Daring young woman
Review of Nights at the Circus
by Angela Carter
Thursday 27 September 1984 16.54 BST
Angela Carter goes from strength to strength. She has made something of a speciality of novels and stories in which rusty Gothic weapons are repolished and then employed to open up some pretty modern wounds, finding new and intelligent uses for fantasy. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972), The Passion of New Eve (1977), and the shorter fairy - tale fictions collected in The Bloody Chamber (1979) were all interesting, amusing, irritating, and impressive in about equal degrees.
They could only be called successful, however, if their author's aim was merely to intrigue, and it is impossible to believe that Carter is that crude. Nights at the Circus, her new and most ambitious novel to date, breaks fresh ground for her both in content and style, and is without doubt her finest achievement so far, and a remarkable book by any standards.
Fevvers, its central character and cohesive symbol, is the most famous aerialiste of her day, a trapeze artist hovering in the moment between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, the toast of Europe's capitals, courted by princes, painted by Toulouse Lautrec, the Cockney Venus, six foot two in her stockings.
The novel consists of her racy stories of her own life, as delivered to a young American journalist Jack Walser, and Walser's quest for what he supposes to be the truth behind them. It describes, in effect, the education of Jack Walser, who learns in the course of a journey which takes him from London to Siberia to mistrust all his old go-getting certainties.
Angela Carter has a useful sense of humour, and she does not spare Walser a single revelation of his own shortcomings. The thing could have degenerated into a feminist tract, though, disfigured by its own savage comedy, were it not for the richness and liveliness of the portrait of Fevvers herself coarse, uproarious, hectic, inventive, preposterous, soaring through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young woman on the flying trapeze. Fevvers has to be the most outrageous and entertaining revelation of the White Goddess in a blue moon.