She felt her outlines waver… For one moment, just one moment, Fevvers suffered the worst crisis of her life: ‘Am I fact? Or am I fiction? Am I what I know I am?’
Trying to get onto the bottom rung of the publishing ladder is like trying to sneeze with your eyes open – painful and apparently impossible. Entry level jobs require a candidate to have months of unpaid internships under their belt (no guarantees, of course), yet even those internships have their own hoops that need leaping through – unpaid work experience (note repetition of ‘unpaid’) with local newspapers, for example, is a prerequisite, but expecting a reply to your polite requests is like expecting your letter from Hogwarts (not that I’m bitter or anything)… Is it any wonder that, as fireworks month blusters and blows on towards a dull and overcast December, my morale is as low as Britain’s cloud cover and my summer of studying in the library feels like a beatific experience that doesn’t belong to me at all, but to someone else. An alternate me, perhaps, in an alternate firmament, a me with goals and purpose and fortitude who permits me to share these echoes of her life so that I may form my fuzzy half-memories.
I’m certainly romanticising it all – my studies this year were mediocre at best and I mostly just resented it – but opening countless rejection letters does that to a person. How, then, to escape the doldrums of getting-nowhere-fast? Who else finds herself desperately miserable, with a broken wing and discoloured plumage – a ‘lopsided angel… down on her luck’ – but with the strength of will to re-arm herself with beaming exuberance, lending solace from the pages of her story?
Who else… but Sophie Fevvers?
This winged-woman hatched from an egg and raised in a brothel, a circus aerialiste and extraordinary creation of the equally extraordinary Angela Carter (*small explosion from inner-monologue: haven’t been able to contain my excitement over the discovery of her poetry in the back of a cupboard*), has been making my heart sing for years, so much so that I made the decision to have her leaping, Rubenesque, champagne-drinking and eel-pie-eating, indecorous and deliciously grotesque image marked indelibly upon my skin. Fevvers, you might say, really has my back…
Where do I even begin to describe the joyous pyrotechnics of this magic realist Victorian pastiche? I’ve tried twice over two dissertations, and I still don’t think I can do Nights at the Circus, Fevvers, or Carter herself justice – a feeling, I’m sure, that is shared universally by Carter’s acolytes. In terms of plot, Fevvers drags you, breathless, through fin-de-siecle London, on tour to St Petersburg, and across the Siberian wilderness, allowing us intimate access behind her spangled veneer of high-flying circus-star celebrity, down to the inner earthiness of her ‘exquisitely feminine squalor’. What we and American journalist, Jack Walser, must try to discover about this dazzling part-woman-part-swan is: is she fact, or is she fiction?
This uncertainty, this mysterious element of Fevvers’ identity, is what I believe makes her one of the most captivating heroines that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. It isn’t something that can be simply confined to one monolithic question, either, it is multi-faceted, palimpsestic, and sparks off in all directions – is this winged New Woman truly the ‘only fully-feathered intacta in the history of the world’? is she really a virgin? does she, or doesn’t she, have a belly button…? The complex play of appearance versus reality encapsulated by the Cockney Venus (a magical theme that bleeds into almost every other part of the narrative) forces her to question the nature of her own reality – and it is this existential crisis that makes Fevvers, the larger-than-life Helen of Troy, truly relatable. I mean, everyone throws a wobbler once in a while, right?
Of course, Fevvers doesn’t just simply accept her crisis as a new state of being; she acknowledges it, bows her head to it, and then spreads her one working wing in a symbolic ‘eff it’ gesture – shabbily triumphant. At the risk of sounding terribly romantic, is this not something that I, from the depths of my melancholy, must also do?
‘To think I really fooled you!’ she marvelled. ‘It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence.’
Over the years that we have been introduced, this woman, my own personal Winged Victory, is forever lending me enough comfort to pick myself up, dust myself off, and bloody well get on with things. I see Fevvers everywhere now, incarnated in my nearest, my dearest, in distant connections, in male and female. This past week I have finally seen some success – my CV now doesn’t look quite so depressingly sparse, huzzah – thanks to the remarkable generosity of people around me, and I will never be able to express how grateful I am. I’m learning that it isn’t always necessary to be truculent in one’s self-sufficiency, accepting a little lift onto that supporting thermal from someone else’s wing-beat is perfectly alright, but the trick, says Fevvers, is to just have confidence.