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Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
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Nights at the Circus (1984)

by Angela Carter

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,119334,425 (3.95)1 / 274
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English (32)  German (1)  All languages (33)
Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
"We must all make do with the rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity."

Nights at the Circus is set in the tail end of the nineteenth century, in 1899 in fact, and is written in three distinct parts. The first of which opens with American journalist, Jack Walser, interviewing Sophie Fevvers, the most famous aerialiste of her day. Sat in her London music hall dressing room littered with her dirty underwear, Walser is trying to discover if Fevvers is fact or fiction.

Fevvers is a six-foot plus, heavy built and claims to be part woman, part bird that was "hatched out of a bloody great egg" who at the age of thirteen developed wings and learnt how to fly. Fevvers paints a vivid picture of her life story assisted by her foster mother, Lizzie. As a hatchling she was apparently dumped on to the doorstep of a brothel where she was adopted and raised by its residents. On that institution's closure poverty then compelled her to join Madame Schreck’s Museum of Women Monsters from where she was consequently sold to a sinister Mr Rosencreutz.

Fevvers is the quint-essential musical hall artist. She is wonderfully bawdy, swigs champagne, belches and flirts with Walser while the night hours slip away. Her story is full of incident and intrigue, and she recounts it with great elan but is it real or part of some Machiavellian charade, a piece of wonderful nineteenth century self-publicity aimed at boosting the mystique that surrounds her?

‘My feathers, sir! I dye them! Don’t think I bore such gaudy colours from puberty! I commenced to dye my feathers at the start of my public career on the trapeze, in order to simulate more perfectly the tropic bird. In my white girlhood and earliest years, I kept my natural colour. Which is a kind of blonde, only a little darker than the hair on my head, more the colour of that on my private ahem parts.
‘Now that’s my dreadful secret, Mr Walser, and to tell the whole truth and nothing but, the only deception which I practice on the public!’

At the end of this first section, Fevvers joins impresario Colonel Kearney’s circus, which is set to tour Russia, Japan before moving on to America. Meanwhile Walser, who is both fascinated and attracted to her decides to tag along undercover as a clown.

The action moves to St Petersburg in the second part of this novel and the author introduces a variety of diverse circus performers ranging from clowns to chimps and tigers. Their stories are told in a series of beautifully written and witty vignettes with plenty of thrills and spills including Walser saving a woman from a rampaging tiger. On the final evening of their stay in St Petersburg Fevvers is invited to dine with the Grand Duke but when he tries to add her to his collection of novelties she escapes his clutches on a miniature train rejoining the others as they travel across Siberia.

The final portion of this book sees the troupe travelling across Siberia heading towards Japan until their train is derailed by an explosion and we meet another group of varying characters. Personally I loved the first two sections of this novel despite the story becoming increasingly surreal but partway through the final section the author lost me. Here Carter really lets her imagination run wild and slips into fantasy and mysticism.

Feminism is an important thread in this the novel. The women often form the closest relationships with other females whilst in contrast their encounters with men often involved violence and abuse. Yet despite this the story is told from the viewpoint of Walser, a none too reliable witness. Personally I would have preferred that the tale had been told in the first person. Also I felt that the final portion of this book really lets the whole down which is a real shame as I felt that it meant that the book rather fizzled out. A real shame.

"What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many?" ( )
  PilgrimJess | Jul 20, 2018 |
Oh dear. Where to start? Angela Carter spins a complicated tale of magic, myth, history, and feminism while relating the often comic, sometimes sordid, ultimately creepy story of Fevvers. I won’t rehash the plot here because the review would stretch to several pages.

I think this book is either too short or too long, depending on what the reader wants. The first section, in which Fevvers tells the fantastic story of her life as half woman half swan, is an amazing example of characterization. One falls completely under her spell and becomes totally absorbed in the book. The section is a completely successful short story, with just enough magical mystery and plenty of humor to maintain the illusion.

Part two, about the circus in which Fevvers is the star attraction—who doesn’t want to see a woman literally fly?— is somewhat less successful. Too many characters are added, and it becomes difficult to follow the myriad plot threads. It’s not tedious, precisely, but it requires your mental running shoes just to keep up. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of humor to provide some relief, and an interesting exploration of the appeal, or not, of clowns. We also get a mind-boggling scene with Fevvers and a Russian archduke that’s startlingly menacing.

Finally we follow the circus troupe to Siberia on the Trans-Siberian railroad. And here’s where, for me, the book started to fall apart a bit. Fevvers and her foster mother, Liz, somehow transform from bordello dwellers speaking in breezy Cockney into brilliant social analysts who converse like philosophers. This is jarring, at best. The ending was, I thought, weak, leaving the future highly in doubt. But even this section has some brilliant, if crazy, writing. Carter is so compelling, so realistic in her craziness, that I was driven to research some of what she describes. I was astonished to find that even the most bizarre events are based in reality.

So. There’s a lot of horror here, a lot of ugliness, but also redemption and hope. Not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, this is an intriguing and very adult book. ( )
1 vote bohemima | Jan 22, 2018 |
Angela Carter introduces to a colourful, late nineteenth century world that is amazing, implausible and filled with stories.

Sophie Fevvers (generally called just Fevvers) is a larger than life Cockney aerialiste, the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, her fame has spread across the world. For Fevvers is part woman, – an impressively bosomed blonde, standing over six-foot-high – and part swan with an impressive wing span. It is 1899, and in her dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall theatre in London, Fevvers entertains Jack Walser; an American journalist, who has arrived in London to interview Fevvers. Is Fevvers really part woman, part swan, or is she a fake? Jack is determined to discover the truth about who Fevvers is.

“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 she was ‘divinely tall,’ there was, off-stage, not much of the divine 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.”

The first part of the novel – definitely my favourite section – is Fevvers long raucous account of her life up to that point. In the midst of chaotically strewn costumes, empty champagne bottles and greasepaint Fevvers delights in holding court. Alongside Fevvers in her dressing room that night is Lizzie, a tiny, rough diamond of a little woman, a former prostitute, who has been with Fevvers since babyhood. Every now and then Lizzie cuts in with a story or two of her own, but in essence this first one hundred pages or so is Fevvers story – and alongside it we have the stories of numerous other colourful fantastic creations. These include Ma Nelson, the madam of a brothel, Madame Schreck the owner of a freak show, Toussint her servant born without a mouth and the various inhabitants of these establishments that include a sleeping beauty.

“She sleeps. And now she wakes each day a little less. And, each day, takes less and less nourishment, as if grudging the least moment of wakefulness, for, from the movement under her eyelids, and the somnolent gestures of her hands and feet, it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she lives in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interpretation of some more vital existence, so she is loath to spend even those necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvellous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consumes the world.
‘And, sir,’ concluded Fevvers, in a voice that now took on the sombre, majestic tones of a great organ, ‘we do believe . . . her dream will be the coming century.
‘And, oh, God . . . how frequently she weeps!”

Fevvers shows him (and us) her incredible wings – recounts the story of their emergence and how she learned how to use them, it is a story of extraordinary aerodynamics touched with just a little magic. Big Ben strikes, and time seems to stand still, as Jack is drawn deeper into the stories of Fevvers – who never shies away from discussing, quite frankly, the seedier side of life. Belching, farting and directing Jack to just use the chamber pot behind the screen in her room, she is utterly irrepressible – and Jack is completely floored by her.

As the long night of revelations and fabulous stories end, Jack follows Fevvers and Lizzie out into the London streets, and as Jack walks back to his lodgings he knows he can’t just leave it there. So, Jack arranges to run away with the Circus and follows Fevvers, Lizzie and the rest of Colonel Kearney’s fantastic troupe to St. Petersburg – and then, on to Siberia.

Now, we get to meet the rest of the circus, and what a fantastic bunch they are! There is sibyl – Colonel Kearney’s pet pig, intelligent clairvoyant, the Colonel often asks her for advice. A troupe of chimpanzees headed up by The Professor – who make a bid for freedom. Tiger tamer, Princess of Abyssinia, the strong man, an abusive monkey trainer – whose cowed wife Mignon frees herself from him, transformed in time into a beautiful singer and who falls in love with the Princess. Buffo, the leader of the clowns – who Jack joins in his bid to follow Fevvers wherever she may go. From St Petersburg the Circus travels toward Japan via Siberia, where in the frozen, snowy wastes the Colonel’s circus encounter adventure, abductors, female murderers and Russian fur traders.

It is testament to Angela Carter’s skill as a storyteller that all these characters work so well. Not everything is quite as it seems, neither us nor Jack is ever really sure what is real and what mere illusion. Fevvers, real or fake – is an extraordinary lovable survivor – and the reader just wills her to be happy.

“We must all make do with the rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.”

I read Nights at the Circus quite quickly speeding through it in three or four days, it is hard to put down, though for me the middle section sagged a bit – and I longed to be back in Fevvers’ dressing room. Though the story picks up pace again as we find ourselves in Siberia. Nights at the Circus might not work so well had it been written by a lesser writer, but in Angela Carter’s hands it is an exuberant, romp of memorable characters and impossible things.
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Nov 11, 2017 |
[Nights at the Circus] by Angela Carter 2.5

Okay. I am not going to lie. I did not like this book. And I feel bad giving it a 2.5, but 3.0 on my newly revised rating means "good" and this wasn't. Interestingly enough, this book scores well on LT, but if you read the reviews, there are a fair number of negative ones.

I powered through to the end because I am reading it with CammyKitty/Jenny and because I never got around to it when I was hosting the David Bowie thread with IreadthereforIam/Megan last year. But I am sorry I spent my time on it.

The book is about the star attraction of the circus, an aerialist who is half woman and half swan, Sophie Fevvers. Other major characters include her foster mother Lizzie, who may be a witch, and a newspaper reporter, Jack Walser, who wants to find out whether Fevvers is a scam artist. The romance didn't work for me, the magic fell flat and the characters never drew me in. The writing is wonderful and I did enjoy Fevvers early childhood growing up in a bordello, but the stories didn't connect later on. Ah well, I finished it and I can check it off my list. ( )
  Berly | Feb 20, 2017 |
I read this for my Halloween book. It understood it to creep and dark - and considering it about the Circus (which creep me out) - I thought it should be sufficient for a Halloween. I was disappointed. Sort of a bent fairy tale, it contained more magic realism, strange characters, and shocker-value narrative than creepy and dark. I didn't enjoy it. I agree the Fevvers and Walser are complex characters, well-written, and intriguing. But the secondary characters seem built only to shock the reader. They are a mish-mash of cliches and oddities, all the fantastic to be believable. And the magic - a bit is fine, but half the time, I had no idea what happened. It seemed often the magic was used to connect bits in the story instead of using plot. I didn't like that. And in the end, the biggest "hook" of the story - whether Fevvers actually has wings or not - is never answered. It fits with the the book - meaning the reader never really knows what is real and what is not - sort of like a Circus, I guess - but it wasn't my sort of story. I prefer rational thought. ( )
  empress8411 | Feb 6, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carter, Angelaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Castagnone, Maria GiuliaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Lor' love you, sir!' Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids.
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Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe's capitals, part swan...or all fake? Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney's circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.… (more)

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