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Posts Tagged ‘Angela Carter’

nights at the circus

I’m sitting here wondering – where on earth do I start. Nights at the Circus is a riotous, exuberant novel. Bawdy, literary and fantastically imagined, it almost defies description. There were moments when I was held utterly enthralled, and others when I thought – “what on earth?” Overall, I loved it, though not quite as much as The Magic Toyshop and Wise Children.

Angela Carter introduces to a colourful, late nineteenth century world that is amazing, implausible and filled with stories.

Sophie Fevvers (generally called just Fevvers) is a larger than life Cockney aerialiste, the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, her fame has spread across the world. For Fevvers is part woman, – an impressively bosomed blonde, standing over six-foot-high – and part swan with an impressive wing span. It is 1899, and in her dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall theatre in London, Fevvers entertains Jack Walser; an American journalist, who has arrived in London to interview Fevvers. Is Fevvers really part woman, part swan, or is she a fake? Jack is determined to discover the truth about who Fevvers is.

“At close quarters, it must be said that she looked more like a dray mare than an angel. At six feet two in her stockings, she would have to give Walser a couple of inches in order to match him and, though they she was ‘divinely tall,’ there was, off-stage, not much of the divine about her unless there were gin palaces in heaven where she might preside behind the bar. Her face, broad and oval as a meat dish, had been thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay; nothing subtle about her appeal, which was just as well if she were to function as the democratically elected divinity of the imminent century of the common man.”

The first part of the novel – definitely my favourite section – is Fevvers long raucous account of her life up to that point. In the midst of chaotically strewn costumes, empty champagne bottles and greasepaint Fevvers delights in holding court. Alongside Fevvers in her dressing room that night is Lizzie, a tiny, rough diamond of a little woman, a former prostitute, who has been with Fevvers since babyhood. Every now and then Lizzie cuts in with a story or two of her own, but in essence this first one hundred pages or so is Fevvers story – and alongside it we have the stories of numerous other colourful fantastic creations. These include Ma Nelson, the madam of a brothel, Madame Schreck the owner of a freak show, Toussint her servant born without a mouth and the various inhabitants of these establishments that include a sleeping beauty.

“She sleeps. And now she wakes each day a little less. And, each day, takes less and less nourishment, as if grudging the least moment of wakefulness, for, from the movement under her eyelids, and the somnolent gestures of her hands and feet, it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she lives in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interpretation of some more vital existence, so she is loath to spend even those necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvellous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consumes the world.
‘And, sir,’ concluded Fevvers, in a voice that now took on the sombre, majestic tones of a great organ, ‘we do believe . . . her dream will be the coming century.
‘And, oh, God . . . how frequently she weeps!”

nights at the circus2Fevvers shows him (and us) her incredible wings – recounts the story of their emergence and how she learned how to use them, it is a story of extraordinary aerodynamics touched with just a little magic. Big Ben strikes, and time seems to stand still, as Jack is drawn deeper into the stories of Fevvers – who never shies away from discussing, quite frankly, the seedier side of life. Belching, farting and directing Jack to just use the chamber pot behind the screen in her room, she is utterly irrepressible – and Jack is completely floored by her.

As the long night of revelations and fabulous stories end, Jack follows Fevvers and Lizzie out into the London streets, and as Jack walks back to his lodgings he knows he can’t just leave it there. So, Jack arranges to run away with the Circus and follows Fevvers, Lizzie and the rest of Colonel Kearney’s fantastic troupe to St. Petersburg – and then, on to Siberia.

Now, we get to meet the rest of the circus, and what a fantastic bunch they are! There is sibyl – Colonel Kearney’s pet pig, intelligent clairvoyant, the Colonel often asks her for advice. A troupe of chimpanzees headed up by The Professor – who make a bid for freedom. Tiger tamer, Princess of Abyssinia, the strong man, an abusive monkey trainer – whose cowed wife Mignon frees herself from him, transformed in time into a beautiful singer and who falls in love with the Princess. Buffo, the leader of the clowns – who Jack joins in his bid to follow Fevvers wherever she may go. From St Petersburg the Circus travels toward Japan via Siberia, where in the frozen, snowy wastes the Colonel’s circus encounter adventure, abductors, female murderers and Russian fur traders.

It is testament to Angela Carter’s skill as a storyteller that all these characters work so well. Not everything is quite as it seems, neither us nor Jack is ever really sure what is real and what mere illusion. Fevvers, real or fake – is an extraordinary lovable survivor – and the reader just wills her to be happy.

 “We must all make do with the rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.”

I read Nights at the Circus quite quickly speeding through it in three or four days, it is hard to put down, though for me the middle section sagged a bit – and I longed to be back in Fevvers’ dressing room. Though the story picks up pace again as we find ourselves in Siberia. Nights at the Circus might not work so well had it been written by a lesser writer, but in Angela Carter’s hands it is an exuberant, romp of memorable characters and impossible things.

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magic-toyshop

(I must admit to not liking this film tie-in edition, because Uncle Philip -Tom Bell in the photo – is all wrong, so I shall be forced one day to buy another nicer edition *sigh*)

The Magic Toyshop was chosen by my very small book group as our November read, and I was quite simply delighted by it. This, was something of a surprise, because I am never very sure about novels which I think vaguely of as being ‘a bit odd.’ I put Angela Carter in the same category as Barbara Comyns – (rightly or wrongly), two writers I have only read once before, and have skirted around ever since. Some years ago, I read The Bloody Chamber stories – for another book group, and I did like it (though it is a bit odd).

The Magic Toyshop is fantastically imagined, brilliantly written, with intensity and a wonderful dream like quality. Characters and situations are instantly memorable, and it is a book I can imagine reading again. The writing is so beautiful, descriptions are simply glorious, I look forward to reading it again one day so I can fully appreciate them.

“Melanie let herself into the night and it snuffed out her daytime self at once, between two of its dark fingers.
The flowers cupped in the garden with a midnight, un-guessable sweetness, and the grass rippled and murmured in a small voice that was an intensification of silence. The stillness was like the end of the world. She was alone. In her carapace of white satin, she was the last, the only woman. She trembled with exaltation under the deep, blue, high arc of sky.”

Melanie is fifteen years old, the eldest of three siblings, she has a good life in her family home with its lovely garden, bedrooms to spare a Shetland pony and her happy parents. Her father, a writer, is at last enjoying some real success, and Melanie has grown up in a house that smells of money. While her parents are away the children are cared for by Mrs Rundle, who makes lots of bread pudding and has an obese cat.

At fifteen, Melanie is beginning to discover something of her sexuality, she’s curious, growing up fast, a child awakening, with her beloved Edward Bear never far away. One day she tries her mother’s wedding dress on and goes outside into the garden late at night, finding  herself locked out of the house. She is forced to scramble awkwardly up a tree to her bedroom, ripping the dress in the process.

“She parcelled up the dress and stuck it in the fork of the tree. she could carry it up with her and put it away again in the trunk and no one would know it had been worn if they did not see the blood on the hem, and there was only a little blood. The cat put its head on one side and turned it sequin regard on the parcel; it stretched out its paddy paw and stroked the dress. Its paw was tipped with curved, cunning meat hooks. It had a cruel stroke. There was a ripping sound.”

Melanie is dismayed at the damage to her mother’s dress, feels like a foolish child, who will one day soon need to confess to what she’s done. However, the very next day a telegram arrives, and Melanie knows instantly what it contains, her parents have been killed. Melanie and her siblings are sent to live with relatives of her mother’s, Uncle Philip – who Melanie has only seen in an old wedding photograph – and his family in London.

To Melanie, this is not the London she has imagined London to be, and Uncle Philip is not the Uncle Philip of the photograph. Uncle Philip has a toyshop, there’s a puppet theatre in the basement, and Uncle Philip creates life size puppets which he cares for obsessively while seeming to hate everyone in the house. The household consist of red haired Aunt Margaret – struck dumb on her wedding day, cowed by her bullying husband and her two younger brothers Finn, who dances while the almost silent Francie, plays his music – at night, while Philip is out. Loving, gentle Aunt Margaret, loves Melanie and her siblings, particularly little Victoria, while Jonathon seems strangely self-sufficient.

At first Melanie is horribly alone and slightly disgusted by this strange new world, a dilapidated, dirty house and the two red haired Irish brothers, themselves none too clean, and her strangely silent aunt who communicates by scribbling on a pad. In time, Melanie find she loves her aunt, Finn and Francie, gradually becoming part of their world, she allies herself with them against the villainous Philip. She longs to give Aunt Margaret a present for Christmas, though none of them have any money, and Philip has no interest in celebrating Christmas.

Melanie finds herself drawn to Finn, though she is sometimes afraid of him too – not quite ready for the feelings he awakens in her.

“Everything went black in the shocking folds of his embrace. She was very startled and near to sobbing.
‘Caw, caw,’ echoed his raincoat.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said. ‘It is only poor Finn, who will do you no harm.’
She recovered herself a little, though she was still trembling. She could see her own face reflected in little in the black pupils of his subaqueous eyes. She still looked the same. She saluted herself. He was only a little taller than she and their eyes were almost level. Remotely, she wished him three inches taller. Or four. She felt the warm breath from his wild beast’s mouth softly, against her cheek. She did not move. Stiff, wooden, and unresponsive, she stood in his arms and watched herself in his eyes. It was a comfort to see herself as she thought she looked.”

Uncle Philip is a terrifying presence, his rages and his rules, oppress the strange little household, where his puppets take precedence. Uncle Philip draws his family into the stories he creates with his puppets, later after weeks of ignoring her presence in the household, he insists that Melanie take a starring role in a particularly disturbing story. Something has to give, and Finn takes drastic action.

The Magic Toyshop has elements of a Gothic fairy-tale, a coming of age tale and quirky romance, it’s compelling, disturbing and charming all at once.

I absolutely loved this book, I hope you can tell (this review is being written much faster than usual – it might be one of those weeks!) and I would love to explore more Angela Carter – but oh where to start? Angela Carter experts; please advise.

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