I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.
Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.
At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.
Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.
What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.
We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?
It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.