Tall Tales and Brief Lives: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus
Nights at the Circus (1984), Angela Carter's penultimate novel, epitomizes her wildly inventive, highly idiosyncratic mode of fiction, centered as it is on Fevvers, a Cockney artiste who claims to have grown wings. Most critics and reviewers have seen the main thrust of the novel to reside in the portrayal of Fevvers as a prototype of the New Woman whose wings help her to escape from the nets of a patriarchal nineteenth century culture into a twentieth century feminist haven of freedom. The novel ends with Fevvers astride her American lover, Walser (she now playing the missionary role), enjoying apparently two triumphs - sexual and psychological - in one: "'To think I really fooled you!' she marveled. 'It just goes to show there's nothing like confidence'" (295). Yet when Carter was asked by John Haffenden what Fevvers means by this, she replied, "It's actually a statement about the nature of fiction, about the nature of her narrative" (90). The more you look closely at this novel, the more you realize just how literal Carter was being in that reply. More than any other of her works of fiction, Nights at the Circus takes as its subject the hypnotic power of narrative, the ways in which we construct ourselves and our world by narrative means, the materiality of fiction and the fictionality of the material world, and the contract between writer and reader that, according to Carter, invites the reader at the end of this book "to take one further step into the fictionality of the narrative, instead of coming out of it and looking at it as though it were an artefact" (Haffenden 91). It is not just Fevvers who triumphs at having fooled Walser. It is Carter gloating over having fooled the reader into following her own narrative to this end point - and beyond.
What this suggests is that this entire novel operates in an important way as a form of metanarrative: one of its main concerns is with...