This historical fantasy fiction (304 pages) was published in March of 1986 by Penguin. The book takes you to a Victorian circus. Melissa read Nights At The Circus and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
Aerialist Sophie Fevvers is the glamorous star of Colonel Kearney’s Circus, the toast of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. She’s 6-feet-2 and curvy with platinum blonde hair and a voice that demands attention. And oh, yeah… she may or may not be part swan.
We meet Fevvers in her dressing room where, among the detritus of a starlet’s chamber (stockings and face powder and handbills and champagne), she entertains a skeptical American reporter with the story of her life. Jack is on a mission to determine the truth: Is she part swan or complete scam artist?
For now, her ‘notorious and much-debated wings’ are tucked away under a baby-blue satin dressing-gown, and she claims to have been hatched from a giant egg. As Ben Ben chimes the hour of midnight, she regales the newspaperman with tall tales of her early attempts at flight, her time in a brothel, and her first foray onto the stage. Throughout the intoxicating evening, he (and we) are seduced by the stories she tells. They’re melancholy, thrilling, and so outrageous they just might be true.
But that’s only the beginning. Soon Jack has joined the circus, and the troupe, including Fevvers, is off to St. Petersburg and an epic train journey across the Russian countryside to Siberia. Along the way, we meet Dukes and Countesses, a family of trapeze artists, clowns who are very in touch with their emotions, a Shaman, a monkey known as The Professor, a real-life Sleeping Beauty. There are villains and heroes — and sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is which.
This is a massive technicolor fantasy rendered in prose as intricately embroidered as brocade. But the plush turns of phrase and Fevver’s verbal razzle-dazzle are all in service of the points being made by author Angela Carter about social class and wealth, sexism and feminism, and appearance versus reality.
Good luck when you fall in love with Fevvers. For all her brash bawdiness, a tender heart beats beneath her feathered and fringed exterior, and her larger-than-life adventures are equal parts heartbreak and triumph.
Heads up: We also love the audiobook, narrated by British actress Adjoa Andoh. It makes the quirky cast of characters feel all-too-real. Fevver’s voice is a blend of cockney and theater that clangs ‘like dustbin lids,’ and Andoh’s interpretation is enthralling.
Her native city welcomed her home with such delirium that the Illustrated London News dubbed the phenomenon Fevvermania. Everywhere you saw her picture; the shops were crammed with ‘Fevver’s garters, stockings, fans, cigars, shaving soap…She even lent it to a brand of baking powder; if you added a spoonful of the stuff, up in the air went your sponge cake, just as she did. Heroine of the hour, object of learned discussion and profane surmise, this Helen launched a thousand quips, mostly on the lewd side. (‘Have you heard the one about how Fevvers got it up for the traveling salesman…’) Her name was on the lips of all, from duchess to costermonger: ‘Have you seen Fevvers?’ And the: ‘How does she do it?’ And then: Do you think she’s real?’ — Angela Carter
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