brings them back down to earth. Many of Fevvers’ adventures end with her barely escaping a man who wants to possess her, whether through sex, marriage, or murder. The long, philosophical musings of the clowns end in slapstick. The circus ringleader’s vision of taking his circus around the world runs into the reality of a Russian winter. Even the opening of the book, the glorious monologue of Fevvers’ history, which features many florid details about her love for London, begins with this:

“Lor’ love you, sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. “As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’ for nothing, sir, though they could just as well ‘ave called me ‘Helen of the High Wire,’ due to the unusual circumstances in which I came ashore—for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched.”

And ends, 80 breathless pages later, with this:

…they walked through Piccadilly in silence, among early risers on their way to work. They skirted Nelson’s Column, went down Whitehall. The cold air was not freshened by morning; there was an oppressive odour of soot and horseshit.

At the end of Whitehall, along the wide road, past the Mother of Parliaments, there came at a brisk trot a coal cart pulled by clattering, jingling drays, and behind, an impromptu procession of women of the poorest class, without coats or wraps, in cotton pinafores, in draggled underskirts, worn carpet slippers on their bare feet, and there were shoeless little children too, running, scrambling after the carts, the girls and women with their pinafores outstretched to catch every little fragment of coal that might bounce out.

“O, my lovely London!” said Fevvers. “The shining city! The new Jerusalem!”

She spoke so flatly he could not tell whether she spoke ironically. She said nothing else.

Did I mention that the book essentially opens with an 80-page monologue, full of digressions, nested flashbacks, and obvious lies?

We also get the usual fairy tale and mythological riffs you would expect from Angela Carter, including references to Leda and the Swan, Sleeping Beauty, Sheherezade, and Baba Yaga, plus an entire long section about the religious significance of a troupe of clowns, who meditate on their roles as Holy Fools when they’re not throwing food at each other. Carter seems to place these characters as counterpoints to her more realistic settings, and especially setting different ideas about feminism and progressive society against each other.

To some, Fevvers becomes a symbol of May Day—a glorious angel who is ushering a springtime for humanity. But Fevvers resists becoming a metaphor rather than a person, and she and her foster mother Lizzie are much more interested in celebrating May 1st as International Workers Day, and expressing solidarity with their socialist brothers and sisters across Russia. (The novel is set in 1899, so Carter has some grim fun teasing a dream of the Communist future.) Carter continues this play of contrasting ideals throughout the book: the brothel that raises Fevvers may be a feminist utopia run by a progressive madame, but the freak show she works in as young woman is run by a madame, too, and it’s a nightmare… but even that’s nothing compared to the women’s prison, also run by a woman, also committed to a noble ethos, that creates a hell on earth for its prisoners. The most exhilarating thing about Nights at the Circus is Carter’s ability to inhabit so many different people, and embody so many clashing ideas, and then stand back and allow fur and feathers to fly.

This book is such a beautiful exercise in trusting a reader—I’ve never read a novel structured like Nights at the Circus, and I think what I found so rewarding in the end was simply Carter’s willingness to do anything. The novel’s shape mirrors Fevvers herself: often ungainly, but always fascinating, with occasional moments of pure flight.

Leah Schnelbach will finally have time! But she should probably buy a second pair of glasses…just in case. Come read with her on Twitter!

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