Running since 1919, the James Tait Black embarked on a quest this autumn to find the best novel from amongst a roll call of former winners who include Graham Greene, Walter de la Mare, EM Forster and Aldous Huxley. Students studying at Edinburgh University narrowed the extensive list of former winners down to their favourite six, with Carter's novel competing with The Heart of the Matter by Greene, A Disaffection by James Kelman, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips and The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark.
Nights at the Circus, the story of winged circus performer Sophie Fevvers's travels through 19th-century Europe, was the eventual choice of a judging panel that included the broadcaster Kirsty Wark and author Alan Warner. They said the 1984 novel showed a "fabulous exuberance" with "wonderfully drawn characters" and writing which showed "vitality, lightness, passion and fun".
Carter, a novelist and journalist, died in 1992, leaving behind a wealth of acclaimed works including The Bloody Chamber, The Magic Toyshop and Wise Children. Laura Hassan, editorial director at her publisher Vintage Classics said: "Novel of the century? 'Lor, love you sir!' as Fevvers might say. We're delighted to hear that the magnificent Angela Carter has been recognised by such a prestigious award. Long may Fevvermania continue."
The best of the best prize was awarded to celebrate the 250th anniversary of English literature studies at Edinburgh University.
"Since 1919, the James Tait Black awards have represented the very best in fiction and biographies and it was a great honour to be able to revisit and celebrate these wonderful pieces of work," said the prize's chair professor Greg Walker.