Jun 4, 2009

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

The year is 1899. Meet Fevvers, a renowned aerialist, a circus star so bright that journalist Jack Walser comes all the way from California to write a story about her. What makes Fevvers so unique is the fact that she claims that she was hatched from an egg and grew wings of her own when she reached puberty. Nights at the Circus begins with Walser interviewing the Cockney Venus, as they call her, backstage in London, and then moves to St. Petersburg and Siberia. After hearing her story, the young journalist is to taken with Fevvers that he decides to run away and join the circus.

This is a messy plot summary at best, I know. But so much happens in Nights at the Circus, and anyway, it’s not really about the plot. It’s about the extravagant and celebratory atmosphere, about the fascinating cast of characters, all of them misfits with a story to tell, about Angela Carter’s lush language. Every single one of her sentences is a delight to read. Her language is beautiful, rich, and playful. I think that what draws me to her work the most is the fact that you can feel she’s having fun. The tone, or the several different tones, the rhythm, the tricks she pulls: all of them celebrate language, and they do so in a way that is luxuriant but never excessive.

And even things that might sound pompous in the hands of another writer are nothing but wonderfully playful in hers. Take the frequent literary allusions, for example. I love this passage, in which plays with Blake’s famous poem:
We saw the house was roofed with tigers. Authentic, fearfully symmetric tigers burning as brightly as those who had been lost. These were the native tigers of the place, who had never known either confinement or coercion; they had not come to the Princess for any taming, as far as I could see, although they stretched out across the tiles like abandoned greatcoats, laud low by pleasure, and you could see how the tails that dropped down over the eaves like icicles of fur were throbbing with marvellous sympathy. Their eyes, gold as the background to a holy picture, had summoned up the sun that glazed their pelts until they looked unutterably precious.
I’m going on and on about her use of language – this is because I hadn’t read Carter in a while, and I’d forgotten just how much I love it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story here. There is: a story composed of many sub-stories, of many episodes, of many characters, all with something to say. Nights at the Circus celebrates storytelling just as much as it celebrates language. That’s something I always appreciate in a writer: when they treat storytelling as an end in itself and not just as a means to exploring a theme. Don’t get me wrong; I do care about themes. I care about them a lot. But all my favourite writers share this passion for stories in themselves, and Angela Carter is no exception.

But what exactly is Nights at the Circus, you ask? It’s a carnivalesque late-Victorian fairy tale. It’s an effervescent story about freedom, about gender, about the modern world, about love. And it’s a story that both celebrates and exemplifies the hold that stories have on us.

Some have said that most of the female characters in this story enjoy more freedom than real women would have at the time, and while that’s true, I really don’t think it means that the story denies that injustice and oppression do exist. We see it in the book: there’s Mignon’s story, for example, the abused child-wife of the circus’ Strong Man. And there’s the story of the all-female prison in Siberia. But more than that, there’s the fact that the freedom these women do have is never taken for granted.

There’s so much in this book. I could go on forever, but I’d better stop now. Nights at the Circus is a dizzying and magical journey, and I can’t believe it took me this long to pick it up. On a side note, reading this really put me in the mood for Tipping the Velvet, which I imagine to have a somewhat similar atmosphere.

Bits I particularly liked:
Walser had not experienced his experience as experience; sandpaper his outside as experience might, his inwardness had been left untouched. In all his young life, he had felt not so much as one single quiver of introspection. If he was afraid of nothing, it was not because he was brave; like the boy in the fairy story who does not know how to shiver, Walser did not know how to be afraid. So his habitual disengagement was involuntary; it was not the result of judgement, since judgement involves the positives and negatives of belief.

Her voice. It was as if Walser had become a prisoner of her voice, her cavernous, sombre voice, a voice made for shouting about the tempest, her voice of a celestial fishwife. Musical as it strangely was, yet not a voice for singing with; it comprised discords, her scale contained twelve tones. Her voice, with its warped, homely, Cockney vowels and random aspirates. Her dark, rusty, dipping, swooping voice, imperious as a siren’s.

The train now ground to a halt with an exhausted sigh. The engine wailed softly, the locking wheels clicked and groaned but nothing in sight, not even one of those frilly little wooden stations like gingerbread houses they put up in these parts, mocking the wilderness with their suggestion of the fairy tale. Nothing but streaks of now standing our unnaturally white against the purple horizon, miles away. We are in the middle of nowhere.
‘Nowhere’, one of those words, like ‘nothing’, that opens itself inside you like a void. And were we not progressing through the vastness of nothing to the extremities of nowhere?
Other Opinions:
Tales from the Reading Room (Brilliant review; it says everything I wish I could have.)

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. I need to pick up a couple of her books. I can't remember if this is one of the ones on the 1001 List, but if not, I may start with it anyway! :-)


  2. Oh that sounds awesome! I love the excerpts you provided. Thanks!

  3. This sounds great. You always read the neatest books. Awesome review.

    ♥ Nely

  4. Ana, I was so looking forward to reading your review of this and you didn't disappoint.

    Nights at the Circus was my first Carter over four years ago and consequently close to my heart. The playful literary allusion in her work is what I most love about her. I too love that Blake allusion, among so many others.

    It's funny you should mention Tipping the Velvet: I went to a Sarah Waters reading in 2006 (for The Night Watch) and asked her about the introduction she had written for the new Vintage edition of Nights at the Circus that was being published a few months later. She replied that she had "a profound reading experience" when she read it in 1985 and when she re-read it again for the introduction she noticed how much of it was in Tipping the Velvet.

    Anyway, thought you might find that interesting being such a Sarah Waters fan.

    I desperately want to re-read Nights at the Circus now.

  5. I love love love love Angela Carter. Night at the Circus is great, but I especially love The Magic Toyshop!

  6. I've always been fascinated and intriged by the circus since I was a young girl. This one sounds good to me, plus I love the cover! ;)

  7. Ah, you have most excellent timing! I was just commenting on someone's Booking Through Thursday post that I was curious about this book on their list, and lo and behold, you've just gone and reviewed it. Anyhow, it sounds fantastic, and I'm going to have to put it on my wish list just as I suspected I might have to. Thanks for a great review (and that great timing! LOL)!

  8. I've never read any of Carter's work, but that does sound magical.

  9. I've always been a little bit afraid to try Angela Carter, but your review has changed my mind. Trouble-maker. :)

  10. OK, first of all: I'm in love with that cover. I want a poster of it.
    Second of all: I need to read some Angela Carter, seriously.
    Third of all: beautiful review!

  11. I remember taking a keen interest in Angela Carter in the early nineties. I remember definitely reading Wise Children and really enjoying it. Thanks for reminding me about her. I didn't realise how many books she had actually written. I think I read The Magic Toyshop too, but my memory evades me.

  12. I'm not sure this is quite the correct word, but "overwhelming" is what jumps to mind. But I don't mean that in a negative way at all. I think you used the word dizzying in your review, and that is exactly the feel I get from what you shared. Sheesh...I feel like this is coming out all wrong...

    Suffice it to say that you have seriously enticed me.

  13. Wow. The copy you sent me was patiently waiting... but after this review it looks much more impatient! Thanks for the book and thanks for sharing this review, now I can't wait to read it!

  14. I really have to read something else by her!

  15. Pretty cover!
    'a carnivalesque late-Victorian fairy tale'- that alone makes me want to read it, great review :)

  16. I've just read my first Carter book, The Bloody Chamber, and loved it for the playful twists and turns each tale takes and for her luxuriant language. I will be reading more by her in the near future, and was accordingly glad to see your review.

  17. Okay, now I swore off circus books a while ago, but you make this sound so lovely that I am thinking I will revisit that decision.

  18. I've been meaning to read some Angela Carter ever since I heard about her a few months ago. I almost bought "The Bloody Chamber" but put it back down for something else. I need to get it ASAP, though! This is a great review!

  19. And onto the list it goes! I'd never heard of Angela Carter until I started blogging, but her books sound glorious.

  20. Lezlie: I might be wrong, but I actually think it is!

    Amanda: I hope you enjoy the book itself too!

    Nely, thank you!

    Claire: Wow, I had no idea Sarah Waters had written the introduction to the new edition! Now I want to get it for that alone! It's good to know, actually, since this was a library copy. Even before reading Tipping the Velvet I can see how this book is an influence, just from what I've seen others say about it. This is one more reason to read it, though.

    Amanda: That one I haven't read yet, but I'd already decided it would be my next Carter!

    Melody: I think circuses have quite a creepy side, to be honest :P And this book explores that.

    Megan: lol, hooray for good timing!

    Bermudaonion: give her a try sometime! She's so good.

    Bookfool: lol! I'm not :P You know, I was a bit afraid of her too before I tried her for some reason.

    Valentina: I know! It really is a gorgeous cover. And yes, you do! And thank you :D

    Scrap Girl: She did write quite a lot despite having passed away so young. I've loved everything I've read so far!

  21. Debi: It is a bit overwhelming, and dizzying, and definitely a book to be taken slowly. But soooo worth it!

    Francesca: I really really hope the translation is a good one!

    Kailana: You definitely do!

    Naida: I was hoping that would be an enticing line :P

    Sarah: The Bloody Chamber was my first too, and I fell in love :)

    Jenny: I don't think I have read all that many circus books, actually. Hmm...there's Something Wicked This Way Comes, but that's more of a Carnival, right? Anyway...this is quite an unusual circus, that's for sure.

    J.S. Peyton: You do, you do! That's one brilliant collection.

    Memory: The story of how I discovered her is unusual :P Basically, a bunch of Smashing Pumpkins fans urged me to read her because there were characters named Zero and Tristessa in The Passion of New Eve. We were all young :P I ended up picking The Bloody Chamber first and I never looked back.

  22. Ana, the introduction is to the UK version, which is still in print. It's the 2006 Vintage edition and you will be able to buy it from the Book Depository. It does have an uninspiring cover though; I already owned a fabulous red & orange covered copy but had to buy the Vintage reissues with all of the great introductions (Ali Smith wrote the intro for Wise Children; Salman Rushdie for Burning Your Boats).

  23. I've been meaning to read more Angela Carter - and I haven't read this one. On the list it goes!

  24. I've never even heard of her! I really like that passage of sample writing though..you're always good at picking out the good ones. :)

  25. Claire: I did see that edition over at the Book Depository. The cover is not the best, but the introduction more than makes up for that, I'm sure :) And I've read the one by Rushdie - it was excellent!

    Darla, I think you'd enjoy it!

    Amy: The Bloody Chamber would be a good one to start with. It's a collection of fairy tales retold, and in my opinion one of the best ones ever!

  26. It does sound like a lot of fun and unique too! I also think it would probably make a great audio book listen :)

  27. This is a lovely review and you've done the book proud. I particularly liked this part:

    'The tone, or the several different tones, the rhythm, the tricks she pulls: all of them celebrate language, and they do so in a way that is luxuriant but never excessive.'

    That hits the nail on the head for me. And you remind me to read more Carter. No one uses language the way she does.

  28. Jen, I think that with a good reader this would make a wonderful audiobook.

    litlove, thank you so much for the kind words! I thought your review was lovely too. I need to read more Carter myself!


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