Nights at the Circus (1984) turned out to be a wondrously unexpected confection of high Gothic camp and sly cultural criticism.
I say unexpected; in actual fact I had no idea quite what to expect going into the book. Angela Carter is famous – in some cases notorious – for her bloody, dark Gothic fairy tale retellings, awash with trenchant second-wave feminism. Never having read any of her work (and having neglected to read the back of the book before I started it), I was expecting a collection of short stories; what I got was a novel.
Nights at the Circus, then, follows Fevvers, an aerialiste travelling Europe with a circus in 1899, the last months of the nineteenth century. She’s something of an international star, due to the pair of enormous technicolour wings she sports on her back. Are they real, or false? Is she fact or fiction? Jack Walser, an American journalist, tries to find out: first by interviewing her, and then by joining the circus and following her across Europe, even to the frozen wastes of Siberia.
Like all good Gothic novels, it’s a book engaged in pushing at the limitations of narrative, which is also where Carter’s feminism – or, rather, her radicalism – comes in.
A key part of this pushing, it seems to me, is the book’s treatment of time. It’s no accident that Nights at the Circus is set right on the boundary between one century and the next: a liminal space, a pause where the nineteenth century runs out of steam and the twentieth has yet to gear up; a place of potential, and thus of uncertainty.
In the first section of the novel, in which Walser interviews Fevvers and her ever-present companion Lizzie, and is treated to an extended recitation of her increasingly colourful and unlikely life story, he hears Big Ben strike midnight. And then again. And again. Walser is a rational being, and he cannot quite fit this into his head: is it a trick? A mistake? Is he hallucinating? The uncertainty this creates – and, deftly, Carter manages to maintain it as uncertainty, never quite making the women’s power over time explicit – reverberates through the book, setting up interference patterns with its ostensibly realist mode, leaving it constantly in an, as it were, startled destabilisation that never exactly topples into something surer.
Because, of course, Nights at the Circus is pastiching the classic Victorian novel, with its three-book structure, its dense run-on syntax, the cynical and would-be objective observer (Walser) with whom the story begins; which, again, makes it all the more effective when moments of hallucinatory magic realism creep in; as when, late in the novel, the train carrying the circus through Siberia crashes in the wilderness, and Fevvers looks on the carriage that once held the tigers:
[blockquote] …the tigers were all gone into the mirrors. How to describe it. The “wagon salon” lay on its side, ripped open like the wrappings of a Christmas toy by an impatient child, and, of those lovely creatures, not a trace of blood or sinew, nothing. Only pile upon pile of broken shards of mirror…On one broken fragment of mirror, a paw with the claws out; on another, a snarl. When I picked up a section of flank, the glass burned my fingers and I dropped it. [blockquote]
Is this metaphor or truth? Hallucination or magic? The text is never allowed to retain the objectivity of Victorian narrative, and never allowed to stabilise into anything else, either. The Victorian novel is, in fact, queered: to create that carnivalesque circus-space which, matter-of-factly, defies normativity of all kinds. There is space in the circus for strong and ambiguous female relationships like Lizzie and Fevvers’; for unambivalently queer relationships like that between the female tiger-tamer and Mignon, a girl picked up on the streets of St Petersburg with a history of abuse at the hands of men; for humankind’s close cousins, the chimpanzees, to come into their own as intelligent and independent beings. This space, of course, is space denied to these groups by the traditional Victorian narrative.
It is a glorious text; but I confess to being disappointed by its closing third, which sees the circus gradually scattered by the vastness of Siberia, Fevvers herself fading from brash and defiant technicolour to more muted shades of lostness. I think there is a reading here, perhaps, that sees the trappings of civilisation, and thus the very need for such queering, stripped away by the wilderness at Russia’s heart: Walser ends up among a shamanic tribe who have no sense of historic time (here again the theme of the tyranny of history), briefly made amnesiac from the crash, so that his links to white male civilisation are shorn away, and only that experience makes him worthy to be (inevitably but still disappointingly) paired off with Fevvers. And, in a side-plot, the Siberian wasteland becomes a site for queer revolution, as female prisoners in a nightmarish pantechnicon fall in love with their female guards and rise up against their tyrant jailer. The point being, I think, that the frozen wastes outside civilisation crumble old assumptions about civilisation away, generating a new, and most importantly stable, space for the dispossessed and the downtrodden that is not fetishised and contingent as the circus necessarily is.
And yet: I missed the glorious and defiant Fevvers of the first half of the book; and I also feel uneasy about the superstitious portrayal of the Russian tribe that helps Walser to his epiphany. They exist without context in a novel in which everything else is complicated, and that feels like a lazy and an exploitative choice.
It’s not a perfect book, then; but the Gothic is not a genre of perfection; precisely the opposite, in fact. The Gothic creates gaps in our orders of signification; and here, fairly unusually, those gaps are serving a political purpose as well as a structural one. If Nights at the Circus isn’t perfect, it is at least fascinating and full of ambivalence, and my, will I be keeping an eye out for more of Carter’s work.