Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

We meet Sophie Fevvers (read it with a Cockney accent), l’Ange Anglaise, ‘the most famous aerialiste of the day’ in her dressing room being interviewed by Jack Walser, American journalist.

At close quarters, it must be said 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 said 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.

Fevvers is unusual though for on her back she sports a pair of feathered wings inherited, it is said, from her father. Her mother, possibly a Cockney Leda, is equally unknown to Fevvers, having deposited her on the steps of a brothel in Whitechapel.

‘…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.
‘Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!’

She was discovered by Lizzie, now her assistant, and brought up in the brothel. Lizzie may or may not be her biological mother.

During the first section of the novel, Fevvers tells Walser about her upbringing. He begins the interview with the intention of discovering the truth about her, specifically ‘these notorious and much-debated wings’. However, Fevvers and Lizzie – who come as a team – are smarter than he is and successfully direct the conversation as well as disorientating Walser; several times during the conversation he hears Big Ben sound midnight, the time the old-fashioned clock Lizzie and Fevvers keep in the dressing room is permanently set to, although when the interview ends it is almost seven a.m. Here, Carter seems to allude to either the fairy tale idea that the veneer may be stripped after midnight and the truth of Fevvers revealed or the folklore belief in the witching hour, as the women control time and Walser finishes the night bewitched by Fevvers.

Part two of the book sees Walser joining the circus and following Fevvers to St Petersburg on tour. There we’re treated to a host of circus escapades before they move on through Siberia, in part three, where the adventures become wilder and the narrative moves unpredictably between third person and Fevvers in first person, giving us a long-awaited glimpse into her thoughts.

Nights at the Circus is unmistakably Carter – an intense, fast-paced voice; a narrative packed with implausible scenarios that you accept regardless, and a cast of colourful characters. Fevvers is a fantastic creation – part-myth, part-East Ender – she knows what she wants – money, power over her own destiny, fame – and she takes it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book whilst being aware that there was so much more for me to return to and investigate more thoroughly – feminist themes and the use of the circus to explore gender and drive the narrative. But that’s often what I enjoy most about books – that they don’t yield all they’ve got on first reading – and I’m already looking forward to returning to Nights at the Circus.

22 thoughts on “Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

  1. Ah, how I love this novel! So good to read those quotes and return to, as you say, that unmistakably Carter voice. I’ve forgotten a lot of details about the story and you’ve given a great summary and thoughts about the themes the novel encapsulates. There is so much you can get out of this book – about gender and identity – and it’s also an amazing fun story!
    When I was a student at the University of East Anglia I once spent some time cataloguing Carter’s personal library as the books might have been sold. I was able to do this because I was being taught by Lorna Sage who was a good friend to Carter. We flipped through the books searching for any notes she may have made in them. Lorna told me Carter would sit up in bed at night reading theorists like Foucault and laugh as she thought it was all hilariously good fun.


    • Thanks, Eric. That’s an amazing story – both the one Sage told you about Carter and that you catalogued Carter’s library. Coincidentally, you’re the second person this week to talk of being taught by Sage; I went out for Sunday dinner with my friend J and she also has a friend who was taught by Sage, she sounds as though she was a fascinating character too.


  2. It’s great to read your thoughts on Carter and to be reminded of this novel. I love what you say about the clock and the fairytale significance of the midnight hour. There’s a sense that Walser is intoxicated, almost spellbound, by Fevvers at that first meeting.

    Carter really does let rip in that third section, doesn’t she? I got a bit lost in the wilderness there, but you have to admire Carter’s brio. As you say, there’s so much to discover in this book and I’m glad you enjoyed it!


    • I read your review after I’d written mine, Jacqui, so I saw it was the third section that you didn’t enjoy (I did wonder when I was reading it whether it was the way the narrative slipped in and out of first person that you didn’t like – I found that difficult to begin with). I enjoyed the third section, though you just had to go with it there’s no predicting what might happen, and suspect on re-reading it will probably emerge as the richest of the three sections. I particularly enjoyed the reversal of the fairytale/love story rescue. I like that it’s Walser that loses all and Fevvers that continues to have the upper hand.


  3. Fevvers is now one of my favourite literary characters and I loved the book; you sum up this very rich story from Carter extremely well… and agree it’s more about the reread and stripping back the layers to really appreciate everything in there. The Routledge Guide is fab to help do this.


  4. My copy of this is falling apart! Looking at the comments here I have to say I envy Eric for having been taught by Lorna Sage. What a pair she and Carter were. Impossible not to wonder what each of them would have acheived had they not died so young.


    • Brilliant! I’ve only read Bad Blood by Sage – it was assigned reading on my MA – and I had mixed feelings about it (it certainly had the right title!). It would be interesting to read some of her journalism and criticism.


  5. This sounds marvellous, definitely a book I need to read soon. Ever since I read The Magic Toyshop I’ve wanted to read more Carter, and you’ve helpfully pointed me in the right direction.


  6. I planned to read this book last year, and I failed miserably, even though my university library has it. And then I just forgot about it, but with this review, I need to read it as soon as possible! I have read some other works by Carter and they are so dense and complex that I need to take it step by a step and only read a few pages a day.


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