Page 152. " A-hunting we will go! "

A-hunting we will go! is a popular British song written by Thomas Arne (1710-1778) in 1777 for The Beggar's Opera, an iconic Augustan drama directed by John Gay (1685-1732).  It was sung originally by Margaret Kennedy in her role as the famous highwayman Macheath.  The simple rhyme, tune and lyrics have since made it a popular children's song.




Page 154. " teach Mignon the song that was written for her before she was born "

Once again, Mignon is associated with a poem by Goethe in a musical setting by Franz Schubert, or Franz Liszt.  Mignon (1795) is perhaps the most influential of all of these, and has one of the most famous opening lines in German poetry.  Schubert created Lied der Mignon (Mignon's Song) in 1826, whilst Liszt rewrote the music three times in 1842, 1854 and 1860.  


Do you know the land where the lemon-trees grow, in darkened leaves the gold-oranges glow, a soft wind blows from the pure blue sky, the myrtle stands mute, and the bay-tree high?

Do you know it well? It’s there I’d be gone, to be there with you, O, my beloved one!

Do you know the house? It has columns and beams, there are glittering rooms, the hallway gleams, and figures of marble looking at me?  ‘What have they done, child of misery?

Do you know it well? It’s there I’d be gone, to be there with you, O my true guardian!

Do you know the clouded mountain mass? The mule picks its way through the misted pass, and dragons in caves raise their ancient brood, and the cliffs are polished smooth by the flood;

Do you know it well? It’s there I would be gone! It’s there our way leads! Father, we must go on!


The full poem is a romantic reference to Italy, with magical and religious allusions.  Separately, Mignon is also a character in Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, in which she is a young Italian dancer stolen away from her family by the circus.  The hero, Meister, notices her being mistreated by the performers and rescues her, making her his devoted follower.  The novel was made into an opera, Mignon, by Ambroise Thomas in 1866; many of its themes, including secret societies, the stage and circus, and its fantastical elements, are mirrored in Nights at the Circus.


Page 161. " if ever Lizzie so much as thinks of the Charivaris "

voodoo fetishes
Creative Commons Attributionvoodoo fetishes - Credit: Dominik Schwarz
Lizzie's brand of witchcraft appears to be purely her own, but draws on several traditions.  Throughout the novel she demonstrates power over time, over remote individuals, and over place; somehow her strengths are tied up with Ma Nelson's clock and with the contents of her own handbag, but she remains as much of an enigma as Fevvers in her own, subtler, manner.

Voodoo, practiced chiefly in Haiti, West Africa and Louisiana, uses talismans or fetishes to heal or harm people or groups, calling on natural phenomena, herbal remedies, and a belief that all of creation is divinely connected.  Lizzie is, of course, also an ardent feminist and women lie at the centre of Voodoo beliefs, with the oldest or most respected woman in a clan being named as Queen Mother in a continuous line.  Queen Mothers take the name of a respected ancestor and are responsible for leading prayer meetings, but also for practical needs such as organising and maintaining markets.

Other types of witchcraft, such as Wicca, similarly draw on the power of nature, of natural objects and substances, and on faith, life, death and ritual.  There is evidence of rituals associated with witchcraft dating back 30,000 years, and male and female witches were revered in early cultures as powerful shamans - just as Walser's friend in Siberia holds a powerful position among his own, primitive people.

Today, witchcraft lies outside mainstream beliefs in the western world, and exists in isolated pockets or in children's fiction.  However, individuals and groups continue to meet and practice witchcraft quietly, maintaining its links with nature and the power of the earth, sun and moon rather than wielding wands and broomsticks.  Lizzie's power appears to be of this type; whatever fetishes she carries in her handbag, are used for private necessity and inconspicuous revenge rather than for overt demonstrations of the supernatural.

Page 162. " Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale "

 Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was a Swedish opera singer who toured to great acclaim in Europe before being invited to America by the great circus entrepreneur, PT Barnum, where she made a fortune and returned to Europe as a philanthropist and singing teacher.

Lind had a strong reputation as a charitable and Christian woman, and agreed to Barnum's tour in large part due to the potential to raise money to open new schools in Sweden.  As she was largely unknown in the USA, he appealed to American morals in his publicity, stating 'A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America.'  It is perhaps ironic then, that in the musical Barnum! Lind is portrayed as a potential note of discord between Barnum and his patient wife Charity.

Barnum worked with Lind fresh from his successful tour with Tom Thumb, and before becoming involved in circuses; she toured music halls as a soloist and not as part of a variety act.


Page 162. " The grand waltz from Onegin "

 Eugene Onegin (1879) is a Tchaikovsky opera based on Alexander Pushkin's verse novel of the same name.  The eponymous hero is from St Petersburg, although the majority of the novel is set in the Russian countryside and later in Moscow.  The story concentrates on the ill-timed love between Onegin and Tatyana, the daughter of a country neighbour.

The verse form of the original novel provided the basic libretto for Tchaikovsky's opera; the story of Onegin's life is so well known in Russia that the music presents highlighted scenes from the hero's life, with no continuous storyline.  The Grand Waltz opens Act II, staged at Tatyana's name day party.  Onegin, having rejected her, flirts with her sister Olga who is betrothed to his best friend.  This is Onegin's last moment of triumph, his last dance as a youthful dandy before his life falls into tragedy and disappointment.  As Onegin waltzed with Olga, his friend Lensky grows increasingly jealous and eventually challenges him to a fatal duel.   Only Walser's intervention can temporarily save the neglected and jealous tigress from a similar fate in the face of the Princess' pistol.


Page 164. " Here comes the Beast, and Beauty! "

Angela Carter refers frequently to fairy tales in her work, and Beauty and the Beast is particularly present.  She has translated the original written tale by Madame le Prince de Beaumont, and her collection of adult fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber (1979) contains two versions in The Tiger's Bride and The Courtship of Mr. Lyon.  In The Tiger's Bride, the heroine recognises the beauty of the tiger-beast and becomes a tiger like him, in direct contrast to the usual ending in which the beast is restored to humanity.

Carter is not alone in rewriting fairy tales from a feminist, contemporary or comic angle.  Interesting comparative reading may be found in Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch(1997).  Donoghue's Tale of the Rose concludes, 'And as the years flowed by, some villagers told travelers of a beast and a beauty who lived in the castle… and others told of two beauties, and others, of two beasts.'

The question of what makes a beauty, and what a beast, is also a reference to Fevvers' own physicality.  Ungainly, coarse, oversized, greedy, she is nevertheless attractive, fascinating and occasionally wildly generous.  Whether she is female or freak, fact or fiction, she lies somewhere between the extremes of beast and beauty, and both Walser and the reader spend the duration of the novel seeking to pin down her position on that spectrum.


Page 169. " humming 'Casey Jones' to himself "

Casey Jones (1863-1900) was an American railroad engineer who dies in a train crash in Mississippi in 1900, but was hailed a hero for his efforts to stop the train.  He was immortalised in a ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, although Sybil's powers must have been hard at work to allow Colonel Kearney to sing the song in 1899 before Jones' death.

The song of Casey Jones remains a popular ballad in America, and versions have been performed by Johnny Cash (below) as well as the Grateful Dead and numerous lesser-known musicians.

Page 173. " Tonight shall be my Cavalry! God, we'll make 'em split their sides! "
The Crucifixion by Hans Memling (1491)
Public DomainThe Crucifixion by Hans Memling (1491) - Credit: Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

It must be assumed that Buffo, in his drunken state, is mistaking Cavalry for Calvary; even if not, the similarity of the two words points to Buffo's role as the clown's all-too-human god, sacrificing his life for the sake of laughter.  His second statement similarly reflects Christ's crucifixion, during which his side was split open by a Roman spear.  

Calvary is Golgotha, 'the place of the skull', the site of Jesus' crucifixion in the Christian faith.  Not unique to Jesus' death, it was a regular site of public execution; Buffo refers, earlier in the novel, to the long line of clowns who have succumbed to the pressure of providing endless laughter.

In the 300 years following Jesus' crucifixion, and before Christianity reclaimed the site as a place of remembrance, a temple to Aphrodite was built upon the hill at Calvary.  Nights at the Circus opens by identifying Fevvers as the Cockney Venus, Aphrodite's Roman equivalent; perhaps Buffo's downfall leaves the ring open for Fevvers to rise to even greater heights as the new goddess of the circus.

The metaphor is extended in the next paragraph, as Buffo is described as looking like someone risen from the grave, his disciples eagerly welcoming him back as a drunken, grotesque parody of a god.

Page 174. " The band started in on 'The March of the Gladiators' "

The Circus Procession (1888)
Public DomainThe Circus Procession (1888) - Credit: McLoughlin Bros, Inc.
Entrance of the Gladiators (1897) was composed by the Czech Julius Fucik.  Its popularity as a 'screamer march', designed to stir up a crowd and popular in circuses, grew from 1910, after Canadian Louis-Phillipe Laurendeau arranged it for a small band under the title Thunder and Blazes.  Today it is instantly reminiscent of the circus, particularly the entrance of clowns, and has been used and adapted for TV, film and variety shows.  Its simple core melody makes it a popular tune for instrumental teaching, particularly on piano, where it is often known simply as The Clowns' March.

The music has also been transcribed for fairground organ, although it is still occasionally performed in its original form at concerts of popular classical music.

Page 175. " The Lord of Misrule himself "
The Lord of Misrule, from the Illustrated London News, on the Victorian Web
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumThe Lord of Misrule, from the Illustrated London News, on the Victorian Web - Credit: scanned by Terry Johnson, Lakehead University

A Feast of Fools is an ancient peasant custom, usually celebrated around Christmas, celebrated in Britain until the 15th century but originating in ancient Rome around the festival of Saturnalia, associated with the winter solstice.  The feast was a wild and drunken party, with revellers roaming from house to house exchanging gifts, kisses and tricks.

The Lord of Misrule would be appointed by election or drawing lots to rule over the revels for up to 30 days, adopting the costume of the court jester in paper crown and motley dress.  The paper crowns, gifts and jokes found in modern Christmas crackers allude to this costume and tradition.  During his reign, the Lord of Misrule was granted full licence to enjoy whatever pleasures he wished, and to draw others after him.  

Whilst the custom originated among the peasantry in late mediaeval and early Tudor times in Britain, it was taken up by higher classes, although with more responsibility for organising Christmas festivities and less for pranks and drunkenness.  A Lord of Misrule was appointed at court, in the homes of great noblemen, in the law schools and colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.  In choir schools, a 'Boy Bishop' took on a similar role among fellow pupils, whilst in Scotland the Lord of Misrule figure became known as the Abbot of Unreason.  

After several failed attempts to end the tradition of the Feast of Fools, it was eventually quashed by Queen Mary I (1516-1558) in Britain in 1555.  Her objection was on grounds of public decency, but anthropologist James Frazer (1854-1941) has suggested a darker side to the festival of Saturnalia and even to the Lord of Misrule in Britain, finding evidence that these temporary monarchs were executed upon an altar at the close of their reign as a sacrificial offering.  This sacrificial role reinforces the metaphor of Buffo as a parody of a Christ-king, dying for others. 

James Frazer's work, The Golden Bough (1922) explores global rituals and beliefs in intimate detai l.

The 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man draws on some of the customs explored by Frazer and the sacrifice of temporary monarchs.



Page 175. " The moon has turned to blood! "

The Christian festival of Pentecost falls 50 days after Easter Sunday, and commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus' followers after his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  The event is recounted in chapter 2 of Acts, in the New Testament, during which Peter stands up and addresses the crowd with the words of the prophet Joel, referring to the last days:

"I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Acts 2: 19-21)

For Buffo to see the moon turned to blood reinforces the idea that his Day of Judgement has come and further extends the links to Christ.

Page 175. " all the defiance and bravado of Jacob's with the angel "

This is a further Biblical allusion, from the tale of Jacob wrestling with an angel in Genesis chapter 32.  

Jacob in the Old Testament is a prophet, the son of Isaac and father of Joseph and his brothers (of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame).  Jacob also appears in the Hebrew Bible and Qur'an.  As a young man Jacob travelled to Haran, where he married both Leah and her sister Rachel and the first of his many children were born.  On his journey back to his native Canaan, he met an angel and wrestled with him until daybreak but was not overpowered.  At the end of the fight, the angel touched Jacob on his thigh or hip so that he developed a limp, but also renamed him Israel, meaning 'one who has prevailed with God', or 'he will judge as God'.