Page 176. " at any moment, a cock might crow, thrice "

The image of Buffo-as-Christ culminates as the performance comes to a close.  In the Biblical story of the crucifixion, Jesus foresees that his disciple Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows.  Peter follows Jesus to where he is imprisoned, but does indeed deny knowing him on three occasions when guards ask if he is one of the disciples.  On the third occasion a cock crows nearby; in Mark's gospel it crows twice, but in popular tradition it is often thought that the cock crew on each occasion of denial, three times in total.

The paragraph continues to describe Buffo directly as 'the very Christ', the Clown's Christmas Dinner become the Last Supper where he is seated among his disciples in peace.  The Last Supper was the final meal Jesus held with his disciples, where he broke bread and wine and offered it as his body and blood in the first incarnation of the Catholic mass.  The scene was famously potrayed by Leonardo da Vinci with the twelve disciples - Judas already absent - seated at a long white table with Jesus at the centre.

Page 177. " the illusion of intentional Bedlam "

Bedlam is a corruption of the name Bethlem Royal Hospital in south London, one of the first institutions housing the mentally ill.  Now well respected for its treatment and closely associated with King' College Hospital, it was once renowned for its cruelty and was the original madhouse, associated with false incarceration, isolation and brutal treatments. It admitted its first mentally ill patients in 1357, and was a dedicated mental asylum from the sixteenth century.  

During the 18th century, Bethlem recognised the success of freak shows and invited the public to pay a penny to peer into the cells of the hospital and amuse themselves with the antics of the inmates.  In 1814, 96,000 visitors took up the offer.

The notoriety of Bethlem made it a feature of cultural life.  In Shakespeare's King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as a Bedlam Beggar - a former inmate licenced to beg on the streets of London, marked by a tin plate on the arm - in order to hide in England after his banishment.  The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) created The Rake's Progressa series of eight paintings showing the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a profligate youth who wastes away a fortune in the brothels and gambling dens of London, ending up in debtors' prison and eventually in Bethlem.  The fashionable woman in the picture shown here is one of the hospital's paying visitors, come to laugh at Tom's delusions.  The story was made into an opera by composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and poet WH Auden (1907-1973) in 1951, and in 1961 artist David Hockney (1937-) created stage designs for the performance, as well as his own print version of the story.

Page 181. " Train leaves at midnight, doesn't it "

Cinderella, poster for touring theatre (1895)
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCinderella, poster for touring theatre (1895) - Credit: Valerie McGlinchey/Victoria and Albert Museum
On her way to the home of the Grand Duke, Fevvers is associated with the fairytale of Cinderella.  The train must leave at midnight, just as the fairy godmother's magic will wear off when the clock strikes twelve.  Outside, a 'befurred footman' hands Fevvers into her carriage; Cinderella's carriage is made from a pumpkin, and her attendants from rats, mice and lizards.  It was the lizards who actually made the footmen, whilst the furred animals were horses and a driver, but Carter is nevertheless clearly referring to the animal origins of Cinderella's entourage.

In parallel, Colonel Kearney is cast as the fairy godmother whose magic can only last a certain length of time.  His spell, which cast apes as humans, tigers as dancers, men as clowns, is wearing thin; his familars are abandoning him and disaster crowds upon diaster as the midnight deadline looms.

Page 185. " something like the Brighton Pavilion to call home "

The Royal Pavilion at night
Public DomainThe Royal Pavilion at night - Credit: Briantist
The Royal Pavilion in Brighton was built in 1787 for George IV, then Prince of Wales.  Brighton, on the south coast of England, was extremely fashionable at the time and was recommended to the prince for the good of his health; a residence there also allowed him to meet his Catholic lover, Maria Fitzherbert, in secrecy.  Her religion made a marriage impossible but she remained his companion for most of their adult lives.  

Between 1815 and 1822 the Pavilion was largely redesigned and extended, displaying an Indian style architecture on the outside and a mixture of Indian and Chinese features in the interior.  In 1850 Queen Victoria, who disliked Brighton, sold the Pavilion to the town and it is now a popular tourist attraction, restored in large part to its 19th century glory.  Buildings on the estate now house a theatre and concert hall, and the extravagant main building is a key feature of Brighton's seafront.

Page 187. " Of all things, I love best toys - marvellous and unnatural artefacts "

Automata are self-operating machines, usually designed to resemble humans or animals and to mirror their movements.  They originated in ancient Greece, where they were used as toys, idols and scientific tools, demonstrating the new understanding of intricate mechanical engineering.  Later automata were powered by wind, water and clockwork, and were adopted for fantastic displays in court and by magicians.  A small number of these creations remain on display in museums across the world; the Silver Swan at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, built in 1773, was mentioned in Mark Twain's diaries, and is now activated daily for museum visitors.


Modern automata are used alongside puppets and lighting effects in theatre to create convincing illusions.  There is also an active surviving interest in constructing automata; Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in London sells intricate models created by professional artists, offers DIY kits and stages exhibitions of modern automata.

Automata tap into a wider human interest in creating the perfect, artificial being, illustrated repeatedly in literature and art.  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) have all created cult horror from the idea of the artificial man; elsewhere puppets and dolls come to life with both terrifying and charming effect in the 1988 film Childsplay, The Wizard of Oz from 1939 and the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), where the heroes disguise themselves as automata to trick their way into the Baron's palace.  There are clear echoes of mythological tales here, of the Trojan horse and of Pygmalion's sculpture brought to life by Venus.  Film, television and literature all abound with the almost-human, with robots, living dolls and reinvigorated dead, acting for both good and ill.

Angela Carter's interest in puppets, toys and automata, in the human made strange, is demonstrated in the weird toys in The Magic Toyshop (1967), the animal-girl in Wolf-Alice (1979), the sexually ambivalent in Albert/Albertina and the unfinished libretto of Virgina Woolf's Orlando (pub. 1996), and the recurrent themes of freak shows and stage magic.

Page 187. " about the size of Sicilian puppets "

Sicilian puppets are large, 4-5 feet tall, and intricately dressed in armour and fabrics.  These marionettes have been in use since the early 1800s, and most often perform in epic fables, operas and Bible stories.  Sicilian puppet theatre originated on the streets, with the sides of donkey carts decorated as backdrops for performances, but now takes place more often in permanent mini-theatres with full scenery, flying cues and lighting.

Page 189. " a wonderful egg that never came from a chicken but out of a jeweller's shop "

The House of Faberge created intricate, jewelled eggs from 1885-1917, which were popular in Russia as gifts at Easter.  Some were tiny, designed to be worn on a chain around the neck, although larger versions were created for royalty and other wealthy families.  Even on these larger commissions the designer, Peter Carl Faberge, retained total creative control and the only guidance offered for their increasingly elaborate design was that each should contain a surprise.  Ten of the surviving large eggs are on display at the Kremlin Armoury Museum in Moscow, whilst others remain in private collections and singly in museums around the world.

Trans-Siberian Railway Faberge egg (1900)
Creative Commons AttributionTrans-Siberian Railway Faberge egg (1900) - Credit: greenacre8

The eggs which Fevvers sees at the Grand Duke's house appear to be modelled on genuine Faberge creations in the Imperial collection.  The Kelch Hen egg made in 1898 was given by nobleman Alexander Kelch to his wife as an Easter gift.  It is a golden egg coated in rich pink, which does indeed open to reveal a matte gold yolk and a golden hen with diamond eyes.  Only the centre varies; where the Grand Duke's egg contains a second egg and a miniature of Fevvers, the original version contains a tiny easel holding a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II.

It may be that the Grand Duke's egg is betraying him; Walser is repeatedly compared to a chick, or an unhatched egg.  At the heart of his treasure the picture of Fevvers sits within a second tiny egg; a sign of the emerging attraction between the American and the aerialiste which could preclude any future with the Duke himself?

The Bay Tree egg was made in 1911 as a gift from Nicholas II to his mother.  When a lever disguised as a fruit is touched, a tiny, moving, feathered songbird flies out and begins to sing.  The tree itself, however, forms the shape of an egg and is not enclosed within an outer shell.

The third egg, the Trans-Siberian Railway, was made as a gift from Nicholas II to his wife in 1900.  Its outside is mainly of silver, with a gold stand and green lid, coloured with enamel.  Inside sits a tiny steam locomotive with five carriages made of gold and platinum, with a key to wind it up and make it run.  It remains on display in the Kremlin Museum today.

Only the final egg, the birdcage, does not appear in the list of Faberge eggs actually made.  There was a swan, made in 1906, but it swims freely upon a lake.



Page 192. " In those few seconds of his lapse of consciousness, Fevvers ran helter-skelter down the platform "

It is from this point forward that Nights at the Circus truly enters the realm of magical realism.  Up to now, the unlikely has been treated with Walser's journalistic scepticism and even the possibility of Fevvers' existence is repeatedly brought into doubt.  Now, as she travels into the egg to rejoin the genuine Trans-Siberian Express in a matter of seconds, the reader is left to form his or her own conjectures as to what is true, how it is possible, and whether it matters.

Magical realism is a genre of art and literature which places magical elements within a convincingly real universe, using the fantastic to highlight or deepen the exploration of reality.  There is no sense of wonder or the unusual in the placing of magic; Fevvers' existence, then, is not magical realism in that she does inspire awe, whereas her journey back to the train falls into the genre since nobody expresses the slightest surprise at it.  Other examples earlier in the novel include some of Lizzie's spells and to some extent the stopping of time in Walser's initial interview - although he questions its cause, he spends little time questioning its probability.  The final section of the book in Siberia asks the reader to accept the improbable repeatedly.

The world of magical realism can be dizzying and confusing, since the supernatural and strange cannot be overtly explained; to do so would render it different to the everyday occurences around it, and thus bring its existence into question.  The art of magical realism lies in presenting the magic as the equivalent to the real, and in drawing no line of separation between the two.  Where the unreal is explained with any apparent rationality, the genre slips into science fiction.

Magical realism is a 20th century genre, and its roots are often said to lie in Latin American writing, with authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-) and Isabel Allende (1942-) excelling in the genre.  In the English speaking world, Carter herself emerges as a leading light alongside Salman Rushdie (1947-), Louis de Bernieres (1954-) and Toni Morrison (1931-), whilst Gunter Grass (1927-) and Haruki Murakami (1949) take it to Germany and Japan.

Read more about magical realism online:

Serendipity - an online magazine

Margin - an online magazine



Page 199. " Oh, such ecstasies of boredom I experienced on the Great Siberian Railway! "

The Trans-Siberian Railway connects Moscow with the Sea of Japan, over a distance of 5,753 miles.  Even today, it takes eight days to complete its entire journey over seven time zones and through 87 Russian cities.  

The railway was built from 1891 to 1916 under Tsar Nicholas II, with many convicts exiled to Siberia being pressed into working on its construction.  Originally, the line broke at the large Lake Baikal and ferryboats connected two sections of track across the water, but the final stage of construction included a circumnavigation of the lake.  Today, branches of the line allow travellers to reach China and Mongolia as well as Japan, or to depart at stops along the route.  A thriving trade in used Japanese cars sees many drivers making the journey in the cheapest available bunks - easing the boredom with vast quantities of vodka - and driving vehicles back across the wilderness for sale on the Russian market.

Other tourist trips run today on private trains such as The Golden Eagle, allowing them to travel in comfort over 15 days with stops and visits along the route.  

This style of travel may be more in keeping with that of the first train to run along the route, which boasted marble floors and a grand piano in the first class carriages, with caviar and sturgeon on the dinner menu.  Third class passengers, on the other hand, were described as “packed like sardines.  Their cars hold nothing save wooden bunks, two tiers therof, and each has four and sometimes six.  One’s health would certainly be jeopardised by a passage through them.” (Lonely Planet, Trans-Siberian Railway, p. 52).  This mode of travel allowed costs to be kept low enough for ordinary Russians to afford the journey east.  Still, it must have been as dull as Fevvers suggests - trains moved at little more than 25 km/h for fear of derailment, food often ran short east of Lake Baikal, and rails and bridges broke down due to the cold and the haste of their construction.

The creation of the Trans-Siberian Railway boosted Siberia’s economy through easier export of grain, oil and gas, and attracted several million Russians to the region to establish industrial towns where previously only semi-nomadic tribes had lived.

In the play and film Fiddler on the Roof (1964; 1971), Hodel travels to Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway in search of her exiled fiance.

In 2010, Russian Railways and Google created an online experience of the entire Trans-Siberian journey.  Viewers can skip to different parts of the route, and choose between wheel noise, Russian music or a reading of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869) to accompany their virtual journey.

More information at

(1900) Guide to the Great Siberian Railway

Page 200. " How long have we been grinding through Limbo? "

The final section of the novel, beginning with the journey into the wilderness, casts all of the circus troupe into a kind of Limbo from which they must be reborn into the new century.  In Catholic theology, Limbo is an in-between state between Heaven and Hell, an afterlife for unbaptised babies and a waiting place for the righteous until Jesus’ crucifixion allowed them to enter heaven.  Between his death and resurrection, it is believed that Jesus descended to Limbo to release the souls trapped there to their final resting places.  Whilst Limbo does not appear in the Bible or in formal Catholic doctrine, it is recognised in popular culture and mediaeval theories of Hell.

The word 'Limbo' is of Teutonic derivation, meaning a hem, edge or anything joined on (ie a limb).  In literature and common usage it also suggests a place of restraint, a prison, an in between space or a a state of nothingness.  From nothingness, it is possible to be reborn; and so the emptiness of Siberia, the long, listless days on the train, the lack of an audience for whom to perform, all conspire to return the circus troupe  to a symbolic state of unbeing in order to emerge, in the final section, as truer versions of themselves.  The old century is dying away, and by entering Limbo, Fevvers, Walser and the company are preparing to emerge afresh into the new.

Further down the same page, Carter refers back to Buffo's absence, to the clowns waiting 'for their Christ to rise again'.  Just as Jesus descended to Limbo after his crucifixion, the circus has entered the same state immediately after the loss of the clown-god and awaits some sign or release in order to leave it again.