When I started reading Nights at the Circus, having not previously read any Angela Carter, I expected a lot of pages like this:
Russia is a sphinx. You grand immobility, antique, hieratic, one haunch squatting on Asia, the other on Europe, what exemplary destiny are you knitting out of the blood and sinew of history in your sleeping womb?
She does not answer. Riddles bounce off her sides, as gaily painted as those of a peasant troika.
Russia is a sphinx; St Petersburg, the beautiful smile of her face. Petersburg, loveliest of all hallucinations, the shimmering mirage in the Northern wilderness glimpsed for a breathless second between black forest and the frozen sea. (p. 96)
What I mean is: passages that ostentatiously mythologize and beautify the world, that are more interested in an idea of the world than the world itself. I mean melodramatic yet oddly mannered imagery of blood and riddles, sentences exhaustingly—breathlessly, even—striving for affect. I mean the sort of thing that is easy to do badly or insensitively, as the above passage is done badly and insensitively (the enigmatic otherness of Russia!), and that even when done well is usually most satisfying in small doses.
I'm not quite sure how or where I picked up this impression. Sexism, probably. Carter seems to me at this point to be canonized quite firmly (which as a reviewer is a strangely liberating feeling, actually) but also quite narrowly, as the feminist fey fabulist, re-teller of tales. Those of you who've already read Nights at the Circus are probably ahead of me at this point, but as a reading experience it strikes me as a novel aware of that cage descending and trying to preemptively duck away—it is her penultimate novel, published in 1984—holding on to the honorable parts of that categorization while insisting that it is wilder and stranger than the communal definition of the category allows.
The thing is, you see, that the passage I quoted above isn't unfiltered Carter. It's a first-draft attempt at travel writing by one Jack Walser, our viewpoint character for much of the novel and a somewhat callow American journalist—"unfinished" is Carter's word—who has run away with the circus to St Petersburg in pursuit of a woman and a story and, though he wouldn't necessarily admit it, is rather overwhelmed by the whole experience. What he can admit is that his writing is suffering: "The city precipitated him towards hyperbole; never before had he bandied about so many adjectives" (p. 95). A few pages later the initial effect is undermined still further, as the narrative reveals that Walser "has, in reality, seen only the beastly backside" of the city (p. 104). Carter's narrative voice—at least in this novel—is certainly aware of the lure of the fascinating foreign vista, so when we hit Walser's passage unlabelled we perhaps feel indulged; and then she reveals the shallowness of it all. In a novel very obviously concerned with performance and perception, it's all thematically apt, but it's also simply a wonderfully choreographed few pages, each sentence doing precisely the job it is meant to do.
In contrast, then, here's how Nights at the Circus actually starts:
"Lor' love you, sir!" Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. "As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn't I! Not billed the 'Cockney Venus' for nothing, sir, though they could just as well 'ave called me 'Helen of the High Wire,' due to the unusual circumstances in which I came ashore—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!" (p. 7)
Like the first passage, this is breathless stuff—literally so for Fevvers, you feel—but otherwise the tone is entirely different, rooted in experience rather than perception. You don't put a word like "clanged" in your first sentence lightly; indeed the whole paragraph clangs, exuberantly demotic and unpredictable in its rhythm (that semi-colon knocked me off balance, at least). Yet it's also playing games. As we soon learn, Fevvers is a consummate performer, the most famous acrobat of her day, thanks to her stature (she is six foot two), her character ("It was impossible to imagine any gesture of hers that did not have that kind of grand, vulgar, careless generosity about it" [p. 12]), and perhaps most of all, her (alleged) wings, the feature that has drawn Walser to her. As we learn all this, Carter's words and rhythms are well-chosen, but this time they're more typical of the novel as a whole: exciting, surprising, earthy; more likely to be vividly ugly than lavishly beautiful. More punk than myth—the Leda echoes are very lightly handled—and all the better for it.
All of which said, if there's one reservation that lingers from my initial assumptions, it's that one about dosage. At the level of the sentence, paragraph or page, Carter rarely puts a foot wrong; but I don't know that Nights at the Circus quite sticks the dismount as a novel.
The first third, it's true, is a glory. We're in Fevvers's dressing room as she grants Walser an audience and proceeds—with occasional interjections from her companion and foster mother Lizzie—to recount her biography. In impeccable club story fashion, we follow Fevvers from her childhood in a brothel, through a brief stint working in an ice cream shop, to her recruitment as an exhibit in "a museum of woman monsters," to her abduction for use in occult sacrifice, to her present occupation as a star acrobat: an episodic adventure, bound together for an increasingly disoriented Walser and for us, by her "dark, rusty, dipping, swooping voice, imperious as a siren's" (p. 43). Time itself becomes malleable, the clock strikes twelve more than once—although we're never quite sure (until much later in the novel) whether this is enchantment or simple trickery, an equipoise characteristic of Fevvers's improbable adventures. Such facts as do appear in her narrative tease: the first fact offered to Walser is, of course, uncheckable for reasons of propriety. It is a complete performance.
Part two of the novel, as already mentioned, relocates to Russia, with Fevvers signed up with a circus and Walser on her trail and undercover as a clown. Once again the narrative is episodic, introducing us to the many different acts—and offering backstory for each, and sometimes tangential sidestory within the backstory—but this time we're a wandering viewpoint, and in the absence of Fevvers's voice there's no glue to bind the whole together. The result is a ramshackle, uneven hundred pages, which may well be intended to reflect the chaotic nature of the circus—and which still includes many striking moments, as when Walser finds himself waltzing with a tiger, a passage notable both for its wonder (the equipoise has been all but lost by this point) and its robust animality, the "alien essence" glimpsed in the tiger's eyes, and her "wonderfully foul" (p. 164) breath puncturing the moment. But it was still a relief when it was over.
A relief despite the fact that the novel's concluding segment—in which the circus sets off across Siberia (ultimate destination the court of the Emperor of Japan) is waylaid by bandits, and scattered to various different situations—includes the most complex and ambitious passages of all. Fevvers's voice is back—but as a native first-person this time, not reported speech; and not solo, we slip in and out of her perspective, and between past and present tense. And the story's relation to the fantastic is recomplicated—the presence of certain supernatural events seems beyond dispute, but this is also the point in the story when the mythology of Fevvers (though not her self-mythologizing) bites back, since it's the reason the bandits attack: they believe she knows the British royal family, and they want to use her as leverage. There's much else going on besides—female convicts break out of their panopticon confinement and set off to build utopia somewhere in the background; more problematically, Walser has his conceptions of time and reality shifted by time spent with some Mongolian nomads—and the telling remains so scattershot and digressive that, as in part two, you'd be hard-pressed to assert that the novel has narrative momentum as such. But it recovers some of the compulsion of Fevvers's opening performance nonetheless.
Nights at the Circus is, then, for me at least, a novel with less unity than I think it seeks or believes it has. Sentences are not everything. It's a novel filled with moments of local interest that never quite seem to earn out, or if they do succeed only obliquely—the iterations of women-only worlds being the most notable example, from Nelson's brothel where Fevvers was raised ("we were all suffragists in that house" [p. 38]), to the slave conditions in Madame Schreck's museum of female monsters, to the escaping female convicts heading out into "a blank sheet of paper on which they could inscribe whatever future they wished" (p. 218). They offer a concept that has helped to shape Fevvers but not one that, in the end, to which she is dedicated (perhaps the convicts exist to show that Fevvers's ultimately more conventional choices, triumphantly asserted, do not negate radical possibility? They seem merely an enjoyable digression otherwise). It's a text that collects images as much as it fashions a narrative, teases with allusions to theory ("simulacra" gets a nod) as much as it develops an argument; it is a jumble waiting for a reader to impose meaning. It sparkles, but is cut rough.
So what meaning do I find in Nights at the Circus?
I was struck, first of all, by how present time is in the novel, as a force. Time binds the characters; the apparent timeslip during Walser's initial audience with Fevvers is one of the key early indicators that something may really be up. But the novel and its characters are often self-conscious about time, as well, always aware that—as the narrator puts it—they "are at the fag-end, the smouldering cigar-butt, of a nineteenth century which is just about to be ground out in the ashtray of history" (p. 11). Fevvers herself is impatient for the new century to bring renewal, to reveal her destiny (she is linked with the idea of the modern several times). In Madam Schreck's museum, we are told that the dream that makes sleeping beauty weep is a dream of the coming century.
Once we reach Siberia, the novel both does and doesn't break faith with the notion of time as a guide. Lizzie, in a bravura speech, has no patience for it: "we live, always, in the here and now, the present. To pin your hopes upon the future is to consign those hopes to a hypothesis, which is to say, a nothingness" (p. 239). The Mongolian nomads looking after Walser, however, seem to trump this when they are described as living outside of time, of being in fact paradigmatic of the human condition before Imperial Time conquered all: had there been a vote "at the cusp of the modern age," we are told, then most of the world's population "would have heartily concurred with these indigenous Siberians that the whole idea of the twentieth century, or any other century at all, for that matter, was a rum notion" (p. 265). And their timelessness has by this point already been set up as linked to the fantastic—"there existed no difference between fact and fiction; instead, a sort of magic realism" (p. 260)—a telling choice of words indeed.
And it seemed disappointing to me, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously it's the sort of idealized othering that Carter skewered with Walser's naïve Russia-euphoria. The idea that there is such a state as changelessness, without history, is suspect—there is such a thing as time before Euro-American Imperial History, certainly, and the extinguishing of that was a tragedy and a crime; but to argue that there was a state without history as such seems more like a denial of humanity than anything else. Perhaps even more than this, though, I was unsatisfied by the shift in focus. For Lizzie, time is the enemy because it discourages present action; for the nomads, time is a disease because it compels it, and because such compulsion somehow reduces the world, strips it of magic: and I think the latter is an untrue cliché, unworthy of this novel's intelligence.
So much for time. On a different track, I was also struck by how directed the novel's trajectory in space was, tracing a very clear path from city to wilderness. Partly this is simply to up the stakes for Fevvers, I think; early on she states her preference plainly: "I both hate and fear the open country . . . a bit of landscape that has no people in it is as good as desert waste to me" (p. 81). There's certainly no sense of active nature anywhere, the world—rural or urban—is merely the set for the performance. But the overall trajectory ties in, I think, with an interest in the position of humanity with respect to nature: the recurring images of the animalistic and the monstrous are refreshed and re-contextualized as the backdrop changes.
Put another way, I think that for Carter there is really very little difference between the animal and the monstrous as concepts within culture. One often stands for the other. Leave aside, for a moment, Fevvers herself, a winged woman repeatedly figured as monstrous; the entire circus is a set of challenges as to which we consider more monstrous, the animals or their handlers. I've mentioned the tiger dance already. I could point to the way in which the ringmaster is assisted in his business decisions by Miss Sybil, whom he trusts implicitly and believes is clairvoyant—except that Miss Sybil is a pig. I could point to the clowns, who are at best tasteless and vulgar and at worst sadistically cruel, humans choosing to be monstrous. And I could point to the chimps from the chimp school, the leader of whom turns around to demand the right to manage their own act and be paid direct for it. Now look at Fevvers again, and the way her monstrousness is particularly gendered. The crucial analysis comes once again from Lizzie, who argues that Fevvers might want to "think twice about turning from a freak into a woman" (p. 283), because of the costs that "nature" imposes for doing so, by which we understand that she actually means the costs of the social construction built around female biology; freak to woman might simply be a change in monstrousness, out of the frying pan, into the fire.
And yet boundaries in this novel exist to be transgressed. Early on, Fevvers explains her view of 'human nature':
For what is 'natural' and 'unnatural,' sir? The mould in which the human form is cast is exceedingly fragile. Give it the slightest tap with your fingers and it breaks. (p. 61)
She's talking in an immediate sense physiologically, but the logic applies psychologically, as well. There are two notable things about her observation, for me. First, she's not talking about the human form itself, but the mold in which it is cast: external forces act to produce the human nature we see, bound up by gender roles and all the rest. Second, she doesn't talk in terms of the mold being flexible, or varied, but in terms of it being fragile. It can break, and at that point there is no "true" definition of humanity.
Perhaps that's why it's no surprise that some of the novel's most vivid, not to say likable, characters are in fact animals. More importantly, perhaps that's why Nights at the Circus feels triumphant when it asserts that Fevvers will "become fact" in the twentieth century (whether in spite or because of the acknowledged Imperialism of Time); she might as well be saying she will become human, in defiance of all categories. Carter's world is a construct of conventions, no underlying real but what we choose. It's a step or two further than I can follow, in some ways—I can agree there is nothing essential without necessarily agreeing that there is only culture—but it is a liberating, exhilarating notion to play with. And if, in her revels, Carter breaks out of the novel's fragile mold, perhaps that's no bad thing.