It seems fitting on International Women’s Day to be writing about Angela Carter, a widely underrated British writer, whose unflinching belief in her own worth and the worth of the female challenged the way that women are portrayed in literature and popular culture. In her own unique way, she attacked the status quo in the late twentieth century as one of the only female voices in a sea of male writers. Her editor, Carmen Callil writes,
“… her concentration was on uprooting assumptions about how women live and love … Challenging authority, she stuck a pin into any available literary or cultural balloon, rewriting and reinterpreting fairy tales and myths so that little girls were no longer eaten by wandering wolves, but were given a decent pair of gnashers to do the chewing themselves.”
I was already familiar with Carter, having read Wise Children as a teenager and hence discovering her subverted book of fairy-tales, The Bloody Chamber, which challenges traditional narratives and places the power within the hands of her heroines. The Magic Toyshop, however, is only her second novel, first published in 1967, and even here Carter is giving her female characters the position of centre stage, presenting the confronting reality of a young girl growing into the very real and very threatening world around her.
Carter’s protagonist is Melanie, a fifteen-year-old girl whose head is filled with paper ideals of marriage and love, notions that she gleams from pages, paintings and poetry which have so far been her only knowledge of life outside of her four walls. Through Carter’s masterful art, we know what it is like to be a teenage girl ‘exploring the whole of herself’ and her sexuality, conjuring her future husband and her ideal life into her imagination, and we feel the starkness as each of her fantasies is slowly submerged and replaced with reality. Within the first chapter, Melanie finds her mother’s wedding dress, a symbol of marriage, purity, and vulnerability:
“Symbolic and virtuous white. White satin shows every mark, white tulle crumples at the touch of a finger, white roses shower petals at a breath. Virtue is fragile.”
Carter deftly captures Melanie’s childlike naivety as she puts on the dress and goes outside into the dark moonlit garden, attempting symbolically to leave her childhood behind. The reality of the garden, however, is dark and terrifying, and in her efforts to get back inside the locked house and escape from the “deserts of vast eternity”, Melanie has to climb up the apple tree outside her bedroom window, one that she hasn’t climbed since she was a little girl. Hampered by the heavy white dress, she takes it off and drags it behind her, and destroys the dress in the process. This venture into the unknown is the catalyst for the first seismic shift in the novel, as the destruction of the dress foreshadows the tragic death of her parents. Hence, at fifteen, Melanie must take on the mother’s role for her two younger siblings, and is sent to live with her Uncle Philip in London, leaving behind her childhood home. Carter evokes Melanie’s self-detachment through her prose, poised somewhere between sentiment and enrapture, which echoes that same detachment we all must make from our childhood selves to enter the adult world:
“A black bucket of misery tipped itself up over Melanie’s head. Part of herself, she thought, was killed, a tender, budding part; the daisy-crowned young girl who would stay behind to haunt the old house, to appear in mirrors where the new owner expected the reflection of his own face..”
The new world into which Melanie and her younger brother and sister are transported to is the home of Uncle Philip, a domineering toymaker who creates puppets and toys for a living, and who tries to enact a similar kind of puppet-like control over the members of his family. His long-suffering wife is Aunt Margaret, a small Irish woman who was sadly struck dumb on her wedding day: “A black bird with a red crest and no song to sing”. The children are also greeted by Margaret’s younger brothers, Finn and Francie, who initially represent music, life, freedom, and happiness in contrast to the stark control of Uncle Philip’s domain.
Whilst Finn is Melanie’s uncle through marriage, at eighteen he is only three years her senior, and through him Melanie experiences an uncomfortable awakening into the reality of desire, which challenges and confronts her previous ideals:
“She remembered the lover made up out of books and poems she had dreamed of all summer; he crumpled like the paper he was made of before this insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness, filling the room with its reek. She hated it. But she could not take her eyes off him.”
This is where the mastery of The Magic Toyshop lies, in Carter’s juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, both of which act as mirrors through which the narrative is portrayed. Throughout the novel, Melanie battles with her sense of detachment, seeing parts of her own life as if in a movie; when she is forced to play a part in Philip’s grotesque puppet show “she felt herself not herself, wrenched from her own personality, watching this whole fantasy from another place”, and earlier, seeing her own first kiss as “like a shot from a new-wave British film”. It is no accident that this kiss happens within the confines of an abandoned park, the garden imagery permeating the novel as an ever-shifting symbol of both innocence and abandon. Here, this long-forgotten garden exists as a symbol of wildness, almost mirroring the character of Finn himself: “It was a claggy, cold, moist, northern jungle. But Finn stepped firmly.” Carter hence uses the natural world as another mirror through which to inspect the reality of her novel and even the floral wallpaper in Melanie’s room, ‘crimson roses’ surrounded by ‘cruel thorns’, is a reminder that what we focus on often reflects our own realities.
Just as the red rose is trapped by the thorns in the wallpaper, through Aunt Margaret we are presented with the figure of a woman that has been trapped and suffocated by male ideals. Philip exerts his control over everything that she does, from the constricting collar necklace that she wears for him, “heavy, crippling and precious”, to her inability to speak. Aunt Margaret’s helplessness is echoed by Melanie’s own childlike vulnerability in the face of Uncle Philip, and perhaps we are to see a desperate future for Melanie in the depiction of Aunt Margaret:
“An ancient, female look passed between them; they were poor women pensioners, planets round a male sun.”
This is not to be, however, as Carter wrenches her narrative off its tracks with the magical mastery that is so unique to her writing. With Philip gone for the day, Melanie, Margaret, Finn, and Francie indulge in a day of rebellion, wearing what they want, eating what they want, and creating their own imagined future. This, finally, is the triumphant future that Carter envisions for all of her heroines:
“The sun came out in her [Aunt Margaret’s] face. For the first time since Melanie had known her, she seemed to be examining the possibility of her own tomorrow, where she could come and go as she pleased and wear what clothes she wanted and maybe even part her locked lips and speak. Or sing.”
This turnaround is the triumph of Carter’s writing. Where her stories start to align with the traditional narrative of a young vulnerable girl in the protection of the strong male, Carter subverts this and questions it, allowing her female protagonists to have both a voice and a choice. Margaret regains her voice despite Philip’s tyranny, and in the final pages of the novel, Melanie makes a choice to set out alone with Finn, leaving the world of her childhood to be engulfed in flames, and setting out in her new life:
“Melanie thought: ‘Now we have shared all this, we can never be like other people. We can only be like ourselves and one another. We have only each other now.'”
Her detachment is gone and is replaced by a self-assured sense of security, and it is a perfect conclusion to the novel, Carter implying that whilst the destruction of our childhood innocence is chaotic, it will be replaced by a heightened sense of purpose and certainty. The closing scene brings us right back to the garden, which is now a hopeful space of promise, closing with a typical Carter-esque note of possibility: “At night, in the garden, they faced each other with a wild surmise.”
The Magic Toyshop is a magical wonder of a novel, from its language and imagery to the tightly-knit cast of characters. Angela Carter’s distinct voice is a unique gift, and one that we lost too early: Carter sadly died in 1992 at the age of just fifty-one from lung cancer. Carter’s writing nevertheless continues to awe and surprise me, and gets more and more relevant the older I become and I am grateful that I stumbled across The Magic Toyshop this year. If you haven’t yet discovered Angela Carter, I encourage you to take a chance with one of the most important and vibrant British voices of the twentieth century.