|Angela Carter by Jane Bown for Observer Review.|
For Angela Carter, to write was to perform. She saw herself as a highwire artiste, filling her novels with the vivid colours of the circus and the energy of carnivals. Now one of her stories is being staged - and not before time, says Lisa Appignanesi
hortly before she died in February 1992, far too soon at the age of 51, Angela Carter wrote a preface to a collection of her book reviews wickedly entitled Expletives Deleted. Here she teased out the game with time that all writers and storytellers play. The thought makes a poignant message-in-a-bottle when read after her death:
"A good writer can make you believe time stands still. Yet the end of all stories, even if the writer forbears to mention it, is death, which is where our time stops short. Scheherazade knew this, which is why she kept on spinning another story out of the bowels of the last one, never coming to a point where she could say: 'This is the end.' Because it would have been. We travel along the thread of narrative like high-wire artistes. That is our life."
Carter's very own high-wire artiste, her Scheherazade who trumps the time Carter couldn't, is the irresistible Fevvers, the Cockney Venus of Nights at the Circus. A larger-than-life bottle blonde, "winged barmaid" and illusionist extraordinaire, Fevvers is an aerealist who spins out the reality-defying tale of her own life before leading us on a picaresque romp with the circus from St Petersburg to Siberia and back to London again at the butt end of the 19th century.
The circus, that most popular and painted of all belle-époque entertainments, is a wonderful vehicle for Carter's exuberantly witty and layered fiction. In its rings, artful performers can enact life and magic in great bawdy strokes. Run by one Colonel Kearney, a cigar-smoking American entrepreneur and hog-loving dreamer, who owes not a little to Uncle Sam, Carter's circus is a vast "ludic game". Her tragic clowns grow into their masks. Her trained apes become professors and write their own contracts. Her wild beasts, tamed by their lesbian trainer's music, are ever ready to pounce or shatter. Her strong man, once just a woman-beating drunk, learns sentiment through song. And in the midst of it all is Fevvers, the femme fatale with a difference.
Carter was always intrigued by the femme fatale and the "performance" of femininity - hardly for her a universal, but a construct made up of a time's assumptions and wishes. She translated the German playwright and cabaret artist Frank Wedekind's plays Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, where Lulu, that original turn-of-the-20th-century fatal woman, is born. Fevvers' sensational journey, the clowns and strong men of Nights, the lesbian lover and the waif, not to mention Fevvers' ribald enactment of sexual wiles and the predatory grand duke who tries to turn her into a toy, owe something to Lulu.
Carter's winged aerialist is a bold late-20th-century woman's response to the myth of the femme fatale: the woman who is both mysterious and fatal because she is made the repository of the male's forbidden desires. Writing about Louise Brooks, the great silent film incarnation of Lulu, Carter notes: "Desire does not so much transcend its object as ignore it completely in favour of a fantastic re-creation of it. Which is the process by which the femme gets credited with fatality. Because she is perceived not as herself but as the projection of those libidinous cravings which, since they are forbidden, must always prove fatal."
Lulu may just be a good-hearted girl, whore or not, but Wedekind and her suitors would have her embody mystery and become the instrument of vice. The femme fatale's punishment for sex without apparent love of the wifely variety is death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. (If this seems extreme and out of date in our enlightened times, the recent responses to the survey on rape, where one in three believed a woman was to blame for it if she had been flirtatious, should make us sit up and take notice.) Fevvers, while everyone's larger-than-life femme, is no one's victim. And she'll stay in charge of her own mystery, thank you very much, no matter how much the male may want to pierce it.
Hatched from both earth and air, the mundane and the mythic, Carter's brazen femme fatale is, like all good metaphors, a creature of all kinds of doubleness. She can give you a good dose of speculation. She's not bad on Marx or Freud, when it comes to what women may want; or French theory, if it's a matter of the arts of narration. But she can also be as crude as they come and camp up femininity a la Mae West.
"'Lor' love you sir!' Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. "As to my place of birth, why, I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn't I! Not billed the Cockney Venus for nothing, sir, though they could just as well 'ave called me Helen of the High Wire, due to the unusual circumstances in which I come ashore - 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."
Double entendres and double meanings are the very stuff of life for this self-confident "virgo intacta" of the erotic gutter. Describing her trajectory, Carter's language dances, soars and plays tricks with any notions of fictional realism. Orphaned by who knows what combination of Ledas and swans and brought up in a brothel, Fevvers posed for "winged victory" while the whores turned their tricks. Her foster mother-cum-pragmatic Sancho Panza, the always-savvier-than-thou Lizzie, carries a voodoo bag of tricks and a clock that can stop time. This is just what she does at the witching start of the novel when Fevvers is being interviewed in her theatre dressing room by the sceptical American journalist Jack Walser.
Walser wants to puncture the grandiose illusion that is this winged giantess, and prove her humbug: the brightly coloured appurtenances that grow out of the shoulders of this "voluptuous stevedore" have got to be fake, whatever lazy semblance of flight she seems to perform on her trapeze. Instead, with a little help from the champagne Fevvers pours from bottles kept cold in a chamber pot and the endless midnight of story, Jack finds himself both stumped and entranced. Incognito, he joins Fevvers in Kearney's travelling circus, and becomes a clown. Soon he has his own feathers.
In one of her many references to other stories in which femmes fatales feature, Carter gives Walser the chicken clown act of Professor Unrat (Unreason) in the Blue Angel Cabaret where Lola Lola (alias Marlene Dietrich) presides. Like Unrat, Walser cock-a-doodle-dos his way through love, but Carter generously lets Jack's madness skirt masochistic self-destruction. Nor is he a Jack the Ripper to Lulu-Fevvers. Instead, after a trial by hallucination, and wearing a Siberian shaman's dress, he comes together with the Cockney Venus. She's on top, of course, and she laughs her pleasure right into the new century. Laughs and laughs because he has also believed in her. At the very end, she marvels: "To think I really fooled you! ... It just goes to show there's nothing like confidence."
The "spiralling tornado" of Fevvers' laugh is also Carter's own. It's we, the readers, who have been taken in to the very end by her high-wire narrative act. And we'll never know whether what Fevvers has fooled Jack about is her wings or her virginity. Whichever it is, the performance has given pleasure and that's what matters. This is a night at the circus, after all.
But if Fevvers is the incarnation of the laughing, fearless woman poised to take flight in the new emancipated century, for Carter that's no simple matter of just turning the tables on the man. Flight of any kind is a precarious act, a star turn that needs the gaze of the male (or the enraptured reader). It takes two to tango, or to create a performance of any kind.
What is so heady in the brew of Nights at the Circus, and indeed in the best of Carter's fairytales, stories and essays, is her sense of fun, what the literary call the "carnivalesque". She loved the popular because it was just that - the demotic. She loved the dirty joke, the lewd and rude, the anonymous in art and spectacle, that which hadn't been canonised, that which, like women, lay at the margins and not at the centre of culture. It was her particular feat to be able to marry the high with the low, the erudite with the bawdy. Her glee in mingling philosophy and the circus, realism and fantasy, knowledge and kitchen gossip, is positively impish. In her last novel, Wise Children, the Chance sisters high-kick their way through Shakespeare - irreverent, like Carter, to the last.
Angela Carter punctured myths, the old ones of male power and the new ones of female goodness. In her vocabulary, "serious" never extended to earnest. The only po-face she knew was the high gothic of the American Poe. In her reworking of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty herself becomes a furry desiring animal. Carter understood the surrealist logic of desire and dream and gave it great lashings of quintessentially English humour.
I knew Carter well and miss her class act. I don't think I'll ever forget the sound of her inimitable laugh - warm, exuberant, ribald, pausing as if time stood still, only to swoop like a rush of brightly coloured fevvers.