Was this the kind of book that wraps me up and refuses to put me down until I have finished it? In parts. Was it one of those books that, even when I am half way through, I brandish in the faces of my friends and say 'you must read this, I'm just loving it!' ?
No. It is better than that. It was not a struggle, but neither was it an easy read. This is a good thing, by the way; this book challenged my lazy preconceptions every step of the way.
It was impossible for me to just go with the flow of this book because every time I thought I had the hang of it, ' oh it's a Gothic fairytale...', 'no, it's a feminist manifesto...'...' oh hang on it's a love story'... each and every time I tried to settle myself down into a well-worn reading groove, the narrative turned a sharp corner and turfed me out of the cart.
Fevvers, 'Cockney Venus' trapeze artist who may or may not be half woman, half avian, is one part winking, peroxide haired, busty pin-up and one part flatulent, gluttonous slattern. It is my squeamishness as a reader that always put me off Carter's books and I was duly assaulted by a very full description of every smell, stain and encrustation that could be found in the dressing room of Fevvers, chapter one.
Her underwear is compared to worms writhing around on the floor, her champagne ice stinks of fish and the description of the state of her satin robe caused me to shudder delicately. Her language is coarse and her manner rough, but she is a vivacious and hilarious host who clearly has a loving relationship with her diminutive gnome of a foster-mother Lizzy. 'Ah', I thought , 'a tart with a heart.' Not quite. Fevvers is 'the only fully feathered intacta in the world'. A virgin who grew up in a brothel.
All of this rough, bawdiness is offset by exquisitely beautiful descriptions. One page starts with Fevvers complaining about a henchman trying to 'get a good feel of my titties' and then 'shrugging the buggers off' before describing an ivied mansion where , 'above the turrets, floated a fingernail moon with a star in it's arms'. Later on, she encounters the brute again, ''e's the one groped my right tit', before explaining how her malevolent host, Mr Rosencreutz 'upends the claret into the jug of white roses, which blush.'
This is a feminist book but Lizzie's strident politics is softened by Fevvers the non-avenging angel who, although determined to remain single and in charge of her own image, is incapable of hurting another human being. The creed of this book is definitely of the post-feminist variety, with militant feeling replaced by gentle, mocking humour 'there must be something useful this young man could do for them, if only she could think of it.' Natural objects are rendered male (old father Thames) and cultural concepts are female (Mother Parliament.)
Love is the main catalyst for change in this novel as it inspires culture in an unloved orphan, drags Fevvers through an icy wasteland and destroys an all-female prison. Fevvers does fall in love, but, unusually, this does not become the main focus of the novel, merely an accepted fact, one of many.
Reading this book reminded me of reading Nabokov. Firstly, for its placing of the narrative in a highly specific yet non-authentic historical setting. I also recognized the feeling that I was getting just a small fraction of the various references and illusions but being thrilled at the thought of revisiting the book to wring out further meaning at a later date.
Sometimes the best books are the ones that you struggled with the first time you read, just as some are discarded as soon as you have gobbled them up, never to be opened again. Nights at the Circus falls firmly in the former camp. It is back on the shelf, but still in my mind.