"She owes it to herself to remain a woman, he thought. It is her human duty. As a symbolic woman, she has a meaning, as an anomaly, none."
I swear that, before I started blogging, I had basically never read a book about a circus- now, in just over a year I've read 3, and they've all been remarkably different. One was kind of a meditation on living in the past, the next a celebration of magic, both actual and in a kind of the-magic-of-the-circus sort of way. And then there's this, which is something else again. Exactly what, I'll try to explain.
Nights at the Circus is the first Angela Carter book I've read, due to a kind of... I don't know, fear or something that I wouldn't fully 'get' her, which I considered a bit of a problem since Frances wrote her whole dissertation on Carter's books, and, well, I didn't want to show myself up! I still can't exactly say that I 'get' Angela Carter, but then I'm not sure anyone can have ever said that they completely do with much conviction. No, I'm afraid you pretty much just have to hang on and go along with the ride. It's a fun one!
Clearly what Angela Carter said ALL THE TIME.
So, this book. It's separated into three distinct sections (as in, you know, they're literally labelled parts one, two and three. So this wasn't that tricky to figure out!) all of which are very different story-wise, but all contain elements of magical realism, and, as a result, are kind of insane. In a good way! Part one takes place over the course of an evening, as an interview between Fevvers, the apparently winged star of the circus, and Jack Walser, a journalist who's just trying to figure out if she's a hoax or not. And just in this first section, there's SO MUCH to think about- whether or not Fevvers is a fraud, and if she isn't, then how she almost has to pretend to be one to fit in, how the only work for women (apart from the circus, I guess) is a variety of sex work, and just what it meant to be poor and a woman in those times.
I feel like this first section really endears Fevvers to the reader, or at least, you know, to me. While at times she definitely seems stand-offish, there's a really sensible core to her that doesn't allow for any bullshit. Example: She was sold to this guy who insisted on seeing her as an angel (winged being and all) and spouts off all this philosophical-religious talk, about which Fevvers sensibly says
"'Which is all very well, no doubt, but I thought, in that case, the least he could do was ask me to sit down and he never thinks of that, nor does he even offer me so much as a cup of tea after the very trying journey I've had of it.'"In spite of her wings, she's maybe the most down to earth character in the book!
So the first section introduces Fevvers' life history, and then the second part shifts the focus away from her entirely and looks towards the circus as a whole. Which, I have to admit, is slightly jarring and frustrating to a certain extent, in that you've just become really invested in this one character and now she's become entirely secondary, but it's also really interesting because you get a wider view of the circus and its people and weird interconnectedness. It also means that when Fevvers DOES show up, oh man, do you pay attention! This wider view also allows for many subplots to crop up, which means, I'm pleased to tell you, a lesbian relationship because, in a book with this many women, there had to be at least one. And there is. At least one.
Seriously, though? SO many women. There are basically about 3 male characters, and everyone else is a woman, which is GLORIOUS because it means that such a wide tableau of women's stories can be told. There's the self-assured former prostitute, the woman who's been abused all her life but, with the help of others, manages to break the cycle, the prisoner, the prison guard... And so many others. And all of them feel real, not like tired stereotypes of a 'type' of woman, but actual living, breathing women that you could meet, wings and all (because of course all of this goes doubly for Fevvers).
It's sort of amazing, is what I'm saying.
And, along with all of these things, it's got some fairly breathtaking writing:
"Brisk, bright, wintry morning, under a sky that mimics a bell of blue glass so well it looks as if it wold ring out glad tidings at the lightest blow of a fingernail. A thick rime of frost everywhere, giving things a festive, tinsel trim. The rare Northern sunlight makes up in brilliance for what it lacks in warmth, like certain nervous temperaments. Today the Stars and Stripes billow out bravely, as if they meant it, above the courtyard of the Imperial Circus, where the courtyard is as full of folk and bustle as a Breughel- all in motion, all hustle-bustle!"I mean, that just actually makes me feel chilly! And sort of breathless and impressed and amazed.
And then there's also one of the best things I've read on what it feels like to be objectified:
"In [his] eyes, she saw herself, at last, swimming into definition, like the image on photographic paper; but, instead of Fevvers, she saw two perfect miniatures of a dream. She felt her outlines waver; she felt herself trapped forever in the reflection in [his] eyes. For one moment, just one moment, Fevvers faced the worst crisis of her life: 'Am I fact? Or am I fiction? Am I what I know I am? Or am I what he thinks I am?'"Basically, I have a lot of feelings about Nights at the Circus,