October 18, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
A couple of things early on here remind me of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. We again have a story of a story being told. And there are, again, questions of motivation and intention: why is the story being told at all, and why to the person it’s being told to? There are, also, some hints of artifice, of Carter behind the curtain, relishing her fiction, and of characters with secret identities (most humorously, Lizzie, who seems to be the rare fin-de-siecle Cockney capable of explaining mid-20th-century feminist theory, if Sophie would just let her). One fascinating flourish is the repetition of the phrase “green hinge,” in reference to Midsummer Night and May 1, respectively. The first time this is spoken by Sophie herself; then it is repeated in her story by her crazed, phallus-worshiping abductor. Is this a hint that Sophie is making it all up — a slip revealing her own mannerisms in others’ mouths? Or did the phrase stick with her when her abductor used it, and work its way into her vocabulary?
However, the most interesting (coincidental) echo of TMFiS is the play with time and the idea of the “witching hour,” when witches, ghosts, and such are most active — typically, 12-1am. In TMFiS, the witching hour was evoked by the recurrence of a bell tolling midnight right before weird things started happening at the Venta Quemada. In Nights at the Circus, it’s a little more complicated. Throughout the first section, there’s also a bell repeatedly striking twelve times for midnight. But here, the bell strikes twelve over and over again, in one night. And the bell is that of Big Ben, ringing through London.
Furthermore, the clock in the dressing room of Sophie Fevvers is also stuck on midnight. Sophie’s telling her story, and she introduces this clock and explains the positions of its hands during her discussion of her childhood in the brothel of one Ma Nelson:
It was a figure of Father Time with a scythe in one hand and a skull in the other above a face on which the hands stood always at either midnight or noon, the minute hand and the hour hand folded perpetually together as if in prayer, for Ma Nelson said the clock in her reception room must show the dead centre of the day or night, the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time.
So throughout the night, time stands still at the witching hour — or, in Sophie’s words, “the shadowless hour.” And there’s the puzzle of Sophie: is she telling the shadowless truth of how she came to have wings and travel the world as the star of a circus, or is she bewitching her young interviewer? Is this magic, or truth, or just another aspect of a beautiful, self-inventing con? Witch itself is surely a quite complicated word for Carter, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of witch she’s created here.