Nights at the Circus" is a fairy tale in the modern times. It revolves around the circus star, Sophie Fevvers, who is half-human and half-swan, and who is the passionate object of professional and moral pursuit of Jack Walser, a devout journalist who must seriously investigate into the truth or falsity of this half-human, half-animal phenomenon. Fevvers is surrounded by equally phenomenal characters, such as the prophesying pig named "Sybil,," the clown Boffo, the circus owner Colonel Kearney, Mignon and Lizzie. Wasler's intense investigation leads him to join the circus team, disguised as a clown, in order to complete and satisfy his obsession of getting to the bottom of Fevver's mysterious person and reality. In the course of their togetherness -- which begins in London, proceeds to Petersburg and Siberia and returns to London --, it is Wasler who transforms from his selfish point of reference to a childlike one, and Fevver likewise falls for him as someone she essentially needs. An accident happens when the train carrying them explodes and crashes and the two are separated. All of Wasler's prejudices and memory are lost along with his familiar world in the past. He becomes a child again whose instincts and feelings are superior and stronger than reason. Then he is reunited with Fevvers, at which time, Wasler becomes the pursued rather than the pursuer.
But this novel cannot be read and understood simply. It is an entertaining, meaningful allegory set in the last years of the Victorian Era in England. It means a lot of things. It reveals to the reader what his prejudices are, why he should suspend them while reading this novel, the relationship between what he reads and his participation in what he reads. It is a megafiction in that it is more than fiction or a story. Carter uses magical realism in unleashing what she believes a woman should be allowed to be and to do. It also brings the reader face-to-face with what reality is, what fantasy is and whether he simply applies stereotypes or he participates in the unfolding of reality from fantasy or vice-versa. The authentic reader will be like Wasler who is originally after un-earthing a disturbing oddity in a woman whose father is a swan, but doing so only with the end-view of disclosing its presumed fakery, rather than suspending disbelief and abandoning himself and his experiences to the probability of a fantasy being a reality.:
"...the wings of the birds are nothing more than the forelegs, or as we would say, the arms, and the skeleton of a wing does indeed show elbows, wrists and fingers, all complete. So if this lovely lady is indeed, as her publicity alleges, a fabulous bird-woman, then she by all the laws of evolution and human reason ought to possess no arms at all, for it's her arms that ought to be her wings!" (p 15)
Fevvers is the pursuit, not only of Wasler, but also of the Prince of Wales and the people who go to the circus. She is the extraordinary attraction that calls for disbelief rather than belief in both the reader and observer. She is a quaint creature of that Victorian age when a woman's place is only in the home, a subdued person without a mind or feeling of her own. The novel presents the image of woman (in Fevver's) as a totally different cast known and accepted by the people of the era of Queen Victoria. Carter's presentation is very unsettling but remarkably so. We experience the repulsion by reading and entering the mind of Wasler at those first times:
"First impression:: physical ungainliness. Such a lump it seems! But soon, quite soon, an acquired grace asserts itself, probably the result of strenuous exercise.
(check if she is trained as a dancer) My, how her bodice strains! You'd think her tits were going to pop right out. ... I wonder why she doesn't tack a tail on the back of her cache-sexe; it would add verisimilitude and perhaps improve the performance."
The communities in this novel are unlike or opposed to those narrow and defined ones today which give room for the individual identities of the dwellers, evidence of the ultra-conservativeness of the times when the novel was set. It must be understood or remembered that England under Queen Victoria's first years went through much chaos and social unrest and was restored to more comfortable conditions only in the middle of her reign. The strict ness of Christian religion was badly needed to stabilize it (Szoke). Purity and hypocrisy came to mean the same thing; self-pity was humility too; and sacrifice and despair, indistinguishable. All these false virtues were heavily imposed on people, especially women, who could not lift their skirts higher than necessary to go up the stairs; cross their legs when sitting; and speak aloud or coarsely (Christen). We are aware how women's rights and person were subjugated during that time (and in some areas of the world, are still today) and refused the most basic human rights. Yet most of the working-class wives at the time worked for wages, where 30% of the workforce was female (Wojtczak).
Nothing surprising about the abjectness of women during Queen Victoria's time which Carter mercilessly rejects and turns around in her novel. The Queen herself, once a prejudiced and stubborn young woman, was extremely devoted to her husband, Prince Albert, who when taken away from her by typhoid fever, left her despondent and reduced her to self-pity. The death got her so depressed that she was in seclusion for 10 years (MSN Encarta 2001) -- a form of self-negation that was lifted to the pedestal as worthy of emulation. The strongest thing about women then was her weakest, her weakness. Queen Victoria herself was a self-pitying young woman. She was praiseful of a woman's dependence and servility to the man or husband because she herself practised these. She set the royal example that women should be raised to become obedient and only for marrying, bearing children and living in subordination to their husbands. They had no voice, no longings, no feelings and no identity apart from their husbands'.
.But from her examples and emphasis on family devotion and self-denial in a 63-year reign were fashioned the values of morality, good manners and hard work, as well as honesty, patriotism and faithfulness to the family.
The female ego, however, has remained veritably submerged even to this day, reaping limited genuine success through the mighty efforts of a few, such as Barbara Smith. Barbara was a daughter of the wealthy businessman and government official Benjamin Smith. She was raised in comfort and equality with her brothers and sisters. Despite an income and a high social class, she was refused enrollment at the Jesus College in Cambridge because women were not allowed enrollment at that time. Barbara decided not to marry and instead become a social reformer. She met and cooperated with other female activists Bessie Parker and Mary Howitt in the 1850s. Together, they objected to the woman's inferior status and moved to give her at least a voice in the election of leaders. Hence her work on women's suffrage.
Carter rebelled from this mistreatment and cruelty to women in her novel and deposed man's position completely from active to passive. Her reviewers note how the Victorian image of stiff women was broken from restrictions. These women are no longer prostitutes or inhuman maidservants or some unreal goddess of the imagination (Amenopis III). They have mutated into real-life characters that inhabit the mind and confront the readers head-on. This is a metafiction in that it is more than fiction. The reader is not just going through a narrative. The reader does not just read something detached or made by someone else. He participates and even alters what he is reading. The novel is about the confrontation between the reader and the text, as it is about Warsel, the reader, and Fevver, the object read. In either case, Carter wants no questions asked by the reader of or about the object being read, but the allowing of the reader to become part and decision-maker of what he is reading. This kind of fusion also requires a forgetting or throwing away of accustomed prejudices and an immersing into a text like the fresh experience of a newborn. There comes a point when Wasler and Fevver exchange roles, from the time she entranced him with her voice as she narrates her sob story:
"Her voice. It was as if Walser had become a prisoner of her voice, her cavernous, sombre voice ... Musical as it strangely was, yet not a voice made for singing with; it comprised discords, her scale contained twelve tones ...
Her dark, rusty, dipping, swooping voice, imperious as a siren's." (43)
Again, when they were left alone but Fevvers engages in narcissistic, silent self-indulgence that leaves Wasler out of her world, and so manipulates him:…