‘There is too much,’ she repeated. 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 and played musical instruments in the small and terrible hours of the night into which again she had been thrust. Pg. 68
As a reader and a casual reviewer, procrastination often takes hold of me; I am easily distracted and the stacks of started but unfinished books that lay around my room are proof of this, as is this review. I finished Angela Carter’s 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop several months ago, and yet for some reason or another have not settled down to finish writing until now (luckily there are substantial quotes from the novel, which I typed up right after finishing it, and thankfully I have a great memory for books). This doesn’t speak to the quality of the work, which is among my favorite novels.
In more ways than one Angela Carter (7, May 1940 – 16, February 1992) is tragically underrated—not nearly as many people are reading her as should be—though even more tragically, Carter died at age fifty-one, of lung cancer. She bravely wrote Wise Children (1991) after her diagnosis with cancer and with the knowledge she was likely leaving behind a husband and a young son, a tint of sadness that somehow makes the work affirm the joy and beauty of life all the more.
The author of nine novels and several collections of short stories and poetry, The London Times ranked Carter the 10th best British writer post-1945, though lists and rankings of writers are quite meaningless and trite, the Times’ laurel is an example of the wide critical and popular success that Carter attained during her lifetime. Angela Carter studied English Literature at Bristol University and was fluent in both German and French, and spent several years in Tokyo after divorcing her first husband, and frequently dabbled in journalism and nonfiction. She was one of the pioneering magical realist novelists of Great Britain, and took inspiration from fairy tales and folk tales to create a style truly unique to her.
And so, to try to describe The Magic Toyshop is a difficult task made all the more difficult by the strong impulse to descend straight into funhouse of hyperbole. In plain terms, it is a coming of age story for a young girl, but it is also so much more than that. As a reader I have rarely found such an insightful work exploring the awakening of a teenage girl’s sexuality—but again it is more than that. There is a certain illusive quality to the work that is difficult to pin down; Carter’s writing has a magical undertone, and by that I don’t mean that fairies fly out of the cupboard, nor are there any wands or orcs. But through the quality of her writing, the story transcends the page and a faint surrealism echoes in the poetry of her language and well-developed characters.
What makes this book so readable—what makes it so engrossing and wonderful—is the characters, the small cast of characters. It’s not that the plot is mundane, but that the plot doesn’t drive the pace of the novel and nor is it a set of destinations and goals that are easily defined. The main character of novel is the fifteen-year-old girl Melanie, the oldest of three siblings, who stands on the cusp of womanhood, a sentiment and set of anxieties that I think Carter describes so well, and which in the following passage provided great insight to a man like myself:
At the beginning of the novel, she steals away into the dead of night wearing her mother’s wedding dress—she attempts to put on the trappings of womanhood. However, after a momentary intoxication with the romantic beauty of the night, the immensity of it overwhelms and terrifies her. Melanie flees the night, flees womanhood, and tears the dress to shreds trying to climb up the tree and get back into her room on the second floor. The damage has already been done though; putting on that dress was an usurpation of her mother, and its destruction in that vast night mimics their mother’s death, with their father, in a plane crash on his North American book tour, a sudden event that shatters the initial setup of the novel and forces Melanie to take on the role of their mother, whom she had dressed up as. She must then take her two younger siblings and live with their Uncle Philip, who owns a toyshop in London, leaving her home and childhood behind, and again the beauty of Carter’s prose makes the moment poignant and fresh in a way not quite like any other author I have read.In her tree-climbing days, the ascent would have taken only a few minutes. But she had given up climbing when she started to grow her hair and stopped wearing shorts every day during the summer holidays. Since she was thirteen, when her periods began, she had felt she was pregnant with herself, bearing the slowly ripening embryo of Melanie-grown-up inside herself for a gestation time the length of which she was not precisely aware. And during this time, to climb a tree might provoke a miscarriage and she would remain forever stranded in childhood, a crop-haired tomboy. (Pg. 20)
Uncle Philip is the puppetmaster, a domineering and callous man who can only form true emotional attachment to the idealizations of his own creation and who has no filter in his relations with other humans; his automatic expectation is for them too meet his ideals, and if they do not he punishes them. Despite the apparent simplicity of such a character, (thousands of works attempt to create similar characters), to do so convincingly, without being trite or clumsy, is extremely difficult and yet Uncle Philip is among the best-realized examples that I’ve read, and a very unique one at that. What makes him so unique is that its not even his actions or words or even his physical presence that oppress everyone around him—Uncle Philip spends most of the novel in his toyshop, only interacting with everyone else at dinner and a few other incidental occasions. But even so, his nearness, his presence in the very house, is crushing and palpable in the text and in their day-to-day lives, as he crushes the humanity out of everyone around him, and they, with difficulty, attempt to retain some shred of it. In one of the best characterizations I’ve ever read, Melanie observes him over dinner: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 the mirrors where the new owner expected the reflection of his own face[…] (Pg. 31)
In the old-fashioned London townhouse, with the store on the first floor and the bedrooms on the second and third, (the workshop in the basement, the domain of Uncle Philip), also live Francie and Finn, the younger brothers of Uncle Philip’s Irish wife Margaret, who is mute, the faculty of speech driven out of her by the tyranny of Uncle Philip, who in his emotional immaturity, views the best world as one which flows from the end of his fingertips at his rhythm and pace—speech, communication and human interaction are then superfluous as they all imply some measure of equanimity.She watched Uncle Philip empty four green-banded cups of tea and thought of the liquid turning slowly to urine through his kidneys; it seemed like alchemy, he could transmute liquids from one thing to another. He could also turn wood into swans. There was chocolate icing on his moustache; what would he turn it into? She waited, rapt. His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing. (Pg. 168)
Finn is sardonic, recalcitrant and insouciant enough to defy Uncle Philip, and to accept the violence that comes with that defiance and the incessant pounding of verbal abuse. He is physically beaten, thrown off the scaffolding above the puppet stage in the basement, and barraged under constant verbal assault. The story of the novel is primarily one of his relationship with Melanie. Finn, though her uncle by marriage, is only three years older than her (18) and from the very first night, is caught up in Melanie’s fragility, in the child that still lurks beneath the stiff-chinned woman acting out a self-imposed duty as matriarch over her siblings—all the while sleeping with a stuffed animal.
Melanie, for her part, rejects the advances for the majority of the novel. Finn’s confidence and sarcastic manner leave her unsure what to think, and afraid his intentions are inherently not serious. Beyond this, like every young girl, she still has a fantasy prince whom she wants to marry, and an idealized romance that she is holding up as the her standard—and in both those regards Finn doesn’t live up to her glamorous childhood dreams. In one scene, she lies in bed next to him while he’s sick, realizing that she also loves him, and feeling terrified, seeing her future as an ordinary one; working; having a table of red-haired kids with him; a happy but ordinary middle class life. The ordinariness of the rest of her life stretching out before her is scary and yet a sentiment that most people can understand and which rings a deep chord, especially in the heart of anyone with romantic tendencies.
As Melanie’s feelings for Finn come to a head, the inevitable and final conflict of the crushing titan Uncle Philip occurs, and most fittingly, it happens with Uncle Philip unseen. Only the sounded of his voice and the crashing of tables signify his presence as he destroys his home, sending up in flames the toys and the shop in an attempt to (and this is my interpretation), purify his self-contained world after the shock of discovering that it was not all his nor under his control, (I shan’t reveal spoilers here). On the last page of the book Melanie has yet again lost everything; her brother and sister and her aunt are missing to an unknown fate, her stuffed animal lies burning in the house along with her clothes, and all she has left is Finn, standing beside her, watching the flames with her, a pressing metaphor for growing up into womanhood and leaving the life of her girlhood behind. It is a perfect ending note, as she grasps Finn’s hand and feels at peace with her life, and confident enough to face the future happily, leaving the reader with a bittersweet ending and a sense of liberation. If you have not read Angela Carter, you should definitely try to at the next opportunity. And you could not go wrong by starting with The Magic Toyshop.
Here is a list of her other works for those interested in her:
Shadow Dance (1966)
The Magic Toyshop (1967)
Several Perceptions (1968)
Heroes and Villains (1969)
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972)
The Passion of New Eve (1977)
Nights at the Circus (1984)
Wise Children (1991)
Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974)
The Bloody Chamber (1979)
The Bridegroom (1983) (Uncollected short story)
Black Venus (1985)
American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993)
Burning Your Boats (1995)