From: Amanda B
Date: 24 April 2004
THE NATURE OF FEMINISM IN NIGHTS OF THE CIRCUS
According to Roz Cavenay in the New Statesman, Angela Carter was “a thinking British, Socialist, Feminist at a time when it was considered on all sides hard to be any of these things, let alone, all at once.” Roz Kavenay also writes, that what stops Carter from being a radical feminist, if not a radical and a feminist, is her sense of irony and perspective, and the complexity that lends her1 . The Times Obituary wrote that, ‘She engaged herself with sexual themes that have for so long been the preserve of male novelists.2 The novel Nights Of The Circus, is set on the cusp of the last Century whereby Fevvers, referring to Walser, announces that “I’ll make him into the New Man, fitting mate for the New Woman, and onward we’ll march hand in hand into the next Century.”(p 281) In this talk, I will explore the nature of feminism through representations of womanhood, in Nights Of The Circus, which is one of Carter’s last novels. Carter uses Renaissance and magical, mythical images to tell her story, but she also uses folklore, which she describes as, “the fiction of the poor and therefore should be taken just as seriously as we take straight literature”3. I believe that there are three main types of female representation in the novel:
Woman as instinctual/ wise/ knowing. Fevvers, the main character, is a fabulous bird woman with wings. By being part animal, Fevvers becomes entwined with nature and the elements around her—when she first flies, she feels an arrangement of marriage to the wind (and a division between herself and the rest of mankind (p33). In Women Who Run With The Wolves4 the term La Loba is given to the Wild Woman who lives in the desert5 (p27). La Loba, the old one, the one who knows, is within us. She thrives in the deepest soul- psyche of women and is the ancient and vital Wild Woman. By drawing parallels between women and wolves, the author of the book, Clarissa Estes highlights where woman and the spirit of the animal meet, where her mind and her instincts mingle. The glorious vision of Fevvers on the trapeze, like an eagle, elevates her to something beyond human. (She was twice as large as life , as finite as any object intended to be seen not touched (p15). Walser wonders if she is real or an illusion- Fevvers is like a Superwoman. Her ensuing journey across Russia and Siberia, will take Fevvers on a journey through her soul, to discover her innermost being and purpose.
Woman as a sexual being/ independent/ strong. Fevvers is portrayed as a voluptuous, crude, Mae West figure. Mae West was one of Carter’s favourite screen characters, described as:-‘her own woman, large, bawdy, armed with wit against the silver screen’s baleful power to make women look beautifully pathetic.’6 Fevvers is described on the trapeze;
‘In her pink fleshings, her breastbone stuck out like the prow of a ship; the Iron Maiden cantilevered her bosom whilst paring down her waist to almost nothing, so she looked as if she might snap in two at any careless moment.’ (p15)
Fevvers poses a magnificent spectacle, but her dressing room consists of ‘the hot solid composite of perfume, sweat, greasepaint and raw leaking gas’ into which she ‘let out a ripping fart which rang round the room’. (p8-11) Fevvers is not restricted by Victorian social pressure to be decorous; she brandishes her vulgar sexuality and indulges her large appetite for food. Fevvers is emasculated- Walser even wonders if she is a man at one point. Guido Almansi writes, ‘her gestures are carnal, vulgar, sensual and aggressive, all of which give men a great fright.7 Later on it becomes clear that she is not adverse to using her acoutrements to ensnare the attentions of men, after receiving a diamond bracelet from the Grand Duke. ‘In her red and black lace, it hurt the eyes to look at Fevvers. She was feeling supernatural tonight. She wanted to eat diamonds.’(p.182) Fevvers is a woman seemingly in control of her sexuality and prepared to use it to her advantage. Of the whorehouse where Fevvers has been raised, she claims:
‘A brace of buxom, smiling Goddesses supported this mantle piece on the flats of their upraised palms, much as we women do uphold the whole world, when all is said and done.’(p.26)
Fevvers is a modern, archetypal feminist, who also goes towards marriage ‘as to a noose’. She is supported by her loyal adopted Mother, Lizzie, who had been an inconvenient whore due to her propensity for lecturing on universal suffrage and other causes. At one point she advises Fevvers to ‘go for the ballocks if needs must.’(p182) In Women who Run with the Wolves, reference is given to The Dirty Goddesses (p335). There is a being who lives in the wild underground of women’s natures. This creature is our sensory nature. The idea of sexuality as sacred, and obscenity as an aspect of sacred sexuality is vital to the wildish nature. There were Goddesses of obscenity in the ancient woman’s cultures. Women can use sexuality and sensuality in order to make a point, to lighten sadness, to cause laughter, in the way that Fevvers does. Lady likeness can repress a woman’s natural instincts. Woman can use her sexuality to strengthen herself against a patriarchal world, to be in control, but she must also know when to guard her sexuality against the predator- the male. Woman as oppressed/ weak/ victim. Fevvers almost becomes a victim twice during the course of the novel*. Mr Rosencreutz whisks her away from the chamber of horrors, where she and other girls have been put on show for the perverse pleasures of men. When she realises he is completely mad and about to sacrifice her in order to receive eternal life, she runs out of there like greased lightening. The ominous thought that this man was going to do her harm is mentioned- man becomes violent oppressor, woman the oppressed. The Grand Dukes house, is described with, ‘a sense of frigidity, of sterility…chilly surfaces and empty spaces (p184). His bait, is his wealth, and initially Fevvers falls for it- and is about to offer her sexuality in return- but with the haunting, inhumane music which fills the room, she begins to feel as though she is getting out of her depth and less and less her own mistress. When the Duke shows her his collection of precious eggs, the one he has set aside for Fevvers has a tiny gilded cage but no bird. Fevvers realises that wealth is no substitute for freedom- she is not a possession, and she flees. In this instance, the Grand Duke can certainly be blamed from a feminist viewpoint, as being the male oppressor, but Fevvers is also at fault- her greed and naivete have led her into the situation. In Women who Run with the Wolves (p48), Clarissa Estes writes, that when young, the feminine viewpoint is very niave as we can talk ourselves into some very confusing situations. But older sisters are more developed in insight and have ‘knowing’ which warns against romanticising the predator. The initiated woman pays attention to the older sister’s voices in the psyche; they warn her away from danger. Fevvers has learned her lesson and moves away from naivete, into knowing, increasing her strength as a woman. The ape- woman Mignon, is the archetypal example of the weak woman, abused by man. She is depicted as a Marilyn Monroe type victim. (According to Gloria Steinham, with reference to Marilyn Monroe, ‘suffering in melodrama is itself evidence of merit’8.) She is treated like a pin cushion by her lover the Strong Man (p.114), is beaten like a carpet by her husband the Ape- Man and is flung out on the streets, half naked. She engages our sympathy because of her tragic upbringing and disadvantages with domineering men who control her. Not until she finds love with the Tiger Woman and reveals her soul through song, is Mignon released from patriarchal bondage. Hers is a truly feminist fable.
In the Nights Of the Circus, is the male, the oppressor? Fevvers exclaims sarcastically in the text, “What a wonderful peice of work is man!”(p70). One of man’s roles in life can be that of the predator; the classic story is Bluebeard with his cellar of slaughtered wives. His latest, young wife, through her naivete marries him and discovers his secret, but is saved from death by her brothers. Mr Rosencrantz and the Grand Duke are similar to modern Bluebeards. But there are more sympathetic portrayals of men elsewhere in the story. Walser, the love interest of Fevvers, is initially described as having not ‘one single quiver of introspection. (p10). Yet, Nights Of the Circus will take him into Russia and accross Siberia, where he will go mad, become a Shamen’s Apprentice whilst assuming the behaviour of an animal. He nearly becomes an executioner, illiciting Fevver’s fear but he will ultimately be rejuvinated by their reunion , asking her: “What is your name? Have you a Soul? Can you love?” (p290). Love conquers evil. Walser falling in love with Fevvers is examined, instead of the usual portrayal of woman falling for the man. Meanwhile, the circus manager, the Colonel, is a greedy, weak man who relies on bourbon and his pet pig Sybil- for advice, but he is harmless. The Strong Man, initially a mindless thug with no regard for women- like a modern day lad- sees the error of his ways, and vows to protect the Princess and Mignon. ‘Sensibility might poke a moist, new born head out of his heart’ (p167). Buffo the Clown goes mad on the stage of the circus- which the audience do not notice- and he is carted away to a madhouse. The clowns become poignant creatures- ‘The child’s laughter is pure until he first laughs at a clown’.(p119) Perhaps women have to feel sympathetic towards men with their downfalls. In fact, apart from Walser, the most intelligent male seems to be the human- like chimpanzee, the Professer. The male representation in the book is the oppressor, but he is also a redeemed figure and a focus for sympathy if not pity.
Is the story of Nights of the Circus overtly feminist? An idea running through Carter’s stories, was whether women subconsciously enjoyed if not invited the sadistic treatment they get from men,9 which may contradict feminist thought. Fevvers is partially to blame for the Grand Duke’s invasion of her soul, by putting herself with him in the first place . Nights of the Circus is not necessarily a dialogue for an attack on men- although it is patronising towards men and some of their actions are contemptible, some are also portrayed sympathetically. Angela Carter was a strong, generous figure who supported the feminist cause by celebrating woman hood, perhaps more than she denigrated man hood. The main heroine of the novel is the feminist Fevvers, through which we view most of the proceedings. Fevvers is an archetypal feminist who is also not afraid to reveal her sexuality- most of the novel’s ideas can be related to feminism. The love story is reversed, for Fevvers saves Walser, rather than the Prince rescuing the Princess. Fevvers develops a fully rounded persona by the end of the book. Her laughter suggests she understands the freedom found and joke of life.10. Her boast, ‘I fooled you then’, refers to the fact she is not a virgin after all, and has fooled the male (Walser). Regarding Fevvers, Angela Carter claimed, “she’s had the confidence to pull it off”- woman has triumphed.