Nights at the Circus was written by University of East Anglia alumni Angela Carter in 1984. The novel is an attempt at magical realism, a take on realism with a twist. The story is detailed and descriptive but not entirely plausible.
The novel’s protagonist, Sophie Fevvers, is being interview by an American journalist Jack Walser when we first meet her, in London. She describes to him what her childhood has consisted of; growing up in a brothel pretending to be a living statue of cupid in the reception area, until the two lumps on her shoulder blades develop into wings and she begins the task of learning how to fly by copying some young birds in a nest taking their first flights. As an adolescent she is not transformed into the image of the ‘winged victory’, however, this life is brought into an abrupt end when the madam of the brothel, Ma Nelson, falls in front of a carriage. The employees decide to burn down the place and go their separate ways.
Fevvers and Lizzie move on to running an ice cream parlour but it is during this time that Fevvers receives an invitation from Madame Schreck. Fevvers accepts this invitation and is put on display in a combination brothel and freak show. After some time Fevvers is sold to a customer who wishes to sacrifice her for his own immortality. Fevvers narrowly escapes and returns to Lizzie. After this, they join Colonel Kearney’s circus. The section in London ends with Walser telling his employer he plans to follow Fevvers on her tour and the story, therefore, resumes in Petersburg.
Through the help of the fortune-telling pig Sybil, Colonel Kearney decides to hire Walser as a clown and so he is introduced to the other members of the circus. After a hectic dinner party, Walser finds himself looking after Mignon and takes her to Fevvers. Here we discover that Fevvers feels jealousy, as she believes Walser to be sleeping with Mignon. This sheds an interesting light on her character as previously she has had a totally nonchalant attitude towards men. During rehearsals, the acrobatic Charivari family attempt to kill Fevvers and Colonel Kearney reluctantly ousts them, however, in doing so, he loses his mind and makes an attempt on Walser’s life. After a show, Fevvers accepts an invite to visit the Grand Duke at his mansion and makes another close escape through a faberge egg, when he makes advances on her.
Fevvers’s escape through the faberge egg meant jumping onto a train to Siberia, where she miraculously finds the whole circus. However, the train is attacked and the group is divided. A cluster gather together and are taken to an encampment but Walser is alone and suffering from amnesia, going mad and impersonating a chicken for the majority of the denouement. He is rescued by a group of escaped murderess women and their former guards who have become their lovers and helped them to escape. Meanwhile, Fevvers explains to the bandits that she cannot help them and they sink into a phase of mourning. The group gather and leave, heading in the direction they hope to find civilisation and eventually stumble across a run-down hut, inhabited by the Maestro. Fevvers and Lizzie leave in search of Walser, Colonel Kearney pursues finding civilisation so he can create a better circus and Mignon and the Princess remain with the Maestro so they can compose music together.
The novel ends with Fevvers finding Walser at the turn of the century and a ‘happy ever after’ kind of moment.
Overall, this story has one hell of a weird plot but it’s genre keeps it bound and organised. So many moments are completely unfathomable and incomprehensible but somehow it’s all okay because the genre of magical realism excuses all of it. For example, escaping a rapist by jumping into a faberge egg, I really do not understand, and it’s basically a cop out of an escape but at the same time it totally works because there is no alternative for such a magical woman. This brings me on to my next point. Angela Carter is known for her feminist strong motifs but I have to disagree that this is a feminist novel. Although Fevvers seems a very strong character, she is constantly put in an oppressing position. From growing up in a brothel, to being imprisoned by Madame Schreck and sold to a man, to being sexually assaulted by the Duke and eventually marrying Walser, there really seems to be no time where Fevvers is strong and independent. Of course, certain things contrast this such as the undeniable strength of side-kick Lizzie and her magic handbag but the key plot points in this novel do not scream feminism. The underlying message of the genre for me, is that woman are incapable of being strong without bending the rules, without a little ‘magic’.
If you’re looking for a crazy read and some interesting dreams at night, as well as some interesting literary discussion then I highly recommend this novel but at the same time, this story is so out there that you really have to be in the mood for this kind of read.