Nights at the Circus: Angela Carter

Somehow, in my journey through the education system, I managed to completely bypass Angela Carter. One of those strange omissions. This is my first, belated, foray into that weird and wonderful world. Nights at the Circus. I must admit I approached this novel with caution. I half expected to be shocked: testament to the power of the Carter myth. In the end I wasn’t – I get the impression The Bloody Chamber earned her that reputation – but I was entertained. Here are some reflections..

My copy had been frantically underlined by someone clearly doing GCSE or thereabouts – some very earnest recognition of innuendo going on. However, they only got a few chapters in, and the rest of the copy was mercifully untouched. More fool them.

I can see that Ms Carter is an ideal writer to teach – this novel lends itself very well to the illustration of literary devices and introduces some big themes in an engaging and memorable way. In particular, in the muscular, cockney-angelic Fevvers: the Feminine and Otherness.

Other notable characters are the mute pianist tiger tamer, along with her lover; a gifted singer, and survivor of an abusive marriage to a ‘monkey man’. And of course the journalist who loses his memory and becomes a visionary shaman, and the American circus-master who makes all his important decisions through his pet psychic pig, Sybil. So many convoluted metaphors.

Indeed, I began to suspect that the story was at times simply a device to link all these characters together. There is a whole episode, for instance, where we deviate from the central narrative entirely, and visit a hellish prison, designed by a murderess for the incarceration and correction of other murderesses. God knows it’s a powerful image – the panopticon; the surveillance punishment and the cells full of unrepentant women who eventually break free – but how on earth did it find it’s way into this novel? It seems a little far-fetched. But that’s not an argument for or against. This novel is a playground of mythic archetypes, superimposed on a fantastical modern stage. Any criticism on the grounds that it is absurd is irrelevant.

Final impressions.. Storytelling seems to be a big theme here, and feminine storytelling, that is, necessarily a-historical. What do the central characters – who are all women – have to say? They are carnal, hearty, sometimes villainous, sometimes vain; resourceful, outsiders, fiercely loyal and, above all, great talkers. This novel might as well be a yarn spun from the same riotous evening at the very beginning, when big ben repeatedly chimes midnight: time stands still, and the boundaries between fact and fiction, stage fantasy and droll reality become irrevocably blurred. In all the little episodes of this novel, the reader might sense Fevvers nudging us in the ribs. Great fun, if a little disorientating.

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