Page 7. " Not billed the Cockney Venus for nothing "
Venus de Milo
GNU Free Documentation LicenseVenus de Milo - Credit: Shawn Lipowski

Venus was an important Roman goddess symbolising love, beauty and fertility.  The Latin roots of the name mean both 'love' and 'sexual desire'.  In more recent years, Venus has come to epitomise femininity as illustrated in the title of John Gray's book of relationship advice, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  The title "Cockney Venus" symbolises Fevvers' future role as lover, temptress and paradigm for the women of the twentieth century.  It is a title which recurs regularly throughout the novel and sums up Carter's portrayal of Fevvers as the leading female star of the century.

There are further parallels; the planet Venus is the brightest star in the night sky (often called the Morning or Evening Star), just as Fevvers is the brightest star in Victorian London.  The Roman goddess Venus (named Aphrodite in Greek mythology) was said to have been born from the foam of the sea, whilst Fevvers claims to have been hatched from an egg and to have no human parents.  Finally, Aphrodite was the muse of Pygmalion, who created a statue in her image and named it Galatea.  The sculptor fell in love with his own statue and prayed to Aphrodite, who took pity on him and brought it to life - this classical myth inspired George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, which in turn became the musical My Fair Lady.  Later in Nights at the Circus, the Grand Duke refers to Fevvers as 'Galatea' as he seeks to add her to his own collection of automata.




Page 7. " just like Helen of Troy, was hatched "

Helen of Troy (1898)
Public DomainHelen of Troy (1898) - Credit: Evelyn de Morgan
Helen of Troy was considered the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology; the "face that launched a thousand ship's" in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.  She was born from the union between Zeus, the father of the gods, and the maiden Leda whom he seduced in the form of a swan.   After their meeting, Leda also lay with her husband and afterwards gave birth to two eggs, from one of which Helen was hatched.  Helen married Menelaus, the Spartan king, but in leaving him for the Trojan prince Paris she initiated the great wars of Troy reported in Homer's The Iliad.  

Fevvers later tells Walser that a picture of Leda and the Swan by Titian hung over Ma Nelson's mantelpiece, the scene of her first attempt at flight.  The story of Leda and the swan also appears as a central motif in Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop (1967), in which the heroine, Melanie, is assaulted by a vast swan puppet.


Page 8. " some Frog dwarf who asked me to piddle on his thingy "

The Clowness Cha U Kao at the Moulin Rouge (1895)
Public DomainThe Clowness Cha U Kao at the Moulin Rouge (1895) - Credit: Henri de Toulouse Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) was a French painter famous for capturing the elegance and decadence of late 19th century Paris, most notably the Moulin Rouge nightclub.  Toulouse Lautrec lived in Montmartre, where he created his Post Impressionist paintings and art nouveau illustrations including posters for famous nightclubs and fashionable companies.

Toulouse Lautrec broke both legs as a teenager and afterwards his bones ceased to grow due to an unusual genetic disorder possibly attributable to inbreeding, as his parents were first cousins.  As an adult he stood at 1.54m tall.

Much of Toulouse Lautrec's art depicts the free sexuality he encountered among the prostitutes of Montmartre, although he also had a fascination with the circus.  One of his final works was a book of 39 sketches of circus performers.

Read an article on Toulouse Lautrec's work in Life magazine(1950)

The Moulin Rouge
Creative Commons AttributionThe Moulin Rouge - Credit: Nicolas Pioch


Page 8. " As dear old Dan Leno calls it, "a little village on the Thames of which the principal industries are the music hall and the confidence trick" "

Dan Leno (1860-1904) was a famed music hall performer, and one of the chief forerunners to today's pantomime dame.  Born in London, he appeared first alongside his brother Henry as a dancing duo, and later became World Champion Clog Dancer.  However, during the 1880s Leno's routines focussed increasingly on Cockney comedy patter and comedic characters identifiable from London's streets.  At the height of his popularity he would move between music halls, performing in up to 20 shows in one night.  As a dame, he performed in pantomimes including Babes in the Wood, Aladdin as Widow Twanky and Jack and the Beanstalk as Dame Trot.

Dan Leno as Mother Goose (1946)
Public DomainDan Leno as Mother Goose (1946) - Credit: Lilliput
Leno died aged 43, of what is thought to have been a brain tumour.  His funeral was a major public occasion, and his inscription in Lambeth cemetery reads, "Here sleeps the King of Laughter-makers.  Sleep well, dear heart, until the King of Glory awakens thee."

Dan Leno wrote an autobiography, His Book: A Volume of Frivolities Autobiographical, Historical, Philosophical, Anecdotal, and Nonsensical (1899).  His life has also been written up by Barry Anthony, and he appears as a character in Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1995).

Fevvers' quote is genuinely attributed to Dan Leno, although it more often opens as "a large village on the Thames..." 



Page 11. " Parisians shot themselves in droves for her sake "

Willy  was Henry Gauthiers-Villars (1859-1931), a writer, music critic and wit.  From 1893-1910 he was married to the novelist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) although both had frequent affairs with both men and women.  

Colette (1896)
Public DomainColette (1896) - Credit: Jacques Humbert
Colette is now the more famous of the two, particularly as the author of Gigi (1944) which became a Broadway play and successful Hollywood film.  

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) was a writer of plays, novels, poetry and journalism, and a pioneer of absurdist literature.  He lived an avant-garde lifestyle in Paris, increasingly talking and behaving in the absurdist style of his characters, and died of tuberculosis aggravated by drug and alcohol use.

Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled the German Empire and Kingdom of Prussia from 1888 to 1918, when he abdicated towards the end of World War I.  

King Carlos I of Portugal ruled from 1889 to 1908.  He was the first Portuguese king to die a violent death since the 16th century, and since his murder he is often called 'The Martyr' or 'The Diplomat'.  He was particularly interested in deep-sea and maritime exploration, which may be the source of the pearls in Fevvers' skipping rope.

Page 14. " On the stage of the Alhambra "
The American Circus at the Alhambra Palace (1858)
Public DomainThe American Circus at the Alhambra Palace (1858)

The Alhambra was a popular music hall which dominated London's Leicester Square.  It opened as 'The Royal Panopticon of Science and Arts' in 1954, and was renamed the Alhambra after a brief closure in 1856.  The name came from associations with the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain, and was adopted by several other theatres and cinemas in Britain.  In 1882, a fire in the dead of night completely devastated the original building.  The rebuilt theatre, which opened in 1884, adopted a simpler style and no longer reflected the grandeur of the original, Moorish Alhambra.  The theatre finally closed in 1936, and the Odeon Cinema now stands on its site.

The Alhambra was used for circus and dance, but most of all for music hall acts.  The music hall was one of the most popular entertainments of the Victorian era, with stars including Dan Leno, Fred Karno, Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin all taking their turn on the stage.  Combining song, comedy, magic, circus and vaudeville, the music hall had appeal for people of all ages and classes.  Born from the entertainment saloons popular in the 1830s, music hall in theatres began in earnest during the 1860s.  This form of entertainment remained immensely popular throughout World War I but declined during the interwar years; however, its legacy remains in seafront entertainments and variety shows which continue to tour regional theatres.  

The stalls audience at the music hall
Public DomainThe stalls audience at the music hall - Credit: Victorian London

At the turn of the century, music halls existed in both the rich and poor areas of London, although the quality of their acts and accommodation were of vastly different standards.  The Alhambra was one of the city's most glamourous venues, although it had its less respectable undercurrents; many men were said to have been drawn by the attractive corps de ballet, and its infamous promenade was rumoured to be the resort of courtesans.  

Audiences dressed in evening wear, with the wealthiest patrons taking seats in the stalls - originally set out like booths with tables for dining - and boxes.  Attention, particularly in the more tightly packed seats in the circle and gallery, wandered freely between the stage and the general conversation.  A large orchestra played live from the pit, whilst the mechanics of the stage were operated from spacious wings.  From a wooden fly floor above the stage, stagehands could raise and lower scenery, trapeze or cloths into position on bars hung from lengths of rope.  A second space beneath the stage allowed access via trapdoors in the floor of the performance area.  Sound effects were created with devices such as a thundersheet - essentially a large sheet of metal shaken to create a deep vibration.  

Although D'Oyley Carte's New Savoy Theatre opened in 1881 with electric lighting, and other major venues were quick to follow suit, replacing the traditional gas and lime lighting which had illuminated the stage.  Colour effects were achieved by shining lights through dyed silks; these were replaced by today's plasticised colour filters in the mid 20th century.  On page 16 Carter describes Fevvers as 'transfixed the while upon the arching white sword of the lime light'.  Quicklime, heated with an intense flame, was originally used in theatres to create a bright beam for spotlighting individual performers.  Although replaced by electric lighting in the late 19th century, star performers are often said to be 'in the limelight' and followspots are known as 'limes' within the theatrical lighting industry.  If Fevvers is indeed in the limelight, then the Alhambra is behind the times.  On a sidenote, a famous brand of followspot is the Super Trouper - inspiration for the Abba song of the same name, in which the lyrics run 'Super Trouper, lights are gonna blind me, shining like the sun'.

Page 14. " Only a bird in a gilded cage "

'A bird in a gilded cage' is a song composed by Harry Von Tilzer, with lyrics by Arthur J Lamb.  Although it was released in America in 1899, it did not become popular until 1900, either putting Fevvers' act either in the very vanguard of fashion or suggesting that Carter's dates are slightly awry.  The lyrics of the song lament the fate of a woman who married for money rather than love; the chorus reads:

She's only a bird in a gilded cage,

A beautiful sight to see,

You may think she's happy and free from care,

She's not, though she seems to be,

'Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,

For youth cannot mate with age,

And her beauty was sold,

For an old man's gold,

She's a bird in a gilded cage.

The song has an obvious visual connection to Fevvers' first appearance onstage, but also to the danger which faces her later in the novel, of sacrificing her true self for the sake of worldly wealth.

The embedded version of the song is sung by music hall star Florrie Forde (1875-1940).

Page 16. " The Ride of the Valkyries "

'The Ride of the Valkyries' (Walkurenritt) is the opening of Act III of The Valkyries (Die Walkure), the third opera in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.  Composed in 1854, it is one of Wagner's most famous works and tells a mythic tale of mortals and gods battling for possession of a magical ring.  The characters and mythology are based on Scandinavian and German fables, and The Ride of the Valkyries portrays four Valkyries gathered on a mountain peak, bearing the dead bodies of men slain in battle toward Valhalla, O

din's hall for fallen warriors.  The Valkyries appear in Norse mythology with the power to decide who dies in battle.  They are depicted as warrior-like women, often shown flying or mounted on flying steeds.


The power of Wagner's music has resulted in it being widely used in popular culture, most famously in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).

Page 18. " the obese and bearded princeling who has taken his place in the royal box twice nightly since Fevvers' first night "

Coronation portait of King Edward II (1902)
Public DomainCoronation portait of King Edward II (1902) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
King Edward VII (Prince Albert Edward) was the eldest son of Queen Victoria, and assumed the throne in 1901, aged 59.  He was a stout, bearded man, who reigned until 1910.  As king he was popular, overseeing the rise of industry and foreseeing the risk of war with Germany.  However, he was a heavy smoker and was known to have had several love affairs both before and during his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.  Many of his consorts were actresses and singers, including Sarah Bernhardt and Lady Randolph Churchill (mother of Winston).  His father, Prince Albert, died just two weeks after visiting Albert Edward to reprimand him for the first of these public affairs with the actress Nellie Clifton; for some time Victoria blamed her son for his death, and refused to be associated with him.


Page 25. " I posed, for the first time, as the Winged Victory "
Victorian style Cupid
Public DomainVictorian style Cupid - Credit: Karen Hatzigeorgiu

Fevvers begins her working life posing as Cupid, the Roman god of love and desire.  Cupid is most often depicted as a naked baby or child armed with a golden bow and arrows which, on piercing a person's flesh, would cause them to fall instantly in love.  

On reaching puberty, Fevvers' role changes to that of Winged Victory.  Also known as Nike of Samothrace, this is a statue dating from the 2nd century BC on display at the Louvre, Paris.  Now missing its head and arms, the statue depicts the Greek goddess Nike, who personified victory.

Nike of Samothrace
Public DomainNike of Samothrace - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

The statue was created to celebrate victory in a sea battle, and may have stood originally in an open air theatre or altar.  It was discovered in 1863, and was applauded for its lifelike depiction of the human body in motion and of the flowing drapes of cloth in its dress.  Although Ma Nelson provides Fevvers with a sword to fill her empty hands, it is thought that the right hand of the statue was originally held cupped to its mouth to cry out in triumph.  

The statue was a favourite of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who included reproductions of it in several of his buildings.  It also formed a model for the original FIFA World Cup trophy in 1930 and for the Rolls Royce figurehead; a larger copy also stands outside Caesar's Palace casino in Las Vegas.