Nights at the Circus

Nights at the Circus is the penultimate novel by Angela Carter; published in 1984, it marked a change of direction in her work. As well as being substantially longer than anything she had previously produced, it developed Carter’s earlier interest in fairy tales into a form of magical realism. This mode of writing – which was also practised at this time by writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Carter’s friend Salman Rushdie – uses imaginative, fantastical scenarios as a means of discussing stark social and political issues. These methods open postmodern questions of what constitutes truth and reality. The context of the circus – with all of its apparatus of entertaining deceit – serves Carter as a means of commenting on the similar tricks involved in writing fiction.

As with much of Carter’s work, there is a complex, committed feminism at the heart of the book, particularly in the way Lizzie, adoptive mother to the main protagonist Sophie Fevvers, steers her charge away from the patriarchal structures of marriage.

Fevvers is a six-foot-two Cockney trapeze artist who claims to have hatched from an egg and grown wings on reaching puberty. Part One of the book takes the form of an interview Fevvers gives to the American journalist Jack Walser, who subsequently joins the troupe – Colonel Kearney’s Circus – out of love and curiosity; from there, the book moves into travels across 19th-century Europe, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Though it won the 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the book had a mixed reception, and Carter wrote only one more novel, Wise Children (1991). Yet in the longer term, Nights at the Circus has fared better. In 2006, the novel was adapted for the stage, and in 2012, it was named the best ever winner of the James Tait Black; a prize that dates back to 1919. The writer Sarah Waters called it Carter’s ‘masterpiece … the most engaging and accessible of her fictions’.

Angela Carter

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