Don’t read this book if you don’t like two bit words or truly independent women, the ones who like men but don’t need them for much of anything. Nights at the Circus doesn’t do anything by halves, whether it’s description or detail.
The nineteenth century is coming to a close, with all the fevered hothouse passion of an era using up the last of itself before it runs out of time. As the book begins, a seemingly nonchalant young reporter is interviewing “Fevvers”, an aerialiste who may or may not be the winged wonder her promotional materials purport her to be. She is, regardless of what’s sprouting from her back, very much a Cockney Wonder. Hatched from an egg on the doorstep of a Victorian whorehouse, she is raised by the ladies within until the owner dies, and the property is transferred to the deeply religious relative of the owner. After selling herself, quite literally, to one Madame Schreck, proprietress of an even kinkier facility, to save her Italian icecream seller family, Fevvers fights her way free and rises to the (big) top, Le Cirque d’Hiver, where Jack Walser first meets her. Turns out Walser isn’t quite the prosaic sardonically realistic hard bitten reporter he thought he was: he runs off with the circus to follow this “is she or isn’t she” performer. The book takes them through Europe into the wilds of Siberia, where everything quite literally falls to pieces, and Sophie “Fevvers” turns out to be not quite the simple circus performer she purported to be.
Fevvers is a raunchy bawdy overblown crass tasteless heroine, fitting well into the fin de siecle hothouse environment of Carter’s novel. Seduced by, or perhaps seducing, but never consummating relationships with a series of wealthy men, Fevvers is greedy for everything that she can wrest from life: money, jewels, chocolates, adulation, everything, and as a result of her passionate grasping for everything, she’s ended up with more power over her fate than many women even today.
The book is not for everyone. It’s not for anyone who likes a straightforward modern plot. It’s not for anyone who prefers G-rated books–the heroine’s born where? really! It’s not for people who like dainty women or simple language. It’s not perhaps even for men who retain illusions about women. My only real criticism is that Nights at the Circus has always felt like two different plots crammed into one book, with no real transition between them; it begins with Sophie’s backstory, then seems to abruptly leap into Darkest Russia as the circus travels to Siberia. Both halves are worth reading, I think, but I wish there had been a better segue.