We meet Sophie Fevvers (read it with a Cockney accent), l’Ange Anglaise, ‘the most famous aerialiste of the day’ in her dressing room being interviewed by Jack Walser, American journalist.
At close quarters, it must be said she looked more like a dray mare than an angel. At six feet two in her stockings, she would have to give Walser a couple of inches in order to match him and, though they said she was ‘divinely tall’, there was, off-stage, not much of the divine about her unless there were gin palaces in heaven where she might preside behind the bar. Her face, broad and oval as a meat dish, had been thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay; nothing subtle about her appeal, which was just as well if she were to function as the democratically elected divinity of the imminent century of the Common Man.
Fevvers is unusual though for on her back she sports a pair of feathered wings inherited, it is said, from her father. Her mother, possibly a Cockney Leda, is equally unknown to Fevvers, having deposited her on the steps of a brothel in Whitechapel.
‘…for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but just like Helen of Troy, was hatched.
‘Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!’
She was discovered by Lizzie, now her assistant, and brought up in the brothel. Lizzie may or may not be her biological mother.
During the first section of the novel, Fevvers tells Walser about her upbringing. He begins the interview with the intention of discovering the truth about her, specifically ‘these notorious and much-debated wings’. However, Fevvers and Lizzie – who come as a team – are smarter than he is and successfully direct the conversation as well as disorientating Walser; several times during the conversation he hears Big Ben sound midnight, the time the old-fashioned clock Lizzie and Fevvers keep in the dressing room is permanently set to, although when the interview ends it is almost seven a.m. Here, Carter seems to allude to either the fairy tale idea that the veneer may be stripped after midnight and the truth of Fevvers revealed or the folklore belief in the witching hour, as the women control time and Walser finishes the night bewitched by Fevvers.
Part two of the book sees Walser joining the circus and following Fevvers to St Petersburg on tour. There we’re treated to a host of circus escapades before they move on through Siberia, in part three, where the adventures become wilder and the narrative moves unpredictably between third person and Fevvers in first person, giving us a long-awaited glimpse into her thoughts.
Nights at the Circus is unmistakably Carter – an intense, fast-paced voice; a narrative packed with implausible scenarios that you accept regardless, and a cast of colourful characters. Fevvers is a fantastic creation – part-myth, part-East Ender – she knows what she wants – money, power over her own destiny, fame – and she takes it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book whilst being aware that there was so much more for me to return to and investigate more thoroughly – feminist themes and the use of the circus to explore gender and drive the narrative. But that’s often what I enjoy most about books – that they don’t yield all they’ve got on first reading – and I’m already looking forward to returning to Nights at the Circus.