Nights at the Circus

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Nights at the Circus

by Angela Carter


A novel set in London, St. Petersburg and Siberia in 1899; published in 1984.


A winged aerialiste tells her life story to a reporter. Afterwards the reporter joins the circus himself, following the performer on a world tour.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Nights at the Circus is the eighth of nine novels written by Angela Carter (1940-92) before she died of cancer at the age of 51, in her literary prime. Raised in Yorkshire and London by middle-class parents, Carter began writing in the 1960s, publishing her first novel while still an undergraduate at Bristol University. After her initial successes, Carter moved to Japan from 1969 to 1972, a period she cites as extremely influential on her later work. In Japan she gained a new sense of what it meant to be a woman, and the experience radicalized her. Carter’s fiction is complex, densely allusive, sexually explicit, frequently derisive, and always subversive. Although it makes much use of themes and images from myth and fairy tales, she defined myth as “consolatory nonsense,” declaring her self to be in the demythologizing business (Carter in Peach, p. 9). The novelist Salman Rushdie (see Midnight’s Children , ako in WLAIT 4: British and lrish Literature and Its Times) once described Carter’s books as drawing “their strength, their vitality, from all that is unrighteous, illegitimate, low” (Rushdie, p. 5). Following in this tradition, Nights at the Circus recounts the rise of a female foundling who is raised by prostitutes and becomes a celebrated circus performer; she serves as a vital symbol of the new vistas for women that would unfold in the twentieth century.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Victoria, industry, and urban disparity

The novel is set in 1899, a turning point, in many ways, for British and world history. In Britain, it was the end of the Victorian era, named for the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), who, with her husband Prince Albert, set an example of duty and decorum, emphasizing adherence to a strict code of propriety. This image of prim morality was partially undercut at the end of the Victorian era by the behavior of Victoria’s eldest son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, to whom the British throne would soon pass. Edward embarrassed the court and entertained the public with his scandalous and highly publicized lifestyle of gambling, drinking, and womanizing. In the novel, Prince Edward is a nightly spectator at London’s Alhambra Theater where Fewers, the Novel’s winged heroine, performs her trapeze act. There he sits “stroking his beard and meditating upon the erotic possibilities of her ability to hover and the problematic of his paunch vis-avis the missionary position” (Carter, Nights at the Circus, p. 18).

During Victoria’s reign, Britain had consolidated its position as the world’s first industrialized nation. By the end of the nineteenth century, 80 percent of the population lived in town, making Britain the world’s first urban nation as well. Britain’s industrial strength allowed British imperialism, driven by trade, to extend British influence to parts of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific—which by this time had been subsumed by the British Empire. The heart of the British Empire was London, a city that, like other great cities of the day, contained within its ever-widening boundaries great disparities in fortune. The most prosperous Londoners had their homes in the glamorous West End of town with its majestic houses, decorous gardens, and wide well-lit streets. The East End, characterized by dark narrow alleys, omnipresent filth, and crowded dilapidated dwellings, was notoriously the poorest part of town, but poor parts surrounded the small enclave of rich London on all sides.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, conditions began to materially improve for the working classes. Trade unions gained some power, which enabled them to offer their members sickness and unemployment benefits. Wages increased, and housing and diet began to improve. Workers even gained a little leisure time, and small amounts of spending money to enjoy it. The divide between the two Londons, rich and poor, was bridged to some extent by a more complex class system as the middle class expanded and diversified with the opening of new jobs in the service sector. Still, despite these changes, by century’s end nearly 30 percent of London remained in abject poverty.

Victorian women

Just as the two Londons were separated by a gulf of difference, middle-and upper-class women of the Victorian era were regarded as altogether different from working-class women. Restriction to the sphere of home seemed necessary for respectable Englishwomen of the middle and upper classes. Working women, in contrast, could not afford this luxury. The working-class perspective, moreover, did not view the public world as a place of dangerous impropriety for women. With families of seven children sharing a single room, or even a part of a room in a boarding house, the city streets of poor London formed a necessary annex to home; in fact, they were known as “the drawing-room of the poor,” a place where women as well as men conducted much of their lives (Barret-Ducrocq, p. 9). Such mixing of the sexes and lack of privacy made modesty—considered essential by middle-and upper-class women—an impossibility for the working-class woman. In respect to clothing too, there were glaring differences. As Victorian fashion dictated more and more articles of clothing for women, the poor woman, who could not afford so many superfluous items of dress, were seen as shockingly underdressed; the literature of the day went so far as to characterize poor women as naked for simply failing to wear gloves, hats, or the requisite number of petticoats. Such circumstances resulted in a middle-to-upper-class concept of the poor in general, and poor women in particular, as individuals who were necessarily immoral.

The phenomenon of working-class children born out of wedlock was seen as a symptom of this immorality. In actuality, working-class children born out of wedlock were the product of a different morality, a more traditional rural ethic whereby premarital sex was condoned as long as there was a definite engagement. This ethic was not shared by the middle and upper classes, who had come to regard such behavior as shocking. Reflecting their outrage, “bastardy clauses,” negating an unmarried mother’s right to compensation by the child’s father, were added to the Poor Law when it was reformed in 1834. The reformers reasoned that the Poor Law, which gave unwed mothers the legal right to demand marriage or monetary compensation from unwed fathers, encouraged moral laxity, and also led to the entrapment of some “innocent” men. Unsurprisingly, many late-nineteenth-century unwed fathers took advantage of this change in the law and the changing mores of their time to desert their pregnant girlfriends.

What was a pregnant, unwed working woman to do? There was no social safety net at this time, and wages for working women, barely enough to keep a single person alive, could in no way pay for a nurse to care for a child while the mother worked. Some women tried the dangerous drugs offered illegally by certain chemists to induce abortion, but these often failed to produce the desired effect. The first foundling hospital was established in London in 1741, but the rules for admission were stringent, and many could not meet the strict requirements. Nights at the Circus presents one possibility, no doubt resorted to by many unfortunate women: the infant fevver is found abandoned in a basket on the front steps of a stately London house, which turns out to be a brothel.

Victorian prostitution

Prostitution was seen as the ultimate expression of the supposed immorality of working-class women. In fact, in nineteenth-century London, it was not unusual for working-class women to resort to prostitution, either occasionally or as a full-time profession. Poverty wages, long off-seasons for many kinds of work, and 12-hour workdays filled with difficult, tedious labor made prostitution an alluring option for some women.

Social workers and charitable organizations of the time compiled information on London prostitutes from which the following picture emerges: most were “unskilled daughters of the unskilled classes,” exchanging futureless careers as maids or low-wage laborers for what seemed a relatively profitable, independent line of work (Abraham Flexner in Walkowitz, p. 15). The late teens was the usual age for a young woman, usually an orphan, to become a prostitute, and most left the trade in their mid-twenties. Although some London prostitutes catered to the upper and middle classes, the majority served a working-class clientele. A few made enough money to put some aside for the future, but the average prostitute barely scraped by, earning about as much as she would at other low-wage jobs open to women at the time, though she usually enjoyed more autonomy than she would in these other jobs.

Most prostitutes were streetwalkers—only a small minority lived in brothels, largely because of autonomy. In a brothel, explained one woman, “You ain’t your own master, and I always like my freedom” (Walkowitz, p. 24). The novel describes a rare yet realistic situation in which prostitutes live together in an outwardly respectable establishment, whose “inmates had achieved a ‘quiet truce with the police” (Walkowitz, p. 24). The camaraderie and literary interests of the novel’s prostitutes likewise reflect reality. Victorian prostitutes were known to pool resources to help one of their number; some prostitutes even formed small communistic societies where all earnings were shared and spent according to need. And on several occasions social workers were shocked by the intellectual level of a prostitute, who had “really superior books lying about” in her abode (Walkowitz, p. 28).

In the mid-nineteenth century, prostitution attracted public attention when the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act forced prostitutes to undergo regular internal examinations for venereal disease. The aim was to control infection among members of the armed forces, who had frequent recourse to prostitutes at this time. The 1864 measure, and especially the protests against it, brought to light an aspect of British society that hitherto had been largely ignored. Although some feminists protested forced examination as violence against women, most protesters objected to the seeming legitimization of vice that the Act entailed. In response to this legitimization, a movement to wipe out prostitution was born.

There was disagreement as to the root cause of prostitution. A few progressives saw prostitution as directly linked to the lack of economic opportunities open to women. Evangelical reformers tended to see prostitution as one symptom of the immorality of the poor, led astray by their “promiscuous” living conditions and the decline in churchgoing and traditional values. Still others saw the problem of prostitution as inherent to female sexuality only severe social and legal restraints could keep women from their natural depravity. In the novel, fevvers argues against this fairly common misogynist view: “though some of the customers would swear that whores do it for pleasure, that is only to ease their own consciences, so that they will feel less foolish when they fork out hard cash for pleasure that has no real existence unless given freely” (Nights at the Circus, p. 39). The Contagious Diseases Act was repealed in 1886. But moral crusaders continued to wage a social-purity campaign, which in the end led not to the demise of prostitution but only to more difficulties for its women, because of added attention from the crusaders and police.

Russia 1899

After leaving London, the novel moves to St. Petersburg, capital of Russia from 1703 to 1918. Although Russia formed trade and political alliances with countries to the west, life there remained quite different from life in nineteenth-century western Europe. Russia’s leader, the tsar, was an autocratic dictator; the Orthodox Church strictly controlled many aspects of Russian culture; and the masses remained peasants,


Although the term “feminism” was not coined until the end of the nineteenth century, several Victorian social movements can be described as feminist. For example, Josephine Butler led the fight to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act, Emily Davies fought for the right of women to be admitted to universities, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett organized the women’s suffrage movement. All three of these feminist movements had broad support among men as well as women. At the time, feminism was informed by a strong sense of the differences believed to exist between men and women. Women were regarded as natural nurturers, the moral superiors of men. The belief was that a woman had greater ability to empathize with the weak; consequently she had greater responsibility to take their part against the strong.

living in slave like serfdom, a possession of either the state or the noble on whose land they dwelt. Some saw these factors as the source of Russia’s might; others perceived them to be barriers to Russia’s potential greatness. In western Europe, Russia was generally regarded as a backwards nation.

In 1899, the reigning emperor in Russia’s capital was Nicholas II. His wife, the Empress Alexandra, was a German granddaughter of England’s Queen Victoria, but despite this connection with constitutional England, Nicholas adhered to the principles of autocracy, openly ridiculing the idea of representative government. He had enemies. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin published his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in 1899. The political movement that would lead to the unsuccessful Russian Revolution six years hence was growing at home and among Russian dissidents abroad, notably in Britain. In the novel, Fevvers’s socialist foster-mother, Lizzie, sends news of the movement in St. Petersburg to Russian revolutionaries in London exile.

From the days of Peter the Great (1672-1725), Russia had been expanding her boundaries to form an empire of her own. Over time, Russia gained control of Poland, Finland, western Turkey, Georgia and the Caucasus. Western Europe feared and resisted Russia’s expansion. Britain, in particular, cast a wary eye on Russian inland encroachment on India, the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. In the nineteenth century, Russia and Britain were each other’s chief adversaries, not only because of this imperial dispute, but also because Russian autocracy and British liberalism represented opposing poles on the spectrum of European politics.

Siberia 1899

While western Europe viewed Russian expansion to the west and south with concern, Russia was also extending her control to the east, over Siberia in northern Asia. Siberia spreads from the Ural mountain range in the west all the way to the Pacific Ocean in the east. It comprises three distinct geographic zones: the north, a barren tundra covered in snow for much of the year; the taiga, a middle forest belt; and the south, a hot, dry desert. Like the landscape, the native peoples vary greatly, from pastoral nomads in the south, to reindeer-herders in the north, from hunters and gatherers in the taiga, to the peoples of the northern and eastern coasts, who live almost exclusively off sea mammals. All Siberians were essentially nomadic prior to Russian rule.

In the sixteenth century, several leaders of Siberian peoples were induced to sign treaties acknowledging the power of the Russian Tsar and pledging tribute. Russia, however, did not seriously turn its attention to Siberia until the nineteenth century. Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the only means of access to the region other than by human or animal foot, had not begun until 1891. By its completion in 1905, it would stretch from Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains through the taiga to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. At 5,500 miles, it was the world’s longest railroad. In the novel, Fevvers’s circus company takes the Trans-Siberian Express to get from Russia to Japan.

The Russian government came to view exile as a means of populating this eastern frontier, punishing all kinds of infractions from treason to fortune telling with expulsion to Siberia. Some exiles were sentenced to hard labor in Siberia’s gold, silver, and coal mines—others were merely forced to settle the land and forbidden to return across the Urals. For many, this was punishment enough: the country was desolate, and the journey itself dangerous, with 10 to 15 percent of exiles dying en route. Nearly a million Russians were exiled to Siberia over the course of the nineteenth century; by the century’s end, Russia was sending an unprecedented 19,000 exiles to Siberia each year.

The Siberian peoples suffered under pressure from Russian exiles and Russian rule in general. By the nineteenth century, native Siberians had been weakened by smallpox, influenza, and syphilis, first caught, it seems, from Russian settlers. Unscrupulous Russian officials demanded ever greater tributes of furs and other raw materials from the native peoples, who fell into a state of indebted pauperism. Meanwhile the environment that had for centuries provided their livelihood was slowly but surely being destroyed through the over hunting of Siberia’s fur-bearing animals and the felling of its forests to provide farmland.

The circus

The first modern circus was presented in London in the 1770s by Philip Astley, an ex-soldier who delighted his audiences with equestrian shows and performing animals. After Astley began the circus tradition in Europe, some who had been his collaborators traveled to the United States and began to present circus entertainments there. By far, the most famous U.S. circus proprietor was American-born Phineas T. Barnum, who said there was a sucker born every minute and called himself “Prince of Humbugs.” Barnum began his circus career exhibiting Joice Heth, an African-American woman whom he presented as the 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington. When ticket sales started to flag, Barnum wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of a local paper claiming that Joice Heth was actually a contraption made of “India-rubber, whalebone, and concealed springs and that her speech was produced by a ventriloquist” (Croft-Cooke and Cotes, p. 59). This incident is obviously referenced in the novel when U.S. circus owner Colonel Kearney attempts to boost flagging ticket sales by writing a similar letter to the editor to the effect that “Fevvers is not a woman at all but a cunningly constructed automaton made up of whalebone, India-rubber and springs” (Nights at the Circus, p. 147). In both instances, the raising of doubt actually spurs public curiosity, and the exhibition is a great success.

Barnum did not establish his first successful large-scale traveling circus until 1870, when he was 60 years old, many years after the Joice Heth exhibition. In 1880, another leading U.S. circus owned by James A. Bailey joined forces with Barnum’s show to become “Barnum and Bailey, The Greatest Show on Earth.” In 1888, Barnum and Bailey brought their show to England, where it was attended by Prince Edward and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Barnum later wrote a book entitled The Humbugs of the World. In Carter’s novel, the character Walser considers using the title “Great Humbugs of the World” for the series of interviews that will include the life story of winged trapeze artist Fevvers.

Trapeze artists had been a fixture of circuses since the eighteenth century, but it was not until the innovations of Frenchman Jules Leotard (for whom the leotard is named) in 1859, that the flying trapeze was used. Before Leotard, trapezes had been fixed bars on which gymnasts performed, but with the flying trapeze, which swung through the air on ropes, a new kind of aerial act was born. Using the flying trapeze, Lena Jordan performed the world’s first forward triple somersault in Sydney, Australia, in 1897. It is the most impressive of trapeze-artist feats—one that for many has ended in a broken neck. In order to achieve the triple somersault the artist must traverse the air at 62 miles per hour, but in the novel, Fevvers manages to perform the feat at a mere 25 miles per hour, thanks to her wings.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel, which takes place in 1899, is divided into three sections: London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia. In London, 25-year-old U.S. reporter Jack Walser is taking a rest from his career as a roving war correspondent for the New York Times in order to recover from a dose of yellow fever incurred in the line of duty. He has decided to pass the time writing a few human interest stories, which takes him to the dressing room of famous English aerialiste Sophie Fevvers. He is interviewing her for a series of articles tentatively titled “Great Humbugs of the World,” which applies to Fevvers, thinks Walser, because she claims to have wings that are natural appendages of her anatomy.

Fevvers is famous for her wings and for aerial acrobatics that she has performed to much acclaim in the great cities of Europe. Known as “the Cockney Venus,” at six feet two inches tall, the blond Fevvers deliberately plays upon the controversy and uncertainty surrounding her wings, even taking as her publicity slogan the question “Is she fact or is she fiction?” (Nights at the Circus, p. 7). Indeed, as seen through Walser’s eyes, Fevvers is a woman of many contradictions. She washes down eel pies with bottle after bottle of the finest champagne, pausing occasionally to belch and fart. She is mercenary yet boundlessly generous, crass yet charming. Throughout his interview with her, Walser is never sure how much of what Fevvers says he should believe.

In her cramped, smelly dressing room, Fevvers tells Walser her life story with occasional assistance from her “dresser” Lizzie, whom we later learn is Fevvers’s foster mother. Abandoned as an infant on the steps of a London brothel, Fevvers was taken in and lovingly raised by a group of suffragist prostitutes led by an unusual madame called “Nelson,” who wore an eye-patch and had a habit of dressing in military uniform. The prostitutes named the foundling “Fevvers,” a cockney pronunciation of the word “feathers,” because when they found her she had soft down growing on her shoulder blades, and it appeared that the child was “going to sprout Fevvers!” (Nights at the Circus, p. 12). In the brothel, Fevvers is never called upon to take up the trade, but she earns her keep as a young girl by portraying Cupid with a tiny golden bow and arrows, posing as a sort of living tableau in the drawing room alcove. Fevvers grows at a prodigious rate, her burgeoning bosom matched in development by two lumps on her back, from which wings burst forth when she is 14. Flight, however, does not come naturally; Fevvers must study the birds that nest on window ledges, as well as books on aerodynamics from the well-stocked brothel library, in order to learn this skill. She exchanges her role as Cupid for that of Winged Victory, posing with a sword that she adopts as her mascot and always wears on her person.

Not long after, the madame, Nelson, dies in a freak accident, and her nasty cleric brother comes to claim the brothel mansion. All the prostitutes are heartbroken, but must go their separate ways. Lizzie and Fevvers move in with Lizzie’s sister until the family falls into dire financial straits and Fevvers decides there is nothing else to do but to sell herself to Madame Schreck in order to support her friends. Madame Schreck is a ghoulish woman who runs a “museum of woman monsters,” as she describes it. In fact, it is another brothel of sorts, staffed by persons with physical abnormalities and frequented by men who are “troubled in their . . . souls” (Nights at the Circus, p. 57). Fevvers lives as a virtual prisoner in a barred cell in Madame Schreck’s house, until one day Madame Schreck sells her to a man who goes by the name Christian Rosencreutz. Rosencreutz believes he can achieve eternal youth for himself through Fevvers’s blood, but before he can sacrifice her on his May Day altar, Fevvers fends him off with her trusty sword and flies to freedom. Afterwards, Fevvers begins her career as an aerialiste, and the rest is history.

Over the course of the interview, Walser has become utterly fascinated with his subject. He decides to join Colonel Kearney’s Grand Imperial Tour, the circus that has booked Fevvers for a tour across Russia to Japan and then on to the United States, in order to write a more comprehensive piece on the Cockney Venus. The Colonel, a Kentucky gentleman who wears the stars and stripes held together with a dollar-sign belt buckle, and whose motto is “bamboozlem,” has misgivings, but his prophetic pig Sibyl advises him to hire Walser as a clown, and, unbeknownst to Fevvers, Walser travels with the circus to their first stop in St. Petersburg.

In St. Petersburg, the circus is a smashing success. Walser learns the art of clowning from Buffo the Great, a London-bred alcoholic clown whose comic antics belie a profound sorrow, and who characterizes clowns as “whores of mirth” (Nights at the Circus, p. 119). Fevvers eventually discovers Walser’s presence, but is not displeased that he has followed her. An incipient romance manifests itself between the two.

After the final show in St. Petersburg, Fevvers, lured by the promise of a diamond necklace, accepts the invitation of a certain Grand Duke to visit his remote estate. It seems the Duke believes the hype about Fevvers being an automaton, and wishes to add her to his collection of elaborate toys. Although Fevvers loses her sword in the confrontation, she manages to escape the Duke and board the Trans-Siberia Express with the rest of the circus.

The train makes its long way through the frozen wastes of Siberia until an explosion on the tracks causes a fiery wreck. All are unharmed, except for Fevvers, who has a broken wing. It turns out that the explosion was caused by a band of outlaws, who are fleeing punishment for the vengeance they took on corrupt nobles and officials who had “forcibly dishonoured” the outlaws’ sisters, wives, and daughters (Nights at the Circus, p. 230). Fevvers has been touted in the gutter press as the fiancée of the Prince of Wales, and the outlaws believe she can intercede on their behalf with her royal mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, who is a distant relative of the Russian tsar. Hoping to convince Fevvers to take their part, the outlaws bring the whole circus troupe back to their hideout in the forest—except for Walser, who has been knocked senseless and lies hidden beneath the train wreckage. Walser is soon rescued by a group of women who have just escaped from a correctional facility in the Siberian wastes and who plan to form their own all-woman lesbian society somewhere in the vast wilderness. Walser is not allowed to accompany them but does meet a friendly shaman from among local Siberians, and, remembering nothing of his past, Walser is taken on as shaman’s apprentice.

Meanwhile, after Fevvers dashes the outlaws’ hopes by revealing her lack of royal connections, they die in a blizzard, too disconsolate to seek shelter. The clowns also lose their will to live, joining the outlaws in their frozen fate. But Fevvers, Lizzie, and the rest of the circus troupe survive. Making their way back to civilization, they come across Walser in the camp of the local Siberians, a group of reindeer-herders.

Fevvers, whose spirits have been at a low ebb since St. Petersburg, is revitalized by the looks of awe she receives from the native Siberians; suddenly she is back on stage, and all is well with the world. The sight and sound of Fevvers restores Walser’s memory, and the novel ends when the two make love in the shaman’s shack, with Walser imagining the sensation his story will cause and a future of wedded bliss with “Mrs. Sophie Walser.”

Fevvers and the New Woman

In Nights at the Circus, Fevvers is an allegorical figure representing new womanhood on the eve of the twentieth century. Carter herself has spoken about the meaning of her writing: “I do put everything in a novel to be read, read the way allegory was intended to be read, the way you are supposed to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times]—on as many levels as you can comfortably cope with at the time” (Carter in Day, p. 8).

“’Oh, my little one, I think you must be the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound down to the ground.’”

(Ma Nelson to Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, p. 25)

The symbolism is made explicit at several points in the novel, and Carter has described it in an interview, explaining that the novel “is set at exactly the moment in European history when things began to change. It’s set at that time quite deliberately, and [Fevvers] is the new woman” (Carter in Day, p. 172). The six-foot-tall winged working girl of humble origins and immodest ambitions is a powerful symbol of the possibilities for women inherent at the end of the nineteenth century—a time when the concept of the “new woman” gained currency. It was a concept that achieved notoriety in 1894, through Sarah Grand’s article “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” in which she popularized the notion of the “new woman,” one who defies traditional roles and restrictions.

The concept of the new woman pointed to real-life trends. The education of girls, which had improved and expanded with the passage of key education acts in 1870 and 1880, began to bear fruit in the 1890s, as the educated daughters of the middle and upper classes confronted the world with a set of expectations different from those of their mothers. At the same time, better employment opportunities were opening up for women as a result of expansion in the service sector of the economy, and the British government began allowing women to serve on various committees and the Board of Education. These factors doubtless played a part in the phenomenon of a number of young middle-and upper-class women who shocked turn-of-the-century society by rejecting chaperones, engaging in sport and other strenuous activities, adopting “rational dress” (divided skirts, bloomers), smoking, and refusing to promise to “obey” their husbands in marriage ceremonies. These were the new women, harbingers of a coming era viewed by some with hope, by many with alarm.

In the wake of Sarah Grand’s article, other writers took up the theme of the new woman, mostly in a ridiculing, disapproving tone. The new woman was represented as mannish, shrieking, unnatural, and humorless; her demands for equality were treated as obviously absurd. One literary scholar suggests that Fevvers is an apt representative of the new woman at the turn of the century:

In 1899 hardly anyone had seen a mentally and emotionally newly constituted woman, in the same way as no one had seen a woman with wings. The difficulty we might have in coming to terms with the notion of a woman who literally possesses wings enacts the difficulty that was felt in the late nineteenth century . . . in coming to terms with mentally and emotionally “new” or reconstructed women.

(Day, p. 176)

Like the new woman of the 1890s, Fevvers makes people uncomfortable. Her role as Winged Victory at Ma Nelson’s brothel is a hopeful omen for the future of women in the coming century, but the presence of the sword-brandishing living statue makes the brothel’s male clientele nervous, causing business to fall off. Fevvers’s motto: “Is she fact or is she fiction?” further speaks to the disbelief and puzzlement that greeted the advent of the new woman, just as her stint at the museum of female monsters reflects the popular consensus that judged the new woman to be monstrously unnatural.

But, as suggested above, it is the presence of Fevvers’s wings that is most striking. The physical freedom they afford her can be understood to foreshadow the new personal and political freedoms women would enjoy in the coming century. Fevvers’s wings also link her to an image of women popular in the nineteenth century, the “Angel in the House.” In Coventry Patmore’s 1856 poem of that name, he idealizes his wife as an angel of the domestic sphere, purified by her seclusion in the nurturing realm of home. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, woman as the “angel in the house” was seen to transcend the public sphere, and so could be denied a place in it. The dark side of this idealization is shown in the novel when Fevvers is abducted by “Christian Rosencreutz,” who calls her by angelic names but wishes to sacrifice her so that he can gain eternal youth for himself by imbibing her essence. Fevvers reveals Rosencreutz’s true identity only to Walser, not to the reader. She does, however, hint at his identity:

I saw in the paper only yesterday how he gives the most impressive speech in the House on the subject of Votes for Women. Which he is against. On account of how women are of a different soul-substance from men, cut from a different bolt of spirit cloth, and altogether too pure and rarefied to be bothering their pretty little heads with things of this world, such as the Irish question and the Boer War.

(Nights at the Circus, pp. 78-79).

The comment alludes to British Prime Minister from 1868 to 1894, William Gladstone, whose diaries reveal prostitution to be “the chief burden of [his] soul,” making the former Prime Minister a likely candidate for the role of Rosencreutz (Walkowitz, p. 32). The otherwise liberal Gladstone consistently rejected any proposal to give women the parliamentary vote.

Whoever Rosencreutz may be, his attempt to sacrifice Fevvers for his own well-being suggests an ulterior motive for the idealization of women as angels. But just as the characterization of Fevvers resists idealization (“the aerialiste, who now shifted from one buttock to the other and— ‘better out than in, sir’—let a ripping fart ring round the room”), Fevvers rejects her role as sacrificial angel and escapes the trap Rosencreutz sets for her (Nights at the Circus, p. 11). This is another important aspect of her winged ness, the ability to escape the many snares set for her, mostly by sadistic men. Yet Fevvers’s career is checkered, marked by brushes with catastrophe. Does this portend a troubled future for the new woman? Lizzie’s reaction to Fevvers’s optimism bodes ill:

“And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings, the same as I. . . . The dolls’ house doors will open, the brothels will spill forth their prisoners, the cages, gilded or otherwise, all over the world, in every land, will let forth their inmates singing together the dawn chorus of the new, the transformed—

“It’s going to be more complicated than that,” interpolated Lizzie. “This old witch sees storms ahead, my girl.”

(Nights at the Circus, pp. 285-86)

In short, as an allegorical figure, Fevvers represents the hope and freedom for women on the eve of the twentieth century, but also the straggle and uncertainty that faced them.

Sources and literary context

Nights at the Circus features fantastic elements, but grounds them in history, referencing many real people, places, and events from the late nineteenth century. As discussed above, Gladstone seems to be portrayed in the figure of Christian Rosencreutz, and Colonel Kearney seems to be an incarnation of P. T. Barnum. To the material of history, Angela Carter brings a rich assortment of literary and theoretical influences; the novel abounds in allusions to Greek myth, European fairy tales, Shakespeare, William Blake, T. S. Eliot, Baudelaire, Michel Foucault, and the Marquis de Sade, to name just a few. Fevvers describes the attitudes of the brothel’s clientele, for example, saying “I put it down to the influence of Baudelaire. a poor fellow who loved whores not for the pleasure of it but, as he perceived it, the horror of it” (Nights at the Circus, p. 38). The reference here is to the Frenchman Baudelaire’s verses about his mulatto mistress Jeanne Duval, whom he depicted as “demon,” “serpent,” and “satan” (Baudelaire, pp. 69, 71, 83).

In regard to the form of Nights at the Circus, Carter “purposely used a certain eighteenth century fictional device, the picaresque, where people have adventures in order to find themselves in places where they can discuss philosophical concepts without distractions” (Carter in Day, p. 169).


Angela Carter is known for her politically pointed retellings ot fairytales. Nights the Circus alludes several times to the European fairy-tale tradition. Walser, for instance, is likened to “the boy in lhe fairy story who does not know how to shiver” [Nights ¿it the Circus, p. 10). Fevvers’s teeth are “big and carnivorous as those of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother” (Nights at the Circus, p. 18). Before Fevvers (the princess) can rescue Walser (the prince) from his Siberian exile in an inversion of a common fairy-tale motif, Lizzie warns her that “The Prince who rescues the Princess from the dragon’s lair is always torced to marry her, whether they’ve taken a liking to one another or not. That’s the custom” (Nights at the Circus, p. 281). The one fairy tale referenced over and over again is “Sleeping Beauty.” St. Petersburg is described as a “Sleeping Beauty of a city . . . longing yet fearing the rough and bloody kiss that will awaken her” (Nights at the Circus, p. 97). In the “museum or female monsters,” one of Fevvers’s fellow freaks is nicknamed the Sleeping Beauty because of her narcolepsy, a malady that dates to the onset of her puberty, just when the lengthy sleep began for the fairy-tale character.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Britain 1984

The period between the novel’s setting (1899) and publication (1984) comprises most of the twentieth century, a time of great incident and transformation, including the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and World Wars I and II (1914-1918; 1939-1945). “I am the pure product,” explained Carter, “of an advanced, industrialized, post-imperialist country in decline” (Carter in Peach, p. 13). World War II left Britain with an enormous national debt, Which led to austerity measures at home and the forfeiture of colonies overseas. Postwar economic troubles coupled with disastrous government “solutions” resulted in a drop in living standards during the 1970s, a time when other nations of western Europe were increasing their standards of living. Some saw the demands of labor unions, who were trying to negotiate a better deal for their constituents at this time, as contributing to the nation’s decline. A rash of strikes by public service workers in the “winter of discontent” in 1978-79 resulted in mountains of uncollected trash and even unburied bodies, and many grew disenchanted with labor’s cause. They acted by electing the conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, whose privatizing measures only intensified the economic woes of the majority of British people. By 1983, unemployment had reached a record high of over 15 percent, as factories and mills closed down. Thatcher claimed to support Victorian values, which she defined as self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, and minimal reliance on government intervention. Nights at the Circus provides a counterpoint to such nostalgic yearnings, presenting the Victorian era as a time when women looked to the future for better values than those that informed their own day. Were than hose that informed

British women in the 1980s

With the prime ministry of Margaret Thatcher, it seemed that women had finally achieved power on an equal footing with men in British society. Yet, although some achieved wealth and power in 1980s Britain, the majority of women suffered under Thatcher’s policies, which mostly benefitted the rich and hurt the poor. The government cut social services such as maternity leave, childcare, and subsidized school lunches, and wages dropped for working women, aggravating their difficulties.

Because a few women, like Margaret Thatcher, attained positions of power, some argued that sex discrimination was no longer an issue. However, women were still largely excluded from business. Lending institutions tended to deny loans to female entrepreneurs, and even by the late 1980s, women held only 15 percent of management-level jobs, and these were mostly in lower management. Finally, women in the Thatcher years suffered twice as much as underemployment as men. Society had hardly become equal.

In the 1980s, adultery, illegitimacy, and divorce were much less stigmatized than in the Victorian era, yet in some ways, the “Victorian values” that Margaret Thatcher extolled had never really disappeared. The same hypocrisy that had trapped women between a middle-class homebound ideal and an exploited working-class reality in the Victorian era existed in a new guise in the 1980s. Thatcher’s Conservative Party stressed women’s role in the home and devalued women’s role in the workplace, yet many industries and sectors of the service economy relied on cheap female labor to keep Britain’s financial wheels turning. The moral outcry against “permissiveness” that had characterized the end of the nineteenth century was repeated in the 1980s with the same pairing of strange bedfellows that saw Conservative forces join with feminist groups in protesting pornography, strip clubs, and prostitution. As before, this increase in public outrage made it harder for prostitutes to ply their trade, yet business did not drop off. Finally, despite much talk of family values, sex scandals surfaced under Thatcher’s Conservative government, again echoing the hypocrisy of a Victorian era in which moral propriety was undercut by the promiscuous exploits of Prince Edward. Certainly there had been change, but in many ways the female plight had remained the same.


Angela Carter’s fiction is characterized by reviewers in the manner of a circus act: highly theatrical, larger than life, risky, and requiring a keen sense of balance. Reviews of Nights at the Circus focus on the perceived success or failure of Carter’s daring high-wire act. One reviewer, after praising the first London-based section of the book, takes issue with the concluding two thirds, where he believes Carter loses her delicate balance between the realistic and the impossible, because impossibilities are presented straightforwardly, not, the way they are in the first section, as part of the questionable narrative of Fevvers. Other reviewers also saw Carter’s task as one of balance, but were generally awed by the author’s ability to keep the story brilliantly aloft. For them, the novel does indeed have an overwhelming, oftentimes overdone effect, but this only adds to its allure, making it “a luscious and gooey dessert of a book, doled out in sinful proportions” (Banks, p. 1). Another reviewer concurs, summing up Nights at the Circus as Carter’s “finest achievement so far and a remarkable book by any standards” (Nye in Bristow and Broughton, p. 5).

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Banks, Carolyn. “Angela Carter’s Flights of Fancy.” The Washington Post, February 3, 1985, Book World, 1, 13.

Barret-Ducrocq, Françoise. Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality, Class and Gender in Nineteenth Century London. Trans. John Owe. London: Verso, 1991.

Baudelaire, Charles-Pierre. Baudelaire: Selected Poems. Ed. Joanna Richardson. Harmones worth, England: Penguin, 1975.

Bristow, Joseph, and Trev Lynn Broughton, eds. The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism. London: Longman, 1997.

Carter, Angela. Nights at the Circus. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Croft-Cooke, Rupert, and Peter Cotes. Circus: A World History. London: Paul Elek, 1976.

Day, Aidan. Angela Carter: The Rational Glass. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Forsyth, James. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony 1581-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Morgan, Kenneth O. The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Peach, Linden. Angela Carter. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Rushdie, Salman. “Angela Carter, 1940-92: A Very Good Wizard, a Very Dear Friend.” The New York Times Book Review, 8 March 1992, 5.

Walkowitz, Judith R. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.