Pushing the Limits

From time immemorial, the United Kingdom has had a long tradition of providing the world of literature with some of the most recognized names who wrote some of, not only the most popular but also the most studied literary masterpieces. Some of these masterpieces include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which is often credited as the first English novel; the Brontë sisters’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights; Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry; Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of D’Urbervilles; and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. The influences of these literary masterpieces have transcended time as they remain part of modern-day literary discourses. Some have even become conversation starters.

This long tradition of producing quality writers and literary masterpieces continues in the contemporary. Agatha Christie’s whodunits and J.K. Rowling’s magical works are among the most-read works of literature; Christie alone has sold an estimated four billion books. But what is more amazing is that despite or perhaps in spite of the diversity of these works, they have managed to tickle the imaginations of readers across the world. This is a testament to the power and influence of British literature. Regardless of genre and regardless of subjects tackled, there is a universality to the works of British literature which make it an integral part of daily literary conversations even in the contemporary.

In the ambit of British literature, a writer renowned for pushing the boundaries of what writing can do and produce is Angela Carter. Often considered one of the boldest and most original writers of the twentieth century, she has produced an eclectic but credible and diverse resume bannered by nine novels. She has also written a bevy of short story collections, poetry collections, children’s stories, and nonfiction works, among which is the feminist essay The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1979). She built a very credible and extensive vita cut short by lung cancer just as she was approaching the prime of her literary career in 1992.

“She sleeps. And now she wakes each day a little less. And, each day, takes less and less nourishment, as if grudging the least moment of wakefulness, for, from the movement under her eyelids, and the somnolent gestures of her hands and feet, it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she lives in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interpretation of some more vital existence, so she is loath to spend even those necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvellous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consumes the world.”

~ Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

With her prolific career that cast a vast net across a spectrum of genres, one can find different works that can suit one’s taste. However, of her oeuvre, there is one title that has, over time, become synonymous with Carter’s name. This is Nights at the Circus. Originally published in 1984, Carter’s eighth novel was set at the turn of the century, in 1899. The story started in medias res, with the opening sequences capturing the novel’s heroine, Sophie Fevvers being interviewed by Jack Walser, an American investigative journalist. Before settling in London, Walser traveled the world over, documenting and reporting on war and disaster. However, he contracted yellow fever, prompting him to take a break from his duties. This, however, did not stop him from wanting to write the next sensational piece.

Walser’s penchant for the sensational took him to explore human interest angles. This search brought him to the popular Colonel Kearney’s Circus. Cue Sophie Fevvers, a statuesque six-feet-two Cockney trapeze artist. An aerialiste extraordinaire, Sophie was the superstar of the circus. Over the course of the interview, Sophie revealed that, as a baby, she was left in the footsteps of Ma Nelson’s brothel, with a basket as her sheer protection from the elements. She was then taken under the care of Lizzie who became her adoptive mother. Despite growing up in the brothel, Sophie was a normal girl, with the exception of a raised lump on each of her shoulders. However, a drastic change would take place. This change would alter the landscape of her life.

As soon as she hit puberty, the lumps on her shoulders started developing into a complete pair of swan wings that spanned twice her adult height. More changes ensued as she approached adulthood, sparked by the untimely death of Ma Nelson. As Sophie loses herself in the moment, we learn about how she got into the circus. As Walser surmised, the circus was the perfect place for an unusual creature like Sophie to exist. It was a place where she can be herself without being prejudiced by those who cannot understand her provenance or her story. After all, we fear what we understand and when we are afraid, we are pushed to do illogical things.

Sure enough, the circus was where she thrived. Her beauty and her unusual features not only caught the intrigue of everyone but also captivated audiences from different parts of the country. She would even have the Prince of Wales court her. As the interview advanced and both Sophie and Walser got more invested in the story, it was increasingly becoming clear that Walser had several questions on his mind. He was toying with the question of what was real, and what was embellished. He entered the interview brimming with skepticism but the longer it lasted, he found himself both intrigued and captivated. But how far will Walser go to clip Sophie’s wings and unearth what is true?

“Those were her best days, although there was always something feckless about her, something so slack and almost fearful in her too frequent smile, so that when you saw Mignon being happy, you always thought: “It can’t last.” She had the febrile gaiety of a being without a past, without a present, yet she existed thus, without memory or history, only because her past was too bleak to think of and her future too terrible to contemplate; she was the broken blossom of the present tense.”

~ Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

Carter’s eighth novel is multilayered and multifaceted. It is a story that is teeming with life, just like the circus. Under that proverbial and allegorical big top, the story grappled with a score of subjects and themes. With Walser investigating Sophie’s provenance, deception was one of the most prevalent themes. Walser’s original intention in arranging an interview with Sophie, not only to get to know one of the time’s celebrities but also to deconstruct the myth surrounding her, to pierce the virtual veil of an enigma that shrouded her. As Walser’s probing gets too close for comfort, will Sophie be able to hold her composure and reclaim the narrative? There were other forms of deception depicted in the story that the characters would keep on coming across such deceptions. At times, even the deceiver and the deceived were one and the same.

The deception was also used to scaffold another seminal subject, that of exploitation for personal gains. For instance, Herr M. was using his position as a religious leader to scam bereaved families. He was also using Mignon in his schemes. Madame Schreck, the owner of the Museum of Women Monsters, was another exploitative character. It is also important to underscore the fact that exploitation was primarily accorded to female characters who had some physical deformities or unusual conditions. They also shared similar ambiguous backstories. There were even some elements of magic, with Wonder, a woman suffering from dwarfism claiming she was fathered by a fairy.

Nights at the Circus, however, does not reduce itself to a mere exploration of life at the circus. Apart from her literary works, Carter is a renowned feminist. Her works were devices upon which she conveyed her feminist messages and examine the social maladies that concern women. Her eighth novel was no different. There was an explicit sexual energy that reverberated in the story. It was a subversive idea, particularly during a period when sexual liberation was taboo, especially for women. Challenging conservative social norms was a characteristic of Carter’s prose. She is unapologetic about how she deconstructs these norms and mores. The novel goes a step further by providing incisive commentary on patriarchy.

In a way, the novel’s women were captives, both physically and allegorically. They have been dispossessed. History has shown how women have been shackled by structures and institutions, such as marriage and the church dominated by patriarchy. As such, the image of a gilded cage that recurred throughout the story takes on the form of an allegory. To the naked eye, it appeared comfortable, luxurious even. However, it is still a cage, a device to keep an individual captive. This lack of freedom extended to how women were treated as objects which can be sold or discarded. Women who were outliers, such as those born out of wedlock or under ambiguous backgrounds, experience worse as they are treated like outcasts. Women, as history has shown, have been marginalized.

“Think of him as the amanuensis of all those whose tales we’ve yet to tell him, the histories of those woman [sic] who would otherwise go down nameless and forgotten, erased from history as if they had never been, so that he, too, will put his poor shoulder to the wheel and help to give the world a little turn into the new era that begins tomorrow.”

~ Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

To examine the patriarchy, Carter wove into the novel’s rich tapestry timeless subject of love and relationships. Power dynamics in relationships often tip toward the men’s advantage. As such, male violence was prevalent throughout the story but it was more prominent in relationships; abusive and exploitative relationships abounded throughout the story. But it wasn’t always black and white. There were relationships that turned into romance. There were also relationships that were nurturing. There were also undertones of homosexual relationships. The novel also subtly grappled with political subjects, an element of the story that discomfited some readers. Apart from being an advocate for Sophie’s well-being, Lizzie worked with resistance groups from different parts of the world. Elsewhere, the novel tackled mortality, time, and even aging; a character even claimed to have the power to youth and longevity.

This complex narrative, with its bevy of subjects and themes, was capably woven together into one rich tapestry by Angela Carter. It was not only the patriarchy that she challenged. Her boldness made her challenge the conventions of writing and storytelling, as most visionaries do. Like her good friend Salman Rushdie, she did not provide a straightforward narrative. She propped her story with elements of magic, fairy tales, and mythology. Apart from elements of magical realism, Carter incorporated elements of postmodernism. Interestingly, Nights at the Circus, while complex, is considered by literary pundits and readers alike as the most accessible of her works. It even earned Carter the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1984 and was even hailed the Best of the James Tait Black in 2012, nearly three decades since its first publication.

Nights at the Circus was the work that elevated Carter to global prominence. It masquerades as a complex story about a trapeze artist of an unusual upbringing and origin. The tumult of the circus belied the deep message the book was entrenched with. More than the search for truth and sifting through the deception, the book examined the condition of the lives of women during the turn of the century. It was a pivotal moment as there was a transition from the traditional values of the 19th century to the sexual liberation of the 20th century. The female voice, after suffering centuries of being muted, was slowly getting audible. In a way, Sophie Fevvers is an allegory. She was the epitome of hope and freedom that women yearned for. But as the story of Sophie has also underlined, the road is not without its obstacles. The book, despite the passage of time, has transcended time. Without a doubt, Nights at the Circus is a triumph of storytelling, writing, and literature as a whole.

“At this time, the cusp of the modern age, the hinge of the nineteenth century, had a plebiscite been taken amongst all the inhabitants of the world, by far the great number of them, occupied as they were throughout the planet with daily business of agriculture of the slash and burn variety, warfare, metaphysics and procreation, would have heartily concurred with these indigenous Siberians that the whole idea of the twentieth century, or any other century at all, for that matter, was a rum notion. Had the global plebiscite been acted upon in a democratic manner, the twentieth century would have forthwith ceased to exist, the entire system of dividing up years by one hundred would have been abandoned and time, by popular consent, would have stood still.”

~ Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus


Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

It was through must-read lists that I first encountered Angela Carter. I am really grateful to these lists, including the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, for introducing me to writers and titles who and which I wouldn’t have imagined reading before. However, when I first encountered Carter’s Nights at the Circus. I was a little apprehensive about obtaining a copy of the book. Although my interest was piqued, I felt like the book was not my cup of tea. It did not help that I wasn’t a fan of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I eventually relented to my curiosity and in 2021, I was able to obtain a copy of the book. Ahead of the other books gathering dust on my bookshelf, I decided to read Nights at the Circus as part of my May 2022 European Literature reading month. I admit I did struggle a bit at the start because of the structure and the fact that Fevvers was an unreliable narrator; after all, this was new territory for me. As the story advanced, I soon found my footing. Once I did, the story started to unfold before me. Nights at the Circus is not your typical story as Carter integrated unusual elements, i.e. a Siberian shaman. Overall, while it was not an easy read, it was an interesting book. I can understand why it commands attention and why the book has transcended time.

Book Specs

Author: Angela Carter
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 350
Genre: Historical, Magical Realism


Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capital, part swan… or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia.

About the Author

Angela Carter was born Angela Olive Stalker on May 7, 1940, in Eastbourne, Sussex, England. Her father, Hugh Alexander Stalker was a journalist, while her mother was a cashier. Carter spent her childhood under the care of her maternal grandmother in Yorkshire where she was sent to escape wartime bombing. Post-war, she Streatham and Clapham High School in south London. She bypassed an opportunity to study at Oxford University. Rather, she started working as a journalist for the Croydon Advertiser. She would later on pursue a Bachelor of Arts in English, specializing in medieval literature at the University of Bristol, earning her degree in 1965.

A year after graduating from University, Carter published her first novel, Shadow Dance, and was shortly followed by The Magic Toyshop (1967) and Several Perceptions (1968). The latter earned Carter the Somerset Maugham Award for new literature in 1968. Over her career, she published nine novels, with her 1984 novel, Nights at the Circus her most renowned. The novel won her the 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Her last novel, Wise Children, was published in 1991. During the same year Nights at the Circus was published, Carter co-wrote the motion picture The Company of Wolves (1984). The film was based on a story from The Bloody Chamber (1979), a collection of her adaptations of fairy tales. There was a renewed interest in Carter’s works after the release of the movie.

Apart from novels, Carter also wrote essays, short stories, radio plays, poetry collections, and children’s books. She also wrote works of nonfiction, with The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1979) among her most successful works. She also worked as an editor and a translator for some collection of fairy tales. Her works have also appeared in prominent publications such as The GuardianThe Independent, and New Statesman. During the late 1970s and 1980s, she was a writer in residence at universities, including the University of Sheffield, Brown University, the University of Adelaide, and the University of East Anglia.

Carter passed away on February 16, 1992, at her home in London after developing lung cancer.