50 pages 1 hour read

Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


Nights at the Circus is an adult fantasy novel by British author Angela Carter first published in 1984. It takes place in 1899 and follows protagonist Jack Walser, a journalist investigating the mystery of Sophie Fevvers, a part-woman, part-swan who performs as an aeraliste at the popular Colonel Kearney’s circus. The book was critically acclaimed upon publication and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1984, as well as a nomination for the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1985. Carter was a well-known British writer in the 20th century; she is known for her works of magical realism, including short stories and other novels.

Plot Summary

Jack Walser, an investigative journalist in London, interviews Sophie Fevvers, world-renowned aeraliste at Colonel Kearney’s traveling circus. However, there is something special about Fevvers—she has a pair of swan’s wings, which she claims are genuine. Skeptical at first, Walser intends to unearth Fevvers’s deception. He joins the circus himself undercover as a clown to continue investigating.

The novel opens in London in 1899 on the cusp of the new century. Walser interviews Fevvers in her dressing room, and she tells him her life story. She was dumped at a brothel as a baby, where her foster mother, Lizzie, cared for her. Lizzie has been her companion ever since. Fevvers spent her time at the brothel not as a sex worker but posing as works of art in the foyer for the customers. Once Ma Nelson, the owner, dies, Nelson’s brother takes ownership of the property and forces Fevvers, Lizzie, and the other women out on the street. Fevvers and Lizzie move in with Lizzie’s sister, but when financial trouble falls upon the family, Fevvers joins a “museum” owned by Madame Schreck to make money. The “museum” is an assemblage of other women with physical abnormalities whom Madame Schreck exploits for money. One day, an obsessive customer purchases Fevvers and takes her back to his estate. There, he tries to stab her, but Fevvers escapes. Fevvers reunites with Lizzie and shortly thereafter is introduced to Colonel Kearney, and she takes up her position with the circus. That concludes the interview, and Walser walks Lizzie and Fevvers home.

Walser, fascinated by Fevvers, joins the circus undercover as a clown to continue investigating. The owner of the circus, Colonel Kearney, is obsessed with what he calls “the Ludic Game” and plans to take his circus all the way across Russia to Japan. Walser joins the troupe in St. Petersburg and writes reports on his activities there to send to his news chief back in London. While at the circus, Walser encounters other members of the troupe like the Professor, an ape whose intelligence rivals that of humans; the Princess of Abyssinia, a gifted musician and keeper of dancing tigers; Samson, the Strong Man; and Mignon, who is a gifted singer and the abused wife of Monsieur Lamarck, the ape-keeper. Walser spends most of his time on Clown Alley with the other clowns. The oldest and most experienced clown, Buffo, acts as the leader and muses on the nature of the clown’s role, which he allegorizes to Christ.

Walser does not encounter Fevvers until he injures himself trying to rescue Mignon from an escaped tiger one day. Although displeased to see him, Fevvers agrees to keep Walser’s true purpose there a secret once he explains himself. Later that night, Mignon finds Walser at Clown Alley and falls to his feet sobbing hysterically. Walser takes her to Fevvers, who cares for her and discovers that Mignon can only speak German, but she is a gifted singer. The next day, Fevvers approaches the Princess about having Mignon incorporated into her act with the dancing tigers. Mignon will sing as the Princess plays piano. The two try it out to great success.

Fevvers’s trapeze performance is sabotaged. The same day, Buffo, heavily hungover from a binge-drinking spree the night before, loses his sanity and tries to murder Walser onstage during the clowns’ act; he is restrained and taken to an asylum. The Princess is forced to shoot one of her tigers when it attempts to attack Mignon during their act. The apes resign following the performance, and the Colonel despairs at the loss of both the apes and Buffo. Meanwhile, Fevvers plans to meet one-on-one later that night with someone called the Duke, who is very wealthy; Fevvers means to manipulate him to obtain some of his riches. However, the Duke nearly imprisons her, and Fevvers only gets away by supernatural means. She joins Lizzie and the rest of the circus troupe on the Trans-Siberian Railway bound for Japan.

The train explodes partway through the Siberian wasteland, and the Colonel, Fevvers, Lizzie, Samson, Mignon, the Princess, and the clowns are taken hostage by a group of brigands who live in the woods. Walser is left behind, hidden under debris and presumed dead by the rest of the group. A group of women who have just escaped from an isolated corrections house for murderesses dig him up. Walser has no memory of who he is and reverts to child-like behaviors like rubbing his stomach and calling his saviors “Mama.” Walser runs into a shaman in the woods, who believes that Walser’s nonsensical ramblings are communications from Walser’s ancestors, therefore a sign that Walser is about to become a shaman himself. The Shaman takes Walser back to his tribe’s village, where Walser spends the next month training to be a shaman, recalling hazy moments from his past every now and again but with no sensical way to put them together.

Meanwhile, the brigands who have kidnapped the circus folk reveal that they blew up the train and are on the run from the law. They kidnapped Fevvers because they want her to supplicate the Tsar for mercy for their crimes. The brigands think Fevvers can do this because Colonel Kearney had previously advertised that Fevvers was engaged to the Prince of Wales (which is false) to draw audiences. Seeing as the Tsar of Russia also married into the British royal family, the brigands think that Fevvers might hold sway with the Tsar. Fevvers refutes this theory categorically. The clowns perform for the brigands, hoping to put them in good humor so that the troupe can negotiate their release. The clowns call down the forces of chaos, and the brigands are blown completely away, allowing the troupe to escape. They trek across the Siberian taiga and come upon a cabin in the woods occupied by a single, crazed man called “The Maestro.”

Fevvers and Walser reunite momentarily outside the Maestro’s cabin when Walser happens upon it with a group of the tribespeople. However, the tribespeople are startled by the sight of a woman with wings, taking Fevvers for an evil spirit, and run away. Walser recalls that he knows Fevvers, but still cannot remember her or himself completely. Fevvers and Lizzie happen upon one of the tribeswomen giving birth in the woods and take her and her newborn child back to the village. After a brief misunderstanding where the tribespeople once again think that Fevvers is an evil spirit, Fevvers reveals her wings to them, and they are utterly in awe of her. This moment restores Walser’s memory and Fevvers’s sense of self. The novel ends with the dawning of the new century, and Fevvers’s triumphant, carefree laughter as she and Walser are finally together.