4.19.2014

Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus
Is Sophia Fevvers a fact? Or is she fiction? These questions lie at the heart of Angela Carter's increasingly weird—but always interesting—Nights at the Circus. Jack Walser, American journalist, interviews Fevvers in the first part of the book. He attended her strange aerealiste show and made notes to check up on things later. Does she have a navel? How does she manage to hover in the air so long? When he meets her in her dressing room after the show, Fevvers tells her story in such a hypnotic way that Walser falls under her spell. Then he runs away with a circus to learn more about the strange woman with wings.

In Part I, Fevvers (named for the Cockney pronunciation of the word "feathers") tells of being found surrounded by eggshell and bearing two patches of downy feathers on her shoulders. She is adopted by the women of Nelson's brothel. When her wings sprout, she becomes a tableau vivant of Cupid. When she grows older, Nelson sets her up as a Winged Victory. Nelson dies in an accident and the brothel breaks up. Fevvers and her foster mother, Lizzie, go to live with Lizzie's sister before misfortune sends Fevvers to work for a miserly Living Skeleton in a freak show. Even more misfortune follows before Fevvers comes into her own as an aerealiste and goes on a European tour.

Part II begins in St. Petersburg. Walser has joined Colonel Kearney's circus as a clown in order to follow Fevvers. Kearney, with his gift for gab and prophetic pig, have set up a grand show for the Tsar of All the Russias with Fevvers as the star. There are trained chimpanzees, tigers that dance to the music of a silent woman from Marseilles, and bizarrely philosophical and nihilistic clowns. Nothing goes according to plan in St. Petersburg. The chimpanzees rebel. One of the tigresses attacks one of the performers and is shot. A love triangle between the ape trainer, his wife, and the strong man turns bloody. The circus barely survives their big show before boarding the Trans Siberian Railroad for their next spectacular in Japan.

All hell breaks loose in Part III. Exiled Russian convicts blow up the train and kidnap Fevvers and the rest of the show. Walser is left to wander before being rescued by a shaman who suspects he hallucinated the amnesiac America. This is the weirdest part of an already weird book. Things get distinctly mystical. Worse, time is, as the Bard would say, out of joint. This part features Russian murderesses and their female lovers, a duped musical maestro, bears, and hallucinogens.

Nights at the Circus struck me as the inverse of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. (Although, since Nights at the Circus was published first, this should be the other way around.) Instead of ethereal beauty, Carter gives us the smells and dirtiness of an end-of-the-nineteenth-century circus. Her heroes are as real as fiction can make them, giving a firm floor for the flights of fancy that come later.

As Carter weaves her tale of Fevvers, Walser, and the rest, we get to see the backstories of the various minor characters. We see what brings them to Kearney's circus and Russia. Nearly everyone has a tale of woe, though the circus gives them a chance to become more than just victims of fate and the corrupt people they collide with. In the end, it doesn't matter if Fevvers is real or an elaborate trick.

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