The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

It was more than a little shocking in the 1960s that this novel began with a 15 year old’s awakening sexuality, and a girl’s at that. Angela Carter was excellent at shocking people into questioning their assumptions, and she certainly did this in The Magic Toyshop.

It was her second novel, first published 1967, and reissued by Virago in 1981. This is my choice for the 1960s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). Feminism is being openly canvassed from this decade which can be seen in the emergence of new writing by women.

The Magic Toyshop

Melanie (15) has lived a comfortable life with well-off parents, a younger brother (Jonathon 12 who is mad on model shops) and Victoria (5 but still babied). At the start of the novel their parents are absent in America. Melanie discovers her mother’s wedding dress and tries it on one evening and exults in its sensuality. The dress is ruined when she is locked out and has to climb back in up a pear tree. When her parents are killed in the Grand Canyon she sees herself as responsible.

The children are sent to live in London with their Uncle Philip who carves toys in wood and who runs the toyshop. They soon find that the household is larger than they knew: he has married Margaret, who became mute at her marriage. That is such a powerful image. Her two brothers also live in the house above the toyshop, and Finn is apprenticed to the toymaker. Francie is a fiddler. 

Phillip is a patriarchal bully. He believes girls should not wear trousers or speak unless spoken to. His word is law, and he browbeats all the household. His passion is to make nearly life-size puppets and to enact playlets with these. The only audience is the household. 

The Freudian undercurrents are many. One of the enactments is the swan’s rape of Leda, played by Melanie. To look smart Margaret wears an unflattering grey dress and a silver choker made by her husband.

The dress fell straight from her shoulders to a hem mid-way down her shins in a long, vertical line. It fitted her badly, barely skimming her body and catching on her bony hips. It was difficult to imagine she bought the dress on purpose, had one fine day long past go into a shop and tried on dress after dress and, finally, taking this grey and unbecoming tube of cloth from a rack laden with many-coloured garments, slipped it over her head, examined herself fore and aft in the changing room mirror, smiled with pleasure, clapped her hands in approval and said to herself: ‘This is lovely, this is the very thing,’ while a curled, perfumed salesgirl hovered, saying: ‘But it’s perfectly you madam.’ (111-112)

The choker is designed to fulfil its function if she moves too much. ‘It was heavy, crippling and precious …’ (112). 

The story follows the developing relationship between Finn and Melanie, as they observe how Philip treats each of them: physical abuse for Finn and neglect and then sexual abuse for Melanie. The two take tentative steps towards their own relationship, and find strength with each other to finally rebel.

At night, in the garden, they faced each other in a wild surmise. (200)

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic. Even the title has an ambiguity or two: a commercial venture that is magical, simultaneously of the adult and the juvenile worlds. The title also indicates that this is not a story of social realism. It’s powerful, rich and very imaginative. 

I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.

Angela Carter

Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then, having married and moved to Bristol, went to Bristol University. 

She left her husband and began travelling, spending two years in Tokyo, and visiting other parts of the world. She returned to write professionally, novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio. 

Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which  contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. She continued to write, combining  her taste for playful, gothic, humorous, science fiction, fairy tales, and fantastical surrealism. 

She was not a joiner, but energetically pursued her individual values and beliefs in her writing. Edmund Gordon suggests that she has been subjected to mythmaking since her early death, and I think I have been afraid of reading her work because of the myths. The Magic Toyshop has changed my mind. She has so much to say still today. 

See also: 

Angela Carter: A Portrait in Postcards by Susannah Clapp on her website: www.angelacarter.co.uk

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (2017)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, first published in 1967. Virago Modern Classic edition released in 1981, which is the edition I used. 200 pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

9 Responses to The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

  1. Thank you, I am just beginning to realise how little material from the 20th century I have read. I lectured in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and children’s literature at university level and my time for reading in other areas while I was at work was very limited. One of the things that lockdown has done is give me time to reflect on this and as a consequence I’m now trying to begin to fill in the gaps, moving chronologically from the end of Victoria’s reign. I hadn’t come across the publication Brilliant Careers but it sounds as if it would be a useful support. I must get hold of a copy.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for you interest and comment.
      Brilliant Careers is realy a list of (mostly) Virago books with extracts, 1 per year in C20th. I got mine 2nd hand. It works as an organising device for the Decades Project this year.
      I am very much enjoying my rereading and discovering new experiences in this project. I think you have a wealth of good books to read from the early C20th onwards. I hoipe you find some more in this series. Next month – the 1970s!
      Caroline

  2. This sounds an incredibly powerful novel. I’d heard of the book before but the title gave me (clearly wrong) impression it could be whimsical.

    Your decades project sounds fascinating, was this something you devised yourself?

    • Caroline

      Yes it’s strong stuff but very accessible, funny in places, perhaps even a little whimsy, but playfully, and a good read. I had to break through some received ideas I had about Angela Carter.
      The Decades Project began as a copy of a project I came across in my local library some years ago. I am a historian by education and it makes sense to me to look at things chronologically. So I do. I have also looked at Children’s fiction and women’s non-fiction as well as general women’s fiction in my previous Decade Projects. Glad you enjoy it. Hope you like The Magic Toyshop.

      Caroline

  3. Great post Caroline. I have had an off-on relationship with Carter but am now reconciled to her! I have this unread but need to get to it. Adolescent sexuality is a complicated thing – it exists and adolescents often act on it, but nowadays it seems that society is almost in denial about it. IDK what is best really – such a tricky subject.

    • Caroline

      I enjoyed this, and think that she captured that tentative, unsure and growing awareness in a young girl very well. I want to read more now of her work. I like the individual mixture of gothic, comic, grotesque and weird.
      Hopde you enjoy it too.

      Caroline

  4. Thanks, Caroline, for an interesting reminder of a book I read quite a few years ago. I think it’s probably my favourite of the Angela carter novels I’ve read to date, partly for its blend of the magical and the sensual which you’ve captured very well in your review. That opening scene with the wedding dress is so striking, isn’t it? Remarkably visual and vivid.

    • Caroline

      Yes I agree about the opening. Striking in its vividness, sensuality and just the sort of scrape young people get into. Well I did. Thankfullly I didn’t have to live with a patriarchal villain in a toyshop.
      I’m going to have to think about which will be her next book for mne.
      Caroline

  5. Carole Abbotts-Jones (aka: 'GrittyReads' ... can you use this, please?)

    Wonderful! More rewinds to the past and my European pals. I adored Angela Carter back in the ’80s-90s’ but have not reread since. I thought I had all her fiction, but only 5 on the shelves, plus a couple of non-fiction. Back then, ‘A Night at the Circus’ was my favourite.
    I do wish I could be more objectively critical – as I had to be in those days – but not only have I forgotten exactly what created the rapture, plus I’m sure the work would seem completely different to me now.
    I do wish there were time to reread all! I had a friend who was in the middle of a PhD on Carter, when the author died, and she was distraught. Thanks again, I can see that your posts will be an interesting journey: both into the past and to the new-to-me!

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