Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter

As some of you may have read last week, Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus has just been chosen as the best ever winner of the James Tait Black award. By pure coincidence this was announced on the very day that I had finished rereading my dog-eared copy of this fabulous book.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with her work, Angela Carter could be described as the queen of magic realism. Her writing is heavily influenced by myth, and much of it built around strong feminist principles. Her female protagonists are powerful, intelligent, sexy, and sometimes terrifying, her stories dark and disturbing. Carter also edited and translated a number of fairytale collections, and even wrote her own modern versions of these traditional tales, turning many of their old-fashioned ‘prince rescues princess’ tropes on their misogynistic heads.

Nights at the Circus features the raucous adventures of Fevvers, a variety show star at the turn of the 20th Century whose unique selling point is the large, delicate wings which sprout from her broad back. The novel follows her from the music halls of London to the Siberian wastelands, taking in Belle Époque St Peterburg in the process, and charts her encounters with dukes, kings and vagabonds. This is a world inhabited by amazing characters; muscled and oiled circus strongmen, piano playing lion tamers, a crazy Siberian shayman, and a band of escaped Russian female convicts to name but a few. In the book, which was first published in 1984, Carter wonderfully captures the glamour and depravity of the era, and the shabby underbelly which hides just behind the dazzling glitz of the circus. The book is a romance, but it is never soppily romantic. As well as beauty and excitement of life, Carter also describes its horror, the two intermingling like the overpowering stink of fine perfume and sweat.

Is Fevvers really a bewinged ‘freak’, or is she just a clever con-artist? Of course, we never really find out, which is all part of the magic that the author weaves. If you haven’t already read it, then I suggest you do. It is a great introduction to the work of Angela Carter, a subject to which I shall no doubt be returning in the not too distant future…

2 Responses to “Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter”

  1. Love your blog, will make it regular reading from now on, you might like the night circus by Erin morgenstern! X

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: