Visions and Revisions: Books I Really Ought to Have Read By Now

No.1:  Angela Carter:  The Magic Toyshop 

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’d never read any Angela Carter before I embarked on The Magic Toyshop last weekend.  Certain close friends and colleagues have, over the years, spoken of her with both admiration and reverence and the main reason I’m almost ashamed is because I may well have given the impression, to one or two people on a couple of occasions, that in fact I had not only read Carter but was familiar with several of her works.

Why did I cultivate that falsehood? Because I consider myself to be well-read and switched-on and a self-respecting pro-feminist, so to fess up to ignorance of a writer whose oeuvre is acknowledged to be seminal in 20th century letters would have seriously damaged my cred.  And, yes, I’m  aware that makes me exactly the kind of duplicitous male that Carter sets out to blame and shame but that’s something I’ll just have to live with.

A contributory factor to Carter’s almost mythical status is the fact that she died in 1992 when she was 52, and so, like Hendrix, Grace Kelly and Princess Diana, she is forever frozen in the moment of her prime; she will never repeat her signature moves until she becomes a parody of herself and we shall never have to watch her decline into irrelevance.  Arguably, of course, she, like them, would have gone on to greater heights and, sadly, we’ll never see that either.

The Magic Toyshop is generally thought of as an example of the genre known as “magic realism”, although Carter herself was unhappy with the term.  To oversimplify in the interests of brevity, this is writing in which the author, in order to teach us something about the world and our place in it,  sets up ordinary people in situations which become surreal and dreamlike.  In the present case, what we are shown in no uncertain terms is that, in post-war male-dominated British society, women are treated without consideration or sympathy.

Fifteen year old Melanie and her younger brother and sister are orphaned and have to leave the security of their middle-class Sunday supplement life in the Home Counties to live in the back of the eponymous emporium in a dingy London square with her overbearing Uncle Philip, his dumb wife and her two brothers.  In this brave, new, oppressively patriarchal world, Melanie is denied schooling and any kind of luxury and comes to realise that she is a drudge and a prisoner.

Symbolism abounds.  On the night before news reaches her that her parents have been killed in a tragic accident, Melanie tries on her mother’s fairytale wedding dress and finds it too big; striving to get back into the house she has locked herself out of during a threatening moonlit visit to the garden, she tears and dirties it, and thus Carter lets us know that there are no happy endings in prospect for the young woman in modern society.

Once ensconced in London, Melanie is charged with minding the shop, cleaning and shopping.  Her standards of personal hygiene slip as the bathroom plumbing is inefficient and unreliable.  Meanwhile her brother is left to amuse himself as he wishes.  He takes no interest in the lives of Melanie or his younger sister and shows them no affection, preoccupied as he is with building model kits, usually of warships, and dreaming of adventures abroad.

In fact, men in general get a very bad press.  Uncle Philip is cruel and demanding.  He rules the household mercilessly; all his needs and appetites must be satisfied on demand and he is prone to outbursts of violent temper when things don’t go his way.  A gifted maker of toys in the traditional style, his obsession is his puppet theatre where periodically he gives performances for the family using his life-sized marionettes— and woe betide them if they don’t show appropriate appreciation of his efforts.  When one of the puppets is damaged and Melanie has to step in as Leda, the metaphor of the controlling and predatory male is almost too obvious.

Finn, the younger of her aunt’s two brothers, presents another unattractive facet of the male personality.  He is goatish and physical; his intrusions into Melanie’s space, such as the spyhole he has made in the wall between his bedroom and hers, are unsettling  and you rather fear the worst, especially when, during an evening walk, he takes her to a rotting and overgrown park with a shattered statue of Queen Victoria who has had her Albert taken away.  Women, we infer, are seen as fair game by unscrupulous and unprincipled men, and decency and gallantry no longer apply.  The values of the past have been rejected and the modern world, like Hamlet’s Denmark, is wholly possessed by things rank and gross in nature.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the marriage of Melanie’s aunt and uncle.  Aunt Margaret was struck dumb on her wedding day and communicates only through writing messages in chalk on various slates and blackboards.  She spends her days making food and mending for her voracious and ungrateful husband.  His wedding gift to her was an elaborate silver neck ornament that recalls nothing more so than a slave collar – indeed it physically constrains her movements and behaviour when she wears it each Sunday, along with her “best” dress, a shapeless and unflattering grey shift.  Marriage has not only blotted out Margaret’s history and personality, it has prevented her from expressing herself in the most fundamental of ways and turned her into little more than an unpaid skivvy.

There is a shocking reveal in the last quarter of the book which precipitates the symbolic desecration and ultimately destruction of the house, during which Margaret regains the power of speech and Melanie escapes through a skylight to a next-door garden which might or might not allow for a potential return to Eden. But the paradise of her childhood security is lost and if it is regained as her adult life begins it will require serious compromises.

There is, then, much food for thought in this short novel.  Its ideas must have been a great deal more incendiary when it was first published in 1967, but even in our more enlightened times it has the power to make us examine our own attitudes and consciences, and in that very fact lies the real magic of this particular toyshop.

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