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These are Angela Carter’s early drafts of the opening of Nights at the Circus, in which Fevvers and Jack Walser are introduced to the reader and Fevvers performs her aerial act for the first time. Both show the novel in dynamic development: the first draft is handwritten by Carter, with heavy revisions and additions, while the second is typewritten with many annotations made by Carter in pen.
The extracts show Carter crafting the playfully inventive, ornate language she is known for: in the very first line, for instance, Carter changes the description of Fevvers from a ‘young woman’ to a ‘magnificent female’. Later on the first page, Jack no longer ‘reddened to the roots of his hair’, but has ‘gone borsht to the roots of his hair’ (borscht is a beetroot soup known for its vivid pink or red colour) (see f. 2r). However, there are some differences between the drafts and published text that show Carter scaling back: in the drafts Jack’s surname is ‘Waltzer’, an explicit allusion to the disorientating, rotating fairground ride, but this is changed to ‘Walser’ in the published novel.
Published in 1984, Nights at the Circus was Carter’s penultimate novel. Many regard it as her masterpiece.
The vivid tale – part magical realism, part postmodern fairy tale – follows the life of Sophie Fevvers – a winged, six-foot-two aerialiste, part-woman, part-swan. Set at the close of the 19th century, it begins in the dressing room of the Alhambra Music Hall with the sceptical American journalist Jack Walser on a quest to discover who – and what – Fevvers really is. Walser is soon dazzled by the larger-than-life Cockney heroine, however, and joins Fevvers and the colourful circus troupe that she performs with as their world-famous star on a tour across London (Part One, as shown in this extract), Russia (Part Two, see Add MS 88899/1/13–14) and Siberia (Part Three, see Add MS 88899/1/15).
As well as being her most formally experimental novel (Carter continually shifts between and destabilises narrative voice), Nights at the Circus is marked by Carter’s talent for storytelling, as well as her interest in exploring appearance versus reality and overturning assumptions around class, sexuality and gender.