Nights at the Circus
Nights at the Circus – 1984
‘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 light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed as the “Cockney Venus”, for nothing, sir, though they could just well ‘ave called me “Helen of the High Wire”, due to the unusual circumstances in which I come 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.
At the centre of Carter’s ninth novel, Nights at the Circus, is the question of whether the female protagonist, Sophie Fevvers, star aerialiste and talk of Europe at the end of the nineteenth century is fact or fiction. Jack Walser, a pragmatic American journalist more accustomed to covering wars than investigating cause celebres finds himself backstage at the Alhambra interviewing Fevvers and trying to answer just that very question. In the three divisions that make up the novel, Jack finds himself weighing up the fantastic tale Fevvers tells of her youth and then joining up with the circus himself to continue his story, finding himself before the Tsar in St. Petersburg and finally the bleak landscape of Siberia.
The first section of the book deals with Fevvers recounting the details of her upbringing to Walser, claiming to be part woman part swan, having hatched from an egg and “the only fully-feathered intacta in the history of the world”. Left on the steps of a progressive brothel run by a one eyed madam named Nelson (on account of the fact she dressed like an admiral), she was raised by her constant companion, the housekeeper Lizzie and the other girls in the brothel. She has a happy childhood filled with love, playing cupid in the main room during the day. As she grows older her wings develop and she transforms from cherub to winged victory, armed with Nelson’s ceremonial sword. In a do or die attempt at flight on the roof, she learns to use her wings to fly much to her excitement, but unfortunately her happy life cannot last. A freak accident results in the death of Nelson and the house in which they all live is inherited by her brother, an unkind religious man who gives them until the next day to leave. As Nelson had always encouraged the girls to prepare for the future, most of them are able to find their way in the world through various skills that they have learned over the years while in the house. Fevvers realizes that she was naive and may even be engaging to some extent is nostalgia, as she tells Walser:
“It was the cold light of early dawn and how sadly, how soberly it lit that room which deceitful candles made so gorgeous! We saw, now, what we had never seen before; how the moth had nibbled the upholstery, the mice had gnawed away the Persian carpets and dust caked all the cornices. The luxury of that place had been nothing but illusion, created by the candles of midnight, and, in the dawn, all was sere, worn-out decay. We saw the stains of damp and mould on ceilings and the damask walls; the gilding on the mirrors was all tarnished and a bloom of dust obscured the glass so that, when we looked within them, there we saw, not the fresh young woman that we were, but the hags we would become, and knew that, we too, like pleasures, were mortal.”
Knowing that the past was no more, they burn the house down taking only Nelson’s sword and the clock from the mantelpiece with them as they go to stay with Lizzie’s sister in Battersea.
Arriving in Battersea, they are once again happy for a while until things take a turn for the worse and circumstances lead to serious money problems. Having been visited by a rather creepy skeletal old woman, Madame Schreck, Fevvers agrees to be a part of her collection of oddities despite the others’ objections in order to raise the money. She is kept in what is for all intents and purposes a prison, along with a number of other women with strange physical impairments, such as a very short woman who claims her mother was impregnated by the fairy king, a hermaphrodite and “sleeping beauty”, a young girl suffering from a disease that caused her to sleep for long periods of time. For the most part, Madame Schreck caters to the sexual perversions of the rich and after a while she sells Fevvers to a Mr Rosencreutz, who sees her as his “Flora; Azrael; Venus Pandemos!” He intends to sacrifice her as a “virgo intacta” as a way of conquering death but she is more than capable of protecting herself as she never goes anywhere without her sword and manages to escape back to Lizzie’s sister’s house in Battersea. It is not long after that that she meets Colonel Kearney, a circus owning P.T. Barnum type southerner and joins the circus as an aerialiste. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the second section of the novel set in St. Petersburg, the narrative onus shifts over to Walser who begs Colonel Kearney for a job in the circus so he can continue his story on Fevvers. Kearney’s business partner, his pet pig Sybil, divines through the cards that he should be given a job as a clown and so he is taken on. The novel becomes a little more of an ensemble story as we are introduced to the various members of the circus. The clowns that Walser is forced to live with are headed by Buffo the Great, a man with a tragic past who eventually goes insane and attempts to murder Walser in the middle of an act on the big night. The Princess of Abyssinia is a lonely tiger tamer who also plays the piano, scarred all over from having trained the beasts. Mignon, a girl with a tragic past who is married to monsieur Lamarck, the monkey trainer, an abusive alcoholic that beats her terribly, and Samson, the strong man who has been sleeping with Mignon, but is a selfish, vain coward. When a tiger gets loose and corners Mignon, Walser saves her. He is injured as a result and Samson is revealed to be a coward as he ran to save himself. In Fevvers hotel room, Walser is nursed by her and she is angry because she believes him to be sleeping with Mignon, and it becomes apparent that there is something between her and Walser. She berates him, but later realises that she was wrong about him after he doesn’t take advantage of the young girl when Fevvers puts them in the bridal suite. Things continue to go wrong at the circus though as Samson violently assaults Walser, both out of shame at his own cowardice and in the belief that he has stolen his woman. The Charivaris, believing Fevvers to be a cheat and as a result not a real aerialiste, weaken the trapeze in an attempt to kill her out of jealousy, but she survives and has them all fired by Kearney who has no choice. There is a wonderful passage from Walser’s point of view during this that reads:
Walser, half-laughing, half-wondering, almost, yet not quite, convinced himself the woman had been in no more danger than a parrot might be if you pushed it off its perch. And though he was altogether unwilling to believe this might be so, still he was enchanted by the paradox; if she were indeed a lusus naturae, a prodigy, then – she was no longer a wonder.
She would no longer be an extraordinary woman, no more the greatest Aerialiste in the world but – a freak. Marvellous, indeed, but a marvellous monster, an exemplary being denied the human privilege of flesh and blood, always the object of the observer, never the subject of sympathy, an alien creature forever estranged.
She owes it to herself to remain a woman, he thought. It is her human duty. As a symbolic woman, she has a meaning, as an anomaly, none.
As an anomaly, she would become again, as she had once been, an exhibit in a museum of curiosities. But what would she come if she continued to be a woman?
Meanwhile, having discovered she has a beautiful singing voice, Fevvers gets Mignon a job accompanying the princess and the pair fall in love, but tragedy strikes when she has to shoot one of the tigers when it becomes jealous and dangerous as a result. Kearney also loses his biggest star as Fevvers, who loves to part fools from their money, has been planning a game with a Russian Grand Duke since she was in London. She goes to his mansion, intending to receive a fortune for something simple like a hand job, but realises that something is wrong and the narrative begins to disintegrate making the scene almost surreal. In a sense it contributes to the feeling from the first section in the novel in which the reader doubts the reliability of the narrator, as Fevvers is one minute trying to escape from the Grand Duke in a Faberge egg, and the next on the train leaving St. Petersburg. It seems he is trying to trap her there, as one of the Faberge eggs contains a tiny gilded cage, a reoccurring theme within the novel. The ironic thing is that when she lived in a brothel, she never sold herself, but since then she has sold herself at least twice that we know of, first unwillingly and the second willingly, both times nearly killing her.
The final section of the novel takes place in Siberia, in the forests of Transbaikalia, after the rail line is blown up by outlaws and the train is derailed as a result. It is interesting to note, that in the crash both her wing and the clock from Nelson’s are broken and the sword was broken by the Grand Duke in the previous chapter, meaning all the symbolic representations from earlier in the novel are in a sense destroyed. Kearney, Fevvers, Lizzie, Samson and the girls are taken captive by the outlaws who believe, due to the rumours Kearney had been spreading, that Fevvers is engaged to the Prince of Wales. They are all outlaws who have killed corrupt minor Russian officials for raping female members of their families and think that she will be able to help them by writing a letter to Queen Victoria to implore the Tsar to let them return to their villages. Fevvers cannot help them and is distraught as she has broken her wing and believes Walser to be dead. He is in fact buried under rubble but has completely lost his wits and is rescued by a group of women who have escaped from a mental asylum for women who had murdered their husbands, even though most of them deserved it. They leave him at the train though, as he is suffering from some form of amnesia that is causing him to act like a simpleton and he wanders off and meets a Mongolian shaman who believes Walser is hallucinating. While the shaman takes him back to his village to train him to become a shaman (which involves a process of sleight of hand, ventriloquism, and looking very serious while doing these things), the others escape from the outlaws when the clowns, almost a physical manifestation of chaos incarnate, summon up a storm through their act. They meet a maestro who came out to Siberia believing he would get to have his own Conservatory, but was tricked by a corrupt Russian official who takes the princess and Mignon on as students, Samson staying with them in order to become a better man by devoting himself to them. Lizzie and Fevvers continue to look for Walser, having seen him in the distance and Lizzie tells Fevvers that when they find him, the next step is for the pair to get married, which leads to an argument that reads like a dialogue between feminism and postmodernism. Lizzie believes that nothing good will come of Fevvers giving herself to Walser, while Fevvers argues that she can make him a New Man like she is a New Woman, and together they can go forward into the New Century. When they find him in the village, Fevvers is able to make him remember who he is and he asks her “What is your name? Have you a soul? Can you love?”
At the heart of Nights at the Circus, Carter continues to raise the same questions as always about gender roles, social class, relationship dynamics and feminist thought. Fevvers as a narrator’s reliability is constantly called into question and despite her revealing to Walser the only things she claims to have lied about, it is never really certain to the reader what is true or false. Her relationship with him is one where it is usually her that has to save him from whatever trouble he has gotten into and when she herself is threatened she is either strong enough or intelligent enough to save herself. She is never the victim. Her transformation is interesting as she goes from being interested in what she can sell herself for to being willing to give herself to Walser, which to me seems like trading a power dynamic for something more optimistic. Walser on the other hand goes from being a cynical pragmatist to a shaman and by the end is proved to have been quite gullible after all. If you haven’t read any of Carter’s novels this is probably the most accessible as despite its many layers, the narrative tends to be more straightforward than her stylised early work or her heavily symbolic novels such as Passion of New Eve and Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. As always with Carter though, easy to highly recommend.
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