Sarah Waters on Nights at the Circus

Award-winning Welsh novelist Sarah Waters introduces Angela Carter’s iconic novel, Nights at the Circus. Fly this way to read of Fevvers…

The Passion of New Eve and Heroes and Villains I discovered to be baroque apocalyptic fables, stories of sex-change, sorcery, the epic struggle between civilisation and chaos. The Magic Toyshop I read as a Gothic story of adolescent awakening, of pleasure and fear. The Sadeian Woman, a piece of cultural criticism, daringly recast the Marquis de Sade as a clear-sighted analyst of sexual relations, the feminist’s ‘unconscious ally’. Nights at the Circus was published in the autumn of 1984, as I was starting life as an English student, too poor to afford a hardback. I bought the novel when it came out in paperback the following year and begged the university bookshop to give me the poster that had been sent out as part of the publicity campaign; and I stuck it to my college bedroom wall, as I might have pinned up other iconic ’80s images – the film poster for Betty Blue, or stickers saying ‘Coal Not Dole.’

I had to wait until 1991 for Carter’s next novel, the rambunctious Wise Children; this time, a girlfriend bought me the hardback as a birthday present. I had no idea that this would be Carter’s last work. I did not know that she was already becoming ill. This was years before I ever thought of writing myself, and the literary world was a closed and very distant one. I was familiar with a much-reproduced image of her, which showed an appealing-looking, handsome woman with strikingly high cheekbones and white hair, but I had never seen her speak or read from her work. Then, on a Sunday evening in the February of 1992, a friend rang me up to say that he had just heard on the radio that Angela Carter had died of lung cancer. We were both floored by the news – both, absurdly, as upset as if we’d known Carter personally; and both, with the sorrow of passionate readers, devastated at the loss of such a glorious literary talent.

Our reaction was, I suspect, far from unique. Carter’s literary reputation had been relatively slow to build; there had been a surge of popular interest in her work, at exactly the time I’d first heard of her, as a result of the release of Jordan’s film; but her audience, after that, remained a fiercely devoted one. And her writing had a particular resonance, I think, for women readers.

Her theatrical, fabular style has much in common with that of the other great magic realists, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; but she wrote, always, with a distinctly feminist agenda, determined to debunk cultural fantasies around sexuality, gender and class. She helped stimulate an excitement about feminist writing and feminist publishing (she was hugely supportive, for example, of the founding of the women’s publishing house Virago Press, in 1979), and many of her literary preoccupations – the challenging of the canon, the rewriting of fairy tale and myth, the imagining of female utopias and dystopias – lie at the heart of much feminist writing and thought from the 1970s and ’80s.

But few other writers, female or male, had her imagination, her literary audacity, her confidence with language and idea. Few had her power to unsettle as well as to inspire and console.

Nights at the Circus is her masterpiece; it’s also the most engaging and accessible of her fictions. Her earliest novels tend towards the stylised; Nights, by contrast, is a sprawling, garrulous book, a picaresque story of Rabelaisian proportions, with a suitably larger-than-life heroine: Fevvers, the winged Victorian ‘Cockney Venus’, six feet two in her stockings, with a voice like clanging dustbin lids and a face as ‘broad and oval as a meat dish’.

Fevvers’s extraordinary lifestory – given in the form of an interview to a sceptical American journalist, Jack Walser, backstage at the Alhambra Music Hall – makes up the novel’s substantial Part One. After that, still in pursuit of his story, Walser signs up alongside Fevvers as a clown, and Parts Two and Three transport us, unexpectedly, to Imperial Russia; first to the barely controlled mayhem of the St Petersburg Circus and then to the dizzying white wastes of Siberia.

As the landscape grows more extreme, so Carter pushes at the limits of the novel form itself. The cosy realist start expands, via fantasy and allegory, to open up a space for radical change. By the end of the book, personalities will have been reformed, social and gender dynamics rewritten, by – a wonderful phrase, which beautifully sums up Carter’s style and literary ethos – ‘the radiant shadow of the implausible’.

For Carter was, among many things, a fabulous storyteller, a professional liar, always revelling in narrative and its rude, primal pull. Nights at the Circus is full of stories, its basic structure regularly opening out to offer us the potted biographies of minor characters. There are Ma Nelson’s prostitutes, for example, who first discover Fevvers, newly hatched and abandoned, in a basket on the doorstep of their Whitechapel brothel. There are the inhabitants of the Museum of Women Monsters – Fanny Four-Eyes, the Wiltshire Wonder, and others – with whom Fevvers briefly throws in her fortunes once the brothel is disbanded.

There are the artistes of the Imperial Circus: Mignon, the Ape-Man’s abused missus; the tiger-taming Abyssinian Princess; and Buffo the Clown, who loses his wits mid-performance and is carted off to an asylum – much to the delight of the unsuspecting crowd, for whom it’s all part of the craziness of the ring. These characters’ stories erupt like fantastic blossoms out of the already gaudy foliage of Carter’s narrative, pushing it in wild, surprising directions but never throwing it off balance or weighing it down.

– Sarah Waters

This feature is an extract from Sarah Waters’ introduction to the Vintage Classics edition of Nights at the Circus.

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