‘… all unwilled by me, uncalled for, involuntarily, suddenly there broke forth my peculiar inheritance – these wings of mine! Still adolescent, as yet … and moist, sticky, like freshly unfurled foliage on an April tree. But, all the same, wings.’
The grand aerialiste Fevvers is in her dressing room, having finished her performance for the evening: a magnificent spectacle full of trapeze tricks, tumbles and (could it be true?) bursts of actual flight. Around her lies the detritus of her performance: robes, cosmetics, ‘a writhing snakes’ nest of silk stockings’, and a ‘towering headdress of dyed ostrich plumes … unceremoniously shoved in the grate’. A bottle of champagne is open. It’s past midnight – or is it? – and she’s holding forth, recounting her sprawling life story to American journalist Jack Walser.
The opening scene in Nights at the Circus is something to behold: Carter plunging the reader into the midst of this nineteenth-century
world of greasepaint and feathers. It’s a world brimming with sequins, sweat, bacon sandwiches and tall stories. Well, one story. It might be tall. It might be embellished. Or it could be entirely accurate and accounted for. Whichever way it’s quite the tale, our protagonist Fevvers flourishing up her early life for the journalist’s ears. It begins with a newborn baby emerging from an egg (‘for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched’) and a childhood playing a variety of living statues in the waiting room of a brothel (from ‘Cupid’ to ‘Winged Victory’). Taking a left turn via a stint in Madame Schreck’s shudderingly horrible ‘museum of woman monsters’, it finishes up with her present status as a larger than life woman by turns enthralling and appalling as she takes her winged routine across Europe, courting notoriety (and the occasional diamond trinket) with each new swoop.
When I initially encountered Nights at the Circus, I was also coming to terms with my own peculiar inheritance: one that had also broken forth from between my shoulder blades. Or, rather, it had twisted beneath the skin and taken my shoulders with it. Fevvers hits puberty and spreads forth wings. I got to my mid-teens and had the much more mundane (and decidedly less magic realist) experience of scoliosis. My spine, rather than growing upward, had decided instead to wilfully bend out to the side in an S-shaped curve. Fevvers’ wings were freshly unfurled foliage. My back was newly curved like a branch: tilting my ribcage unevenly and making one shoulder stick out in a little triangular nub.
It’s funny. When all of that was going on and Nights at the Circus
first crossed my path, I felt no particular affinity with it. Why would I? It’s primarily a sprawling novel about a six-foot-something bird-woman’s flamboyant exploits on stages in England, circus rings in Russia and a particularly disastrous train journey in Siberia; skipping lightly through gelato shops, rooftops, house fires, dressing rooms, grand hotels, gloomy back-alleys and the occasional brush with death as it hurtles on. There are clowns plagued by existential angst, and tigers who waltz; love-addled journalists and girls who play at ghosts. The entire thing is deliciously funny and dark, Carter at her raucous best as she pivots between the absurd, the grotesque, the glittering and the melancholy. On that first ever plunge, I’d been too dazzled to do anything but lap it all up.
Now, however, on perhaps my third revisiting, there are strange new chords that strike (not unlike the possible trickery Lizzie – Fevver’s thorny companion/adoptive mother – conjures with the timing of Big Ben’s ‘chimes’ during the aerialiste’s story, their sounding of the hours unexpected). They ring loud, these unexpected points of recognition: a fresh, insistent understanding of how this novel isn’t just about what we see and believe, or want to believe; whether Fevvers’ avian anatomy can be proved ‘fact or fiction’, if such a thing even matters … Rather, it’s also an exploration of what it means to possess a body widely considered abnormal. How had I never noticed that before? Onstage, Fevvers’ fully fledged physicality is powerful, commanding both attention and money. Offstage, though, those folded wings mark her apart:
… when Lizzie lifted up the armful of hair, you could see, under the splitting, rancid silk, her humps, her lumps, big as if she bore a bosom fore and aft, her conspicuous deformity, the twin hills of the growth she had put away for those hours she must spend in daylight or lamplight, out of the spotlight. So, on the street, at a soirée … she was always the cripple, even if she always drew the eye and made people stand on chairs to see.
A little while later, Lizzie adds that Ma Nelson – the proprietor of the brothel this startling bird-girl grew up in – ‘thought up the scheme, how we should put it round she was an ’unchback’. Of course, the irony here is that an actual condition – a variation on the condition I’ve experienced (hunched backs are often caused by scoliosis’s twisted sister, kyphosis) – is safer a story than the fantastical reality. The former is understandable. The latter is, for a while, dangerous. And yet, despite my own condition being just another in the long line of temporary disguises shrugged on by Fevvers, I still find myself mapping these exact descriptions on to my own body. Though I was, to my chagrin, entirely lacking anything in the way of bosom during adolescence, I did know what it meant to carry around a ‘conspicuous deformity’ with me wherever I went. I was intimately acquainted with the language of humps and hills: both words I’d used to describe my own back at its worst. Moreover, I likewise recognized the capacity I had to draw attention, merely by existing outside the realms of the normative.
Like Fevvers, I also occupied a strange status somewhere between beauty and the beast: moving from representing some odd physical ideal – having begun modelling aged thirteen – to existing on the fringes of the norm. Unlike her though, I hadn’t yet worked out any way of monetizing this difference (at that point, at least: I’ve since learned to live by the maxim not only that ‘shit happens, and then you write about it’, but also ‘shit happens, and sometimes writing about it pays the bills’. No stages for me. Just the outlines of a page. Plenty of potential for performance offered up there too).
I have always called Nights at the Circus one of my ‘favourite’ books. But it becomes a slightly different favourite each time I return to it, full, as it is, of new treasures to pick up on, additional details to notice. I couldn’t have articulated anything about grotesque bodies or the uneasy tension between desirability and anomaly as a teenager. Back then I was swept up in Carter’s narrative, treating it as one of the many escape routes from my own physical reality rather than anything even vaguely recognizable. Now, it offers up something else. I’m sure that the next time I return there’ll be more to glean again.
Though I was, to my chagrin, entirely lacking anything in the way of bosom during adolescence, I did know what it meant to carry around a ‘conspicuous deformity’ with me wherever I went. I was intimately acquainted with the language of humps and hills: both words I’d used to describe my own back at its worst.
However, there’s one thing I’ve always identified with, right from the off: pure love of spectacle. Like a wardrobe ready to burst, Nights at the Circus is also a tour de force of costumed artifice, brimming with recognition of what the journalist Jack Walser identifies as ‘the freedom that lies behind the mask’. That’s a freedom I’ve always adored; one that, perhaps I see now, became ever more important for me when things were physically beyond control. I couldn’t change the shape of my back (I had to wait for a surgeon to do that), but oh could I dress up and distract.
In fact, Carter’s approach to Fevvers’ unnatural anatomy is part and parcel of the novel’s various rounds of metamorphosis and dressing up. Nothing is fixed, and everything’s to play for: endless potential to be found in shrugging on another character beneath the spotlight. Some of that potential is disempowering, Fevvers often reduced to the cumbersome wings that sprout from her back. As she wryly notes of her early life, ‘I served my apprenticeship in being looked at – being the object of the eye of the beholder.’ But in that gaze there’s a power too: one she quickly utilizes to her advantage. She isn’t just passively observed, but actively commands attention, especially onstage: ‘LOOK AT ME!’
It couldn’t be any other way. Fevvers is a figure who slips between concealing and revealing, sincerity and pretence. She rattles through various iterations of womanhood, and has others projected on to her (I mean, she literally plays a number of famous female statues) while also standing – towering – outside all expected models of behaviour and appearance. She is huge, brash, winged, glitzy and full of appetite, deriving power from both make-up and make-believe. She’s a walking contradiction, a character whose ultimate mantra is perfectly summarized in the novel’s final line: ‘It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence.’ It’s a sentiment that resonates differently each time it’s reached. Is it sincere? A revelation? Yet another layer of performance? Something I want to, yet again, relate to my own experiences? Whichever way, it’s one I recognize. One I’ve always loved. One I always will.