‘This crazy world whirled about her, men and women dwarfed by toys and puppets, where even the birds were mechanical and the few human figures went masked… She was in the night again, and the doll was herself’.
The second of Angela Carter’s novels is the wonderfully dark puppet-world of The Magic Toyshop. Published in 1967, this book ‘established Angela Carter as one of the most imaginative and original writers of the twentieth century’ (according to the blurb). What an achievement after only two published novels! And I agree. The Magic Toyshop certainly foreshadows the great works of imaginative feats that are yet to come. I could see the beginnings of Carter’s fascination with Bluebeard, which appear in The Bloody Chamber; and the images of the grotesque, which abound in Nights at the Circus, were quite prominent in the descriptions of food throughout the The Magic Toyshop. I certainly enjoyed this second book more than Shadow Dance, perhaps because I could see this assertiveness of Carter’s unique style that I have come to associate with her through these later works.
This was the second time I have read The Magic Toyshop, the first being when I studied it for one of my modules at university. The second reading, although a completely different experience because I was reading more for pleasure, certainly held up to the first. It was also interesting to note that certain passages I had highlighted on my first read (probably aimed at an essay I had in mind) were completely different to the passages which hooked my interest this time around.
The novel begins with three siblings who have been tragically orphaned. They can no longer live in their safe and secure house in the rural countryside and have to rely on the generosity of relatives they have never met before. They are sent to London to live with Uncle Philip Flower, their mother’s estranged brother, along with his mute wife, Margaret, and her two brothers, Francie and Finn. However, this London isn’t the bustling, central hub of the country, as Melanie – the eldest sibling – imagines it will be. It is instead a dilapidated and decaying south London suburb. From a world of luxury, Melanie is suddenly brought down to harsh reality where hot water, toilet paper, scented soap and shampoo do not exist. Instead, she is immersed in the world of her uncle’s eery toyshop where the distinction between inanimate objects and real life blur.
‘Red plush curtains swung to the floor from a large, box-like construction at the far end of the room. Finn, masked, advanced and tugged a cord. The curtains swished open, gathering in swags at each side of a small stage, arranged as a grotto in a hushed, expectant woodland, with cardboard rocks. Lying face-downwards in a tangle of strings was a puppet five feet high, a sulphide in a fountain of white tulle, fallen flat down as if someone had got tired of her in the middle of playing with her, dropped her and wandered off. She had long, black hair down to the waist of her tight satin bodice’.
The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter, Pg.67
When Finn, the guy who Melanie is equally repulsed and attracted to, gives her a tour of her uncle’s workshop she becomes increasingly uncomfortable and horrified by the ‘carved and severed limbs’ that litter the basement. The passage above foreshadows the awful fate that awaits her. She senses an affinity with the sprawled puppet, which closely resembles herself later in the novel when Uncle Philip manipulates her into the role of Lena in the story of Lena and the swan from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
‘All her laughter was snuffed out. She was hallucinated; she felt herself not herself, wrenched from her own personality, watching this whole fantasy from another place; and, in this staged fantasy, anything was possible. Even that the swan, the mocked up swan, might assume reality itself and rape the girl in a blizzard of white feathers. The swan towered over the black-haired girl who was Melanie and who was not. Its empty body was white and light as meringue, its head bobbed this was and that was on its prehensile neck. The music throbbed to an excruciating climax’.
The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter, Pg.166
The swan, which is originally a puppet that Uncle Philip is incredibly proud of, seems to assume reality whilst Melanie is reduced to the wooden puppet-doll that is Lena. She is rendered immobile and unable to fight the swan off, which, in reality, weighs next to nothing, due to the fear of violation that overtakes her. It seems as if Carter is playing out the gender roles in a magical realist way, not only traversing real and inanimate objects, but also traversing species. Yet the over-riding fact that it is Uncle Philip – the patriarchal head of the household – who is controlling the puppet-strings is extremely important. Previous to this play, which he puts on for the family on Boxing Day, he tries to manipulate Finn into sleeping with Melanie under the pretext that he must help her practise the role of Lena. As Finn realises:
‘He’s pulled our strings as if we were his puppets, and there I was, all ready to touch you up just as he wanted. He told me to rehearse Leda and the swan with you. Somewhere private. Like in your room, he said. Go up and rehearse a rape with Melanie in your bedroom. Christ. He wanted me to do you and he set the scene. Ah, he’s evil!’
The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter, Pg.152
However, what makes Carter so special is that she not only explores the act of femininity in The Magic Toyshop, but the idea that maleness is also a constructed concept determined by society and culture. Describing Finn, Carter writes:
‘It was as if he had put on the quality of maleness like a flamboyant cloak’.
The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter, Pg.45
The idea that maleness can be taken on and off is a striking example that masculinity, like femininity, is socially constructed and can also change with the times. Maleness is not an inherent birth right, as we have been taught to believe. It can be questioned and it can be deconstructed, just like femininity. The final scene in The Magic Toyshop ends with a fire. Yet, unlike the destruction and disaster this would inevitably entail, in Carter’s novels fire is a trope used to cleanse and regenerate. Both Melanie and Finn escape into a world of possibilities which were never possible under the reign of the domineering and dominating Uncle Philip. The fire, in my opinion, is a symbol of hope and change (perhaps quite an optimistic reading but that’s how I choose to read it).
What I find so fascinating about Carter’s work is her fearlessness to approach very taboo subjects. The Magic Toyshop alone touches on teenage sexual awakening, rape and incest in a way that, despite being draped in surrealism, is incredibly real and direct. Although Carter’s magical language and story-telling has the power to transport you (or maybe just me) to another world, it is evidently clear that she is commenting on society as she sees it. Re-reading The Magic Toyshop has certainly reignited my passion for Carter and made me more determined to get on with my Angela Carter Project!