Literature / Nights at the Circus

Nights at the Circus is a 1984 novel by English author Angela Carter. A picaresque, it starts with roving American reporter Jack Walser interviewing aerialist Sophie Fevvers in Victorian London on her amazing (if hard to credit) life story. Left on the doorstep of a brothel, Sophie sprouted wings when she hit puberty. Both because of this unusual feature and because she's a woman, there are many who would exploit her.

The rest of the novel follows the crew of a circus that has employed Sophie as an aerialist, and that Jack covers while working undercover as a clown. Further peril and no small amount of personal change await in Tsarist Russia and Siberia.

This work has examples of:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of late 19th century literature, especially the Gothic.
  • The Alcoholic: The Ape-Man and Buffo the Great are both dangerous alcoholics.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Well Fevvers was certainly lying about something, but was it having wings or being a virgin?
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The Grand Duke and the Countess.
  • Big Beautiful Woman/Statuesque Stunner: One might expect a woman with wings to be small and slylphlike, but not Sophie Fevvers. She's an absolute giant of a woman, big in every sense of the word. She's Rubenesque, over six feet tall and has a bombastic personality. She's a celestial barmaid, part Valkyrie, part fishmonger's wife.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Lizzie and her family, albeit sympathetically portrayed.
  • Celibate Hero: Fevvers insists that she's a virgin, peeing on that French dwarf not withstanding.
  • Civilized Animal: The intelligent apes willingly wear clothes, educate themselves, and would be able to talk, but they don't have the vocal chords for it. They can, however, write.
  • Circus of Fear: Colonel Kearney's circus may not be inherently malicious, but it's certainly a dangerous place to perform.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lizzie, and occasionally Fevvers.
  • Eagleland:
    • Jack is the likeable but painfully naive archetype of the American abroad.
    • Colonel Kearney is the less sympathetic type.
  • Easy Amnesia: Walser loses his memory when he's smacked in the head during the train crash.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: The intelligent apes.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Fevvers, she's practically a proto-Mae West with a Cockney accent and wings.
  • Fauxreigner: The Princess of Abyssinia is not from Abyssinia at all and is in fact of Latin American stock and grew up near Marseilles.
  • Feminist Fantasy
  • Functional Magic: Lizzie exercises a subtle variation of Device Magic with her Father Time clock, which she uses to control the flow of time. Maybe. When the clock is lost to her after the train crashes in Siberia, time slips out of her control.
  • The Gay '90s: Set in the dying months of 1899.
  • The Generic Guy Walser. Though he may have external characteristics, like he's attractive, charming and a good journalist, his journalistic scepticism runs so deep he doesn't have an interior world, leaving him a little... unfinished.
  • Going Native: Amnesiac Walser becomes a shaman when lost in Siberia.
  • The Grotesque: The lost souls who inhabit Madame Schreck's brothel.
  • Hidden Depths
    • Fevvers is practically made of this trope. On the surface she seems to be a Cockney Attention Whore, and she very much is, but she also has a philosophical streak and is a utopian feminist.
    • Explicitly averted by Walser, who is all surface.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Though he's never actually on the page, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is in love with Fevvers and painted her famous poster.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Fevvers was raised in a Whitechapel brothel full of these types, including her foster mother Lizzie and the one-eyed madame, Ma Nelson.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Walser joins the circus to investigate the authenticity of Fevvers's supposed wings. He's also so committed to his job and the scepticism that comes with it that he somehow lacks the ability for introspection.
  • Lady Land: One of the mini-narratives is about an all-female prison break out in Siberian wilderness, where the inmates and guards alike decide that they cannot return to civilisation and instead choose to form their own female utopia.
  • Last Name Basis: Sophie Fevvers almost always referred to as Fevvers.
    • Likewise, Walser is referred to as Walser more often than Jack.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: There are more named characters than you'd expect from a relatively short novel.
  • Magic Realism
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • Fevvers's wings are advertised as this in-universe. Is she part swan, or all fake?
    • Lizzie seems to have magic powers, but she might just be very good at the old confidence trick.
  • Monster Clown: Buffo the Great, after he finally snaps.
  • Postmodernism
  • Power Dyes Your Hair: A symbolic inversion. When Fevvers breaks her wing and is stuck in Siberia, her usually peroxide blonde hair reverts to its natural brown.
  • Punny Name:
    • A woman with wings named Fevvers. Of course, because she was a foundling, this is deliberate in-universe.
    • Walser's name becomes a pun during his stint in the circus when he's made to waltz with a tigress. Remembering the word "waltz" also triggers some of his memory.
  • Purple Prose: One can certainly tell that Carter was having fun writing the novel, between multisyllabic and obscure vocabulary and the exaggerated metaphors, her theatrical prose really conveys the larger-than-life settings and characters.
  • Sad Clown: All of the clowns in Colonel Kearney's circus are deeply miserable, which seems to be a fundamental part of being a clown at all.
  • Seer: Sibyl the pig.
  • Shout-Out: Many. It is a work of Postmodernism, after all, and Carter loves the intertextuality.
    • The death of Mignon's mother and father closely mirrors Woyzeck.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: A big part of Fevvers's character is how she alternates between fanciful monologues and Cockney vulgarity.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: A very weird example in Siberia. Amnesiac Walser is lost in Siberia for long enough to go native and grow a long beard, but when he reunites with Fevvers and Lizzie, they can't have been wandering for more than a week.
  • Wearing a Flag on Your Head: The Colonel is so American he constantly wears the Stars and Stripes. Later, when Walser becomes a shaman in Siberia, he wears a very strange replica of the the Colonel's outfit.
  • Wild Hair: Walser when he reunites with Fevvers and Lizze, though for them, he was only lost for a week.
  • Winged Humanoid: Sophie Fevvers, of course.

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