Get Tipsy with the Amazing Fevvers in Victorian London with 'Nights at the Circus'

Get Tipsy with the Amazing Fevvers in Victorian London with 'Nights at the Circus'

Thursday, 1 April, 2021

The right book can instantly transport you to anywhere — and anytime — in the world. Every Thursday, we recommend one of our favorite books with a strong sense of place so you can see the sights, meet remarkable people, go on exciting adventures, and feel big feelings. Bonus: You don't even have to put on pants.

This post is part of our 'Weekend Getaway' series.

rule

This weekend, travel back in time to glitzy, seedy, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. You’ll drink some bubbly, meet circus folk, and be swept away by larger-than-life tales of adventure, heartbreak, and redemption.

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

Nights At The Circus

by Angela Carter

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.

Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

Nights At The Circus

 

Top image courtesy of Edward G Malindine/Collection of National Media Museum/Flickr.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

Immerse yourself in this poignant, dreamy fairytale about a world that's covered with water. It's a fantasy tethered to our reality with a shimmer of magic, with unforgettable characters on a grand circus adventure.
This weekend, time travel to a 1920s Texas circus: Pontilliar's Spectacular Star Light Miraculum. Step right up to meet Ruby, the tattooed snake charmer who'll steal your heart while she saves the world.
This weekend, we recommend a getaway to the Balkans where you'll be swept up in the enthralling story of a magical tiger, man who cannot die, and the mutual adoration between a girl and her grandfather.
The circus is an enchanted place where people can fly and a big red nose is a happy sight. Where the smell of popcorn and peanuts mingles with sawdust. Where the unimaginable becomes completely possible before our eyes.
The enticing aroma and salty-sweet crunch of caramel popcorn is literally the taste of the circus. You can easily make a batch in about half an hour — plenty of time to escape into the magic of 'The Night Circus.'
If you've ever daydreamed about running away with the circus, this post is for you. Take a dazzling virtual tour of the world with these circuses from Canada to Europe, Africa to Australia, and everywhere in between.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

If you like the work we do, you can help support us through our Patreon! That'll unlock additional content, too — like Mel's recipe for Banh Mi Bowls, and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is © 2021 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.