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
  • 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?
  • Ambiguously Human: Madame Schreck, who seems more like a walking skeleton or possibly a living puppet.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: In England, Christian Rosencruetz. In Russia, the Grand Duke and the Countess.
  • Belly Buttonless: Walser speculates that Fevvers, claiming to be hatched, should have no belly button. It turns out she doesn't.
  • 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.
  • Big Eater: Fevvers.
  • 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.
  • Cool Sword: Fevvers has a gilded, miniature sword, given to her by Ma Nelson, that she keeps for both show and self-protection. The Grand Duke breaks it.
  • 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.
  • Cunning Linguist: Fevvers has a knack for picking up languages, although her grammar and pronunciation are barbarous, speaking French, Italian, German, and, after a matter of days in Saint Petersburg, Russian.
  • Curse: After the Charivaris attempt to sabotage Fevvers's act, they find themselves always suffering from boils, headaches, and other such minor maladies that keep them from performing as well as they once could.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lizzie, and occasionally Fevvers.
  • Domestic Abuse: Drunken Monsieur Lamark the Ape-Man beats Mignon senseless almost every night. Thankfully, he drinks himself into a stupor and his monkeys run away, leaving Mignon to fall in love with the Princess of Abyssinia.
  • 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 is blonde and beloved by all of Europe.
  • Fauxreigner: The Princess of Abyssinia is not from nor has she ever been to Ethopia, and is in fact of Latin American stock and grew up near Marseilles. A reference to the Real Life Abyssinian princes hoax.
  • Feminist Fantasy
  • French Jerk: Monsieur Lamark, a murdering, drunken wife-beater.
  • 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.
  • Gaslamp Fantasy
  • 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.
  • Godiva Hair: When asked to appear neither naked nor clothed, Fevvers covers herself with her hair.
  • Going Native: Amnesiac Walser becomes a shaman when lost in Siberia.
  • Greed: Motivates Madame Schreck, Colonel Kearney, and, to some degree, Fevvers herself.
  • The Grotesque: The lost souls who inhabit Madame Schreck's brothel-cum-Freak Show:
    • Toussaint, the butler, a perfect gentleman born without a mouth;
    • The Sleeping Beauty;
    • The Wiltshire Wonder, a very little woman, apparently of fairy origin;
    • Fanny Four-Eyes, a Yorkshire woman with eyes for nipples;
    • Albert/Albertina, a bipartite hermaphrodite;
    • and Cobwebs, a melancholy girl with spiderweb-like skin.
  • Happily Adopted: Fevvers by the whores of Ma Nelson'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.
    • Explicitly averted by Walser, who doesn't have any sense of introspection or imagination.
  • 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.
    • The Prince of Wales makes a cameo appearance watching Fevvers perform in the first chapter.
  • 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.
  • Human Sacrifice: Christian Rosencruetz plans on doing this to Fevvers because he believes she's a Fallen Angel and it will grant him eternal life.
  • Interspecies Romance: One of the intelligent apes seems to develop a crush on Walser.
  • 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.
  • The Lost Woods: The Siberian taiga is a freezing cold example.
  • Magic Realism
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Fevvers's wings are advertised as this in-universe. Is she part swan, or all fake? The ambiguity is part of her appeal. If she's fake, then she's just another hoaxster, but if she's real, then she's no longer a marvel but a freak.
  • Missing Mom: Whoever birthed, or rather, hatched Fevvers is unknown to her. She doesn't seem to mind.
  • Mind Screw: Fevvers' evening with the Grand Duke is... bizarre, to say the least.
  • Monster Clown: Buffo the Great, after he finally snaps.
  • The Ophelia: Mignon has hints of this.
  • The Quiet One: Mignon and the Princess of Abyssinia.
  • 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.
  • Rape as Drama
    • Poor Mignon is raped almost continuously throughout her life.
  • Ride of the Valkyries: The Leitmotif Fevvers chose for herself, which Walser thinks is a bit on the nose.
  • 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.
  • Saying Too Much: In their interview with Walser, Fevvers and Lizzie both have a tendency to make political comments, only for the other to shoot her a Death Glare. As it turns out, Lizzie is an anarchist revolutionary.
  • Seer: Sibyl the pig.
  • Shining City: Saint Petersburg, "loveliest of all hallucinations," is portrayed this way, though not without its seedy and poverty-stricken side.
  • 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.
  • Show Within a Show
    • The circus performances, of course.
    • The narrative enters a point where the Wiltshire Wonder tells her life story to Fevvers, who tells it to Walser as part of her life story.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: A big part of the character of Sophie Fevvers is how she alternates between fanciful monologues and Cockney vulgarity.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Subverted by Ma Nelson's girls. Though the lives they live are certainly far above the standards of late Victorian sex workers, most of them would much rather be doing something else with their lives.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In the first third of the novel, "London", Fevvers recounts to Walser her life up to becoming a circus performer, and of course, it's so incredible, he gets the feeling she's daring him not to believe it.
  • Victorian London: The setting of the first third of the novel, appropriately titled "London".
  • 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. The fact she technically has six limbs and that the human body was not meant for flight are both addressed.
  • Witch Classic: Lizzie, a tiny, wizened woman with long grey hair, dresses in black, and has an apparent power for time manipulation and curses.
  • 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.

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