On Nights at the Circus

7 Sep

It isn’t easy to forget Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Well, actually I’ve forgotten a whole lot about it, in the same way that I forget most of the fiction I read. But the taste of the book comes back whenever I think of it: a taste of blood, old cooking-oil, sawdust, pancake-makeup, champagne. (In the end, that kind of sensory imprint is what remains the most significant part of a novel for me – not its plot or its characters, but rather a vague sense of the colour or grain or smell or taste of its prose). The readiness with which those flavours come back makes me wonder how much my understanding of late-Victorian London is informed by Carter’s book. The feeling that comes to me whenever I think of the late-Victorian era is saturated in the febrile mix one finds in her work of the scatological and sublime. And that also makes me wonder how much Nights at the Circus has played a wider role in informing historical renditions of the period.

‘Angela Carter has influenced a whole generation of fellow-writers towards dream worlds of barbaric splendour’, the blurb says on the back of her book. I agree that her velvet-spattered-with-effluent oeuvre has influenced the way urban life at the end of the century is imagined. What’s the bet Baz Luhrman read Nights at the Circus before he made Moulin Rouge? That Judith Walkowitz was a Carter fan before she read ‘The Maiden Tribute’ and wrote City of Dreadful Delight (1992)? And what about other historians (like me) with a penchant for freak shows, ‘mystic vaudeville’, the Victorian circus, and burlesque? There are plenty of people influenced by Fevvers, I reckon, the feather-backed foul-mouthed trapeze artist featured in Carter’s book. Plenty of people who imagine the end-of-century era inflected with the kind of Gothic kitsch depicted in her work. And while I love that kind of kitsch opulence, it makes me realise I have to be careful not to be too much in its thrall. To give that overlay to everything I read at the moment will surely restrict its possible range and meaning.

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