Nights at the Circus, published in 1984, was Angela Carter's direct attempt to win the Man Booker Prize. However, the book failed even to make the shortlist and the prize that year went to Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac. Carter did receive some consolation in the form of the James Tait Memorial Prize For Fiction.
Booker winner or not, Nights at the Circus has become hugely popular and the subject of widespread literary study and criticism. Within the novel Carter creates a whirling and sometimes overwhelming world; she offers the reader the sights, sounds and smells of a series of powerful settings, from Ma Nelson's brothel to backstage at the Imperial Circus. The wealth of historical, mythological and literary allusion demonstrates the depth of Carter's cultural awareness, and adds rich layers of additional meaning for readers to discover on a second or even third read.
Carter is an unashamedly feminist and unashamedly literary writer, and readers who question either may find little sympathy within her work. Yet for those who wish to immerse themselves deeply in a colourful, carnival world where anything may be true, Nights at the Circus is a rare treat.
Just as Carter draws symbolism from other works of art and literature into her own writing, the world she creates is itself a symbol - of women's oppression, of Limbo, of the past, present or future. In terms of settings and story, this rarely causes a problem - but it could be said that her characters' role as symbols occasionally outweighs their believability. Walser, particularly, feels slightly sketchy, a little too 'unhatched' even within Carter's drawing of him; it is difficult to reconcile his naivety with his years of experience as a travelling reporter, and his role as a pale, male counterpoint to Fevvers' vibrancy gives him little opportunity to develop further. The novel finishes on a great crescendo of laughter, but it is difficult to be sure that Walser is worthy to be Fevvers' equal, when he remains so remote a figure.
Fevvers herself symbolises the new woman of the 21st century, the woman who demands that the world sit up and notice her. Her character has far more shade than Walser's, as we learn of her youth, her affection for children, her avarice and her relationship with Lizzie. If she occasionally feels too large a character for reality, then the reader shares only what her audience feels on meeting her; when Carter describes her, on the opening page, as 'a big girl', she is referring to far more than just her height.
As the story unfolds it becomes ever more baffling and strange. From the moment that Fevvers reaches the station in Petersburg through the Faberge egg in the Grand Duke's case, it wanders further from reality, further from convention, just as the troupe travel further from civilisation into the Siberian wilderness. To read this novel, readers must set aside expectation and skepticism and allow themselves to follow Carter down the vivid paths of her imagination. To love it, they must run alongside her, visualising and populating her worlds, eager to see the fantastic and the impossible come true.
And many people have loved the book. It has inspired countless essays and academic works. In 2006 Kneehigh Theatre created a version for stage involving acrobats, music, song and dance in a rich visual setting, gradually stripped away until the final scenes took place with the bare walls of the theatre exposed in the wings, all costume and pretence lost in the wreckage of the circus. A critic from The Sunday Telegraph wrote, 'I was so borne away with enchantment it felt more like being drugged than watching a performance'.
Reviews of Nights at the Circus on its release were largely favourable, but are now difficult to find in their entirety. The selection below is drawn from the book cover, from online journalism and from readers themselves.
'Nights at the Circus is a glorious enchantment. But an enchantment which is rooted in an earthy, rich and powerful language...it is a spell-binding achievement.' Literary Review
'Angela Carter has influenced a whole generation of fellow writers towards dream worlds of baroque splendour, fairy tale horror, and visions of the alienated wreckage of a future world.' The Times
'The novel becomes a kind of rebus in which meaning is made in and through display and spectacle. It is through spectacle that gender identity is made, and women come into economic existence in this novel, if they are lucky, only by being spectacles.' Isobel Armstrong, Woolf by the Lake, Woolf at the Circus in Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter ed. Lorna Sage
'Carter's winged aerialiste 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...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.' Lisa Appignanesi, The Guardian
'It takes a while to establish itself and is not easy to dip into - the language is thick and eccentric, every word loaded with meaning and cadence. Patient readers will be rewarded, however, with entry into an intriguing and strangely beautiful world that will remain with them long after they close the pages.' Samantha Cox, Cadaverine Magazine
'The story arc (as distinct from the cooked-up elements of 'magical realism') offers few surprises and the observations are effectively censored by the guiding philosophy (which is itself a kind of Lacanian paradox). Carter's prose style can be horribly 'purple'.' Amazon reader review
'I've never come across a writer who so revels in marvellous firework explosions of words, catherine wheels of ecstatic language' - Amazon reader review