Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter (1984). Vintage

I love Angela Carter’s writing (Wise Children is one of my all time favourite novels) and so I don’t why it took me so long to get around to Nights at the Circus. Reading Carter is like being drunk on language – she uses English unlike anyone I’ve ever read – and this novel lived up to my expectations on that front.

Set at the end of the nineteenth century, the star of the novel is Sophie Fevvers. Part woman, part swan, she is the most famous aerialiste of her day and has just signed a six figure contract to perform on the Grand Imperial Tour with Colonel Kearney’s circus. Jack Walser is the American journalist who comes to interview her backstage at the Alhambra Music Hall as part of his series entitles ‘Great Humbugs of the World.’ He thinks her a fraud and is sure that he can find the truth behind her fantastic story. All does not go to plan for Jack though, and he finds himself falling under her spell and joining the circus.

At close quarters, it must be said that she looked more like a dray mare than an angel. At six feet two in her stockings, she would have to give Walser a couple of inches in order to match him and, though they said she was ‘divinely tall’, there was, off-stage, not much of the diving about her unless there were gin palaces in heaven where she might preside behind the bar. Her face, broad and oval as a meat dish, had been thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay; nothing subtle about her appeal, which was just as well if she were to function as the democratically elected divinity of the imminent century of the Common Man.

Divided into three parts, we first learn Fevvers history as Jack interviews her, time seeming to stop as she recounts her life story, from an upbringing in a brothel, the development of her magnificent wings and how she learned to fly, to her first engagement at the Cirque d’Hiver. We then set off with the circus to St Petersburg, meeting the various acts along the way, the final instalment taking place in Siberia as the circus travels towards Japan.

This is an ambitious novel, rich in vocabulary and imagery. It is some feat to create the world of Sophie Fevvers, in which time can be stopped, tigers are tamed through the playing of Mozart and where there is a real life sleeping beauty. Some of the most vivid characters are barely more than cameos, people who pass through the lives of Sophie and Jack briefly. One of my favourite chapters, in the last part, features a woman who murdered her husband but got away with it. Obsessed with the idea that other woman have been less lucky, she sets up her own private prison, a panopticon in the original Bentham vision, to hold female murderesses with the aim to save them. This is a book of immense imagination which keeps the reader hooked and never falls victim of self-indulgence. I loved every moment and, while its huge cast of characters stop it from replacing  Wise Children (and the wonderful Chance sisters) as my favourite Carter, this is a must-read for anyone who likes Carter’s other works or is a fan of magic realism.

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