Well this is probably as much fun as can be had reading, for me anyway. I surrender utterly to the allure of Fevvers; I believed every wonderful word of her story and every page of it yielded some new pleasure to my feminist consciousness. The portrayal of a group of sex-workers (and ridicule of their would-be self-appointed saviours) seemed particularly well-observed to me. On the level of the symbolic, fill yer boots. On the level of prose, this is as extravagantly creative and exuberant as it could possibly be. Carter’s style echoes Fevvers’ fetid dressing room, cluttered with nonchalently veiled and camouflaged magical amulets, almost animate animal-like lingerie intimidating to the timid male guest (snaky stockings seem to threaten and discomfort him), the debris of the star’s ablutions and voracious consumption of decidedly local and humble refreshments such as eel pie and sugar-loaded tea: it is a divine, diabolical, vernacular, esoteric, ingenious, streetwise, starry-eyed, audaciously feminine mess. Take it as it comes or fuck off.
Once the protagonists leave London there is a certain wild abandon, even chaos, about the flow of the story. I couldn’t really see how the section on the women’s prison fit in to it all, except that Siberia was a good location for it, and perhaps that the frozen expanse existed to be open to creative possibilities, both for the author and for all women. In any case, I found this section absolutely brilliant, particularly in realising the character of Olga who killed her abusive husband and delivers the verdict of self-defense upon herself in the private court she shares with the author. However, though she is thus absolved, Carter does not forget to realise her suffering mother and traumatised son. The boy, Ivan, witness of so much violence, is appropriately drawn into the clan of clowns; their diabolical capering and their nihilistic philosophy. The scary clown trope is vividly, terrifyingly explored.
I was amused and impressed by Carter’s treatment of the black characters, Madame Schreck’s servant Toussaint and ‘the Princess’. Carter seems to be humorously castigating the poor representation of black people in white literature, since she exaggerates their silencing to the point of absurdity – Toussaint has been ‘born without a mouth’! Even so, he manages to be elegant and eloquent in writing, so much so that it is several times remarked on, thus, I think, mocking the ‘well spoken’ cliche used as a ‘respectability’ marker to help distinguish between people of colour who are acceptable to white supremacy and those who are not. The Princess voluntarily refuses to speak, since black women cannot trust white women (ie Carter, the author) to represent them. The inclusion of these characters as distanced from the text by their silence makes them (especially ‘the Princess’) critical witnesses, marking whiteness, including that of the author.
Writing of female minor characters is lovingly thorough. Perhaps the most developed, ubiquitous theme here is mutual support and care between women, and, apart from that between Fevvers and her informally adoptive mother Liz, the relationship between abuse-survivor Mignon and ‘the Princess’ is the most touching for me. Brian pointed out to me in discussion how carefully written Mignon’s story was. The only subplot that I struggled with was Walser’s amnesia-driven sojourn with the shaman. Here I felt Carter was projecting some ideas about mysticism onto uncolonised people in a potentially exploitative way.
On the other hand, I generally loved Carter’s treatment of animal characters – the intellectual apes especially. The elephants constantly rattling their chains were rightfully disturbing, and mirrored other unresolved agitations that Carter sets up to highlight other aspects of as-yet unachieved liberation.
I cannot resist drawing a parallel between Nights at the Circus and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Readers who enjoyed the latter as (pre)teens like me will probably find their sensibilities well attuned to this hearty and heartily satisfying feminist romp. Spread your wings, women.