Friday Reads: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

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Every Friday I will be recommending a work of fiction or non-fiction written by a woman who has influenced and shaped my intersectional feminist perspective, with special emphasis on women of colour, women in translation, LGBTQIA women and women of different religions.

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Nights at the Circus

‘For one moment, just one moment, Fevvers suffered the worst crisis of her life: “Am I fact? Or am I fiction? Am I what I know I am? Or am I what he thinks I am?”‘

I owe a huge debt to Angela Carter. From picking up the last novel she ever wrote and the first one I ever read, Wise Children, when I was just a teenager to studying her work throughout university and for my dissertation, she was my gateway into feminism through literature. Her characters – all female, all subversive, all larger than life – were unlike any I had read before. I traded in the likes of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet and Margaret Hale for Nora and Dora Chance, Melanie and, my favourite character of all time, Fevvers. In Carter’s stories females are multifaceted beings with a whole array of strengths and flaws. But the majority of them have in common a resourcefulness that is solely reliant on their own being.

Nights at the Circus begins with Jack Walser, an American journalist who has been sent on a mission to interview the famed aerialist, Sophie Fevvers. Through his perspective we witness this gargantuan figure from a distance. Renowned for possessing genuine white wings, Fevvers comes across as a mythical being at once part-woman and part-swan. Walser’s disbelief – his constant questioning of whether or not she is ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ taints the opening chapters. However, as he begins interviewing Fevvers her voice – with its cockney drawl – comes to dominate the narrative. After all, this is her story and hers alone. Mesmerised by this woman who unashamedly takes up too much space, has an insatiable appetite and sexual drive to boot, Walser decides to follow Fevvers by joining the Grand Imperial Tour of Colonel Kearney’s circus. The narrative then takes us on a rollercoaster of ups and downs from London to St Petersburg and through the wilderness of Serbia.

Time plays a crucial role in Nights at the Circus. Not only does Carter play with narrative and story time but she deliberately sets her novel at the turn of the century. Fevvers is the embodiment of liberation – breaking free, figuratively and literally, from the old confines of nineteenth-century oppressive patriarchal society. She is the New Woman, unafraid and strong, heralding in a new, more progressive century. However, Carter’s use of grotesque imagery to describe Fevvers and the view through which we first encounter her, through Jack walser, highlights the different hurdles women will face in this new society.

 

Angela Carter
From the Fay Godwin Archive at the British Library

 

Angela Carter was an English writer most known for her feminist and ‘magical realist’ novels – though she would decry the categorisations, believing that ‘integration means giving up one’s freedom of being, in that one becomes mastered by one’s role’. After winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1969 for her third novel, Several Perceptions, Carter was finally able to leave her first marriage and travelled to Japan where she ‘learnt what it is to be a woman and became radicalised’. Unlike other feminists of her time, Carter possessed differing views on issues, like pornography and prostitution, that ostracised her from the second-wave feminist movement. Carter died prematurely of lung cancer at the age of 51 in 1992. Some of her most notable novels include The Magic Toyshop, The Bloody ChamberNights at the Circus and Wise Children.

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