Angela Carter

Notes and Observations on 'Nights at the Circus'.

Carter refused to observe any distinction between art and life. She was a fabulist/ tale-spinner/iconoclast.

Child of a post war world, born in 1940 and grew up in the rebellious 60’s. She was a subversive, believing in studying her own culture as though she were from outside it, in order to "defamiliarise the landscape of habit". Writing was an "act", which she believed "took you out of your own skin/background/gender/class/nationality"

Barthes: a text is not a line of words releasing a single "theological" meaning (Author as God), but a multi-dimensional space".

Carter’s life was lived on the edge and she had a genius for estrangement.

Her books feature few mother figures; the power and weight of her female matriarchs are Grandmothers. Her own grandmother was a dominant and important influence on her early life while her relationship with her mother was ambiguous. In Nights, Lizzie is the adoptive mother, but she is more of a Grandmother/witch/avatar, in age behaviour and appearance. Fevvers never reveals any information about her "natural" parents – no mother or father is mentioned at all. She is "hatched", abandoned and found by Lizzie.

Carter is a product of a time (the 40’s and 50’s) when women were isolated and marginalised. Their perceived roles were as wives and mothers and few used their education.

Rosalind Coward: "the deep struggle of feminism was with the previous generation of women.....the daughters’ revolt (was) a revolt against the woman you don’t want to be".

In other words, the feminist revolution was not specifically or directly against men so much as against repressed females!

Carter deliberately distanced herself from the "reality" of her background and upbringing in her writing. For her, culture became a "dressing up box" and her books were an opportunity to revisit the past, changing, questioning and reshaping it. For her, life was theatre. Her early work leans heavily towards "camp", which is the theatricalisation of experience. Behaviour and perceptions are exaggerated and distorted and most importantly, camp exists on a kind of fault line or border between male and female opposition.

The idea of people "playing" themselves and parading their ideas, as "acts" is central to Carter’s writing and certainly forms an important part of Nights at the Circus. Many of her themes were repeated and revisited constantly throughout her career and in Circus Carter explores the relationship between "real" (life) and "shadow" (art). The Circus is the central metaphor for life as real and shadow and Fevvers has both a real and artistic life. The divisions between the two are always distorted and blurred.

Carter described herself as "the pure product of an advanced, industrialised, post-imperialist country in decline". For her there was nothing new to do or be. People can therefore be seen as "constructs", not born but made, products of post modernist, deconstructive philosophy, in effect. Past realities, including presumably absolute truths, are ruined/recycled/reproduced and represented in her complex and often disturbing narratives.

She begins with endings, that is to say from the point of view that all that WAS has ended. We are "new" or "hatched" beings with no "prevalent ideology", living in a period of "transition and conflicting ideologies".

In Carter’s writing there occurs also the idea of an alternative world, found in books and mirrors. This alternative world is a region of copies, images and representations, but Carter tantalisingly suggests that it too has a reality. "Circus" is full of distortions of this kind. Humans and animals are mirror images of one another. In the mirror world of the chimps, they are more "human" than their keepers are, for example and there is a constant idea of reflection and imitation. Characters look at one another, but what they see is ambiguous and confusing. The reader, too, is an observer, but is never sure which "side" of the image is the "true" picture.

Carter also plays tricks with the notion of time and disorientation of characters. The end of the century is also the beginning of a new "time". For Fevvers and Walser the new century and the new relationship they forge should be a new beginning for them. They are, by the end of the narrative "New Man" and "different" woman, but they are also on the brink of an unknowable future. Ironically, the reader also knows that the bright new century will be a turbulent one!

The novel has the appeal of romance in the central narrative of Walser and Fevvers, but there are many more complex ideas, where Carter examines the opposition between internal and external; culture and nature; masculinity and femininity and illusion and reality.

A major focus seems to be questioning the reality of a woman. The novel opens with Walser wondering if Fevvers is "real" or a fraud. The picaresque (episodic) structure of the novel is ideal for creating movement with no definite goal or end. Even though the lovers are reunited eventually, we are left with no clear answer to the original question. Perhaps, like Walser, we are supposed to accept the enigma and enjoy the experience!

Carter depicts Fevvers a freak of nature, but we also need to remember that she believed that what we accept as "natural" is the product of a particular history. We make our own ides of what is "right" because of our cultural/historical/social conditioning. That is why Fevvers is such an enigma – she is OUTSIDE the "norm". She is original and new and constructs herself. The other characters (and the readers) must therefore question their own perceptions of what she is by reconstructing themselves, like Walser. He has to find the "self" he had "never sought" in order to "find" or accept Fevvers. To an extent, also, Fevvers has to redefine aspects of her own "self" – her greed for example – in order to love Walser.

Fevvers has a supreme ego and her originality is both literal and figurative. For Carter, this kind of exploration of "self" was socially liberating, making the person a part of history and caught up in change, becoming a "new kind of being". Fevvers is a "one-off" and of course the story is set quite deliberately in the context of enormous social and political significance.

In her work Carter is fond of creating unnatural landscapes within which bizarre characters are naturalised. The narrative constantly examines itself and reverses perceptions, while the characters share out the narrative. Third person mixes with first person narrative, intercut constantly with speeches, inset tales and so on. The reader is not always certain which voice is speaking and, more disturbingly, whether that voice is telling the truth or not. There is a sense right from the start that Fevvers is making her story up as she goes along, when she holds her interview in the dressing room with Walser and Lizzie. Note that they also play a trick with the clock, so time is also "cancelled" while they talk to him. He thinks (but is never totally sure) that it is all an "act", but he (and we) are caught up in it and captivated by the sheer exuberant extravagance of it. For Walser, the "act" catches him up and makes him re-write his own story, unravelling his "world-picture" as he travels in pursuit of Fevvers with Kearney’s circus.

Fevvers is a symbol who comes to life as a character. Symbolically she is Leda and the swan (Zeus, the King of the Greek Gods) who mated with her. She is also an angel (guardian and avenging) a phoenix who rises from her own tawdry ashes in the Siberian steppe and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. (The Greek name for the Winged Victory is NIKE, and she was supposed to be the daughter of Styx and Pallas, a Titan. The other daughters are valour and strength) An interesting choice as a symbol, for Nike was held to be divine, a goddess in her own right. As Fevvers the aerialiste, she is a "goddess" star, but she is also a drab "cockney sparrow" when she temporarily loses her audience (and her peroxide) in Siberia. Typically, Carter gives Fevvers meaning in her own right. She is never allowed to become a one-dimensional cipher but is a full blooded, bloody minded, shrewd and humorous woman. Her given name is Sophia, which means "wisdom" and she stubbornly continues to defy attempts to categorise her, throughout the novel. She s as complex and as endearing at the end as she is in the beginning.

Carter also explores in her work the idea of how history is "edited" in order to sustain an imaginary changeless world, to maintain the perceived world view (metanarrative) by "editing out the real". In Carter’s circus world, the freaks, animals, monsters and symbols are left in, not edited out. The reader is thus deliberately prevented from taking mental refuge in the idea of a sanitised, safe and unthreatening world and perceptions are constantly challenged.

Carter quite openly declared that she wanted to have an open dialogue with the reader, which she saw as a "deconstructive communion". The worlds which she created in her writing and into which she draws her audience are palpably unreal and populated by changeful symbols and characters. They are unstable and very uncomfortable, but their instability and discomfort are deliberate. Her work has been described as "palimpsest history" (you can see what lies underneath)

Carter was also described as "intransigent, bloody minded, mocking, self-conscious and excessive". She believed that fantasy was "real life" history and her work refuses to separate the unreal imaginary world from the perceived "reality" of existence. There is also a seamless transition between realistic and impossible events in her narratives (the tigers in the mirrors, the toy train that becomes full size, the Professor and his chimps taking the train out of St Petersburg). Lizzie’s "magic" is kept very prosaically, in her handbag.

She acknowledged that she was "making a critique of the culture I was born into" and also that late twentieth century society was "at the end of a line". Nights at the Circus is set in a similar time frame and the novel makes a conscious critique not only of late nineteenth century culture and mores, but our own.

Her characters are constructs, not born but made. Fevvers is "hatched" and has no identifiable parents. She constantly re-invents herself, dyeing her feathers and he hair and assuming many roles, befitting her circumstances. The "self" that she chooses to display is determined by the company she keeps, but each "self" is essentially part of the "whole". She is therefore a construct of many "selves" all of which she knows and can assume at will. Perhaps this could be said to be her greatest strength – as a character and as a woman. Does Carter want us to assume that Fevvers is the symbolic construct of ALL women? Walser (man) on the other hand, has no recognisable "self" at the start of the novel, for he has never sought it. In a gruelling rite of passage he loses it and finds an alternative (better?) one, which, it is suggested, makes him "fit" for Fevvers. It would be easy to assume that Carter makes a rather crude feminist point here by suggesting that the man must be scoured and reborn before he can be an acceptable mate for a woman, but perhaps this would be rather unfair. More probably, we might assume that Walser (man) needs to experience the freedom of self-exploration in order to experience the complexity of "self". Carter is perhaps asserting that woman has less repression and a more multi-dimensional existence (the wings and the ability, metaphorically, to fly).

Carter’s imagination has been called "bold" and also "voracious". Her stories are a blend of romance and cynicism. She uses numerous fairy tale motifs – changelings, winged beings, mute heroines, metamorphoses, arduous journeys and improbable encounters. She said that fairy tales were "the most vital connections we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world." Nights at the Circus displays a comic defiance which is evident in the setting (music hall, burlesque and circus) and in the characters. Fevvers in particular is by turns radiant and coarse, glorious and vulgar. She moves n and out of focus quite deliberately, keeping Walser and the reader constantly unsure as o what she will do or say next. Behind her "mask" of dyed red & purple feathers, false eyelashes and bottle blonde hair, she exercises the "freedom to juggle with being", which Walser also experiences when he puts on the clown’s make up.

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope