The Literary Horizon: Nights at the Circus, Inventing the Victorians

Nothing quite says repression and outdated gender politics like the Victorians… or do they? On The Literary Horizon this week, we’re looking at two works involving the Victorian era–one set in it and one that sets out to dismantle our stereotypes about the Victorians.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Sophie Fevvers- the toast of Europe’s capitals, courted by the Prince of Wales, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec- is an aerialiste extraordinaire, star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover Fevvers’s true identity: Is she part swan or all fake? Dazzled by his love for Fevvers, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser joins the circus on its tour. The journey takes him- and the reader- on an intoxicating trip through turn-of-the-century London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia- a tour so magical that only Angela Carter could have created it.

via Amazon

I first encountered Nights at the Circus during my senior trip to England and Ireland. I was lucky enough to visit the British Library, and they had an exhibit about writers featuring how their work was produced. This is probably why I thought Nights at the Circus was a lot older than it truly is. It apparently is a modern classic with a supposed bird woman that I have somehow missed. Well, I think it’s high time to correct that mistake, no?

Nymeth at things mean a lot is all over Victorian fiction, and Nights at the Circus is no exception- she adored it, praising its language and all the stories it tells. Jackie at Farm Lanes Book Blog didn’t exactly love it, though–she warns that if you don’t like magical realism, Nights at the Circus might not be your jam. I love magical realism, so I ought to be just fine.

Nights at the Circus was published on March 4, 1984.

Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet

“Suppose that everything we think we know about the Victorians is wrong.” So begins Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet, a compact and mind-bending whirlwind tour through the soul of the nineteenth century, and a round debunking of our assumptions about it. The Victorians have been victims of the “the enormous condescension of posterity,” in the historian E. P. Thompson’s phrase. Locked in the drawing room, theirs was an age when, supposedly, existence was stultifying, dank, and over-furnished, and when behavior conformed so rigorously to proprieties that the repressed results put Freud into business. We think we have the Victorians pegged-as self-righteous, imperialist, racist, materialist, hypocritical and, worst of all, earnest.

Oh how wrong we are, argues Matthew Sweet in this highly entertaining, provocative, and illuminating look at our great, and great-great, grandparents. In this, the year of the centenary of Queen Victoria’s death, Sweet forces us to think again about her century, entombed in our minds by Dickens, the Elephant Man, Sweeney Todd, and by images of unfettered capitalism and grinding poverty.

Sweet believes not only that we’re wrong about the Victorians but profoundly indebted to them. In ways we have been slow to acknowledge, their age and our own remain closely intertwined. The Victorians invented the theme part, the shopping mall, the movies, the penny arcade, the roller coaster, the crime novel, and the sensational newspaper story. Sweet also argues that our twenty-first century smugness about how far we have evolved is misplaced. The Victorians were less racist than we are, less religious, less violent, and less intolerant. Far from being an outcaste, Oscar Wilde was a fairly typical Victorian man; the love that dared not speak its name was declared itself fairly openly. In 1868 the first international cricket match was played between an English team and an Australian team composed entirely of aborigines. The Victorians loved sensation, novelty, scandal, weekend getaways, and the latest conveniences (by 1869, there were image-capable telegraphs; in 1873 a store had a machine that dispensed milk to after-hours’ shoppers). Does all this sound familiar?

As Sweet proves in this fascinating, eye-opening book, the reflection we find in the mirror of the nineteenth century is our own. We inhabit buildings built by the Victorians; some of us use their sewer system and ride on the railways they built. We dismiss them because they are the age against whom we have defined our own. In brilliant style, Inventing the Victorians shows how much we have been missing.

via Amazon

There’s a scene in the new Doctor Who where Martha, who is black, expresses concern about her safety in Elizabethan England. The Doctor points out two black women of the period going about their business, and says that things might not be as different as she thinks. Every era likes to think of itself as more enlightened than what came before, but sometimes we overlook some of the more progressive work of earlier eras. That’s why Inventing the Victorians interests me.

Charlotte Cory at The Independent quite enjoyed it, praising Sweet’s research and playful language. David Jays at the Observer finds Sweet’s method of debunking myth by myth to be a little awkward, and doesn’t like how he doesn’t explore the darker side of the Victorians, such as the exploitation of supposed “freaks”. I’ll still give it a shot, but I think I’ll eye it a bit more warily than before.

Inventing the Victorians was published on December 10, 2001.

5 thoughts on “The Literary Horizon: Nights at the Circus, Inventing the Victorians

  1. I’m always leery of books about the Victorians and their prejudices, because I’m afraid they’re going to say bad things about Oscar Wilde. It’s not that there aren’t valid bad things to be sad about Oscar Wilde; it’s just that nobody but me is ever allowed to say them. :p

  2. Carter’s work looks very interesting and certainly something I’m adding to my TBR list. The latter title you mention I find to be a bit disconcerting as to the, dare I say, certain bent it seems to have. The history of the Aboriginals is hardly something that can be looked upon with the view of equality and magnanimity leading me to think that this book is going to glorify a culture instead of carefully, thoughtfully and objectively discuss its facets.

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