Masquerade and disguise are key elements within ‘Nights at the Circus’. Show how Angela Carter presents masculine and feminine elements of disguise within the novel. Masquerade and disguise are key elements used by Carter to portray her personal ideas and beliefs throughout the novel. Carter deliberately sets the novel at the end of the nineteenth century, a time where many new political ideas were being discussed, such as whether women should have the right to vote.
The women’s movement and the fact that women were becoming increasingly confident, is one which is greatly displayed throughout the novel, predominantly through Fevvers. The inequality between men and women is also shown here via the patriarchal society displayed through the clowns. However, Carter shows the clowns/men to be hiding behind a disguise in order to be able to act the way they do in society. ‘Nights at the Circus’ is full of Carter’s views and ideas on gender and relationships within society which are displayed obliquely inside the characters of this novel.
The amount of masquerade and disguise in this novel causes problems for the uneducated members of society. Even though Carter says, ‘I purposely try to make what I write open-ended, ‘user-friendly”, the working class may get confused at times by the complex political ideas and themes that are portrayed through the novel’s characters. Carter asks the reader to deconstruct the text, not just simply read it without thinking about the underlying ideas; it is intended to help us into the sub text.
Carter explains that she is instructing us as well as asking us to deconstruct the text. The uneducated members of society would find it difficult and therefore would not understand the novel fully as the symbolism, metaphors and irony of ‘Nights at the Circus’ make the novel what it is. Therefore, this novel is more directed at the university-educated people of society, despite Carter’s attempt to make it ‘user-friendly’. As mentioned earlier, Fevvers is the main character in which Carter portrays her personal views and beliefs on men and women in society.
The character of Fevvers is a disguise for the political subject of whether women should get the right to vote in the late nineteenth century, ‘Fevvers is associated with the issue of emergent women’s rights’ (Aidan Day). It is her wings that symbolise her freedom to make change, ‘you must be the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no woman will be bound to the ground’ (25); the ‘New Age’ meaning the coming of the twentieth century, where Fevvers (the women within society) will become a New Woman.
Fevvers is the figure of a winged human being. This idea of winged may imply that she is an angel (which Fevvers is referred as when onstage) as in the nineteenth century, women were either angels or whores, nothing in-between. However, Fevvers is a figure of both; she is a winged female brought up in a brothel. When she is taken in by Christian Rosencreutz who sees her as an object of his own desire, Fevvers comes prepared with Nelson’s sword, ‘he’d not thought the angel would come armed'(83); Fevvers is not the ‘expected angel’.
When mixing both of these, some may call her a cockney Venus, a mixture of both divine and realism; she fits in with the higher classes as well as the lower classes. Carter herself once described her as a ‘Mae West with wings’. Historically, Rosencreutz may represent a parliamentary man who is against the women’s movement; Fevvers explains him as a man who believes that ‘women are of a different soul-substance to men… too pure and rarefied to be bothering their pretty little heads with things of this world’ (78-9).
As I believe Fevvers may represent the advance of the women’s movement, the fact that Rosencreutz attempts to kill Fevvers, shows the extent to which most members of parliament were against the women’s movement. In the nineteenth century the saying that ‘women should be seen and not heard’ was very common (hence it was difficult for women to get the vote) and therefore statues would often be feminine figures; to be looked at and admired, but silent.
There are examples of this in the novel, first of all in childhood; Fevvers was disguised as Cupid for customers to ‘look at’ upon entering the brothel, and later as the Winged Victory, the Goddess of Nike (the personification of victory in Greek mythology). In this Case, Fevvers being a symbol of Victory and Liberty, is a figure of contrast as she is full of life, independent, makes her own choices in life and has individuality, which is something that Marina Warner sees as being impossible, ‘Liberty like many abstract concepts expressed in the feminine, is in deadly earnest and one-dimensional’.
Fevvers is more than simply a statue or a symbol. It is her personality and her individuality that allows her to withstand other people’s expectations of her; it is this individuality which highlights the fact that she is disguised historically as the ‘New Woman’, as she overcomes the expectations of women made by the patriarchal society. She does not allow men to take away this individuality, for example the Grand Duke tries to do this by creating an ice statue of her. This ice statue will melt as he wants Fevvers to.
His jewelled eggs are a sign of him wanting to take away Fevvers power, as she is just getting smaller and smaller inside them; Fevvers’ size is what gives her power and the Grand Duke attempts to take that away, however Fevvers escapes once again through her own ingenuity. Fevvers’ behaviour is also very different from the typical women of those days; she is loud, has crude language and manners, an enormous appetite, belches and farts whenever she pleases; Fevvers is a parody of femininity.
Therefore, the character of Fevvers is perhaps disguised as being symbolic for the increase in confidence among women in the late nineteenth century to fight for their rights. The idea that Fevvers has un-ladylike qualities, her masquerade, is where Carter is trying to tell the reader that women need to act in a more masculine way in order to survive in a patriarchal society, ‘If you can’t beat them join them! ‘. This can be linked to Margaret Thatcher, as not only was she the first female to be elected leader of the Conservative Party, she was also the first female to become the Prime Minister.