Monday, October 15, 2018

Angela Carter's fiction: The Magic Toyshop

A continuation of my series on Angela Carter's fiction.

Cover of the American Dell paperback issue of The Magic Toyshop. And no, Carter's novel has nothing to do with Rosemary's Baby.

Like a Victorian toy theater, The Magic Toyshop (1967) displays many of Carter's recurrent themes in exquisite miniature. Melanie, orphaned at 15, is sent to live in South London with her domineering Uncle Philip, his mute wife Margaret, and Margaret's brothers Francie and Finn. Melanie's first experience of Uncle Philip's house elicits a telling comparison: "She felt lonely and chilled, walking along the long, brown passages, past secret doors, shut tight. Bluebeard's castle." [1]

Uncle Philip creates extraordinarily clever (but also eerily uncanny, grotesque and macabre) toys that are not intended to bring joy to children. When he discovers Melanie exploring the toyshop, he tells her to "put those things away, miss. I don't like people playing with my toys." [2]

In his miniature theater in the basement (um, symbolizing the unconscious?) Uncle Philip likes to stage perverse mini-dramas featuring life-size marionettes. He compels Melanie to perform in "Leda and the Swan"—and as if that isn't creepy enough, the swan is disturbingly Uncle-Philip-shaped. As Finn says after he later destroys the swan-puppet, "He put himself into it. That's why it had to go." [3]

Still from the 1987 film version of The Magic Toyshop. Caroline Milmoe as Melanie playing Leda.

Melanie is repelled by Uncle Philip and finds herself drawn to Aunt Margaret ("'it came to her on her wedding day, like a curse. Her silence.'" [4]) and her brothers, especially Finn:
The curl of his wrist was a chord of music, perfect, resolved. Melanie suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

It was as if he had put on the quality of maleness like a flamboyant cloak. He was a tawny lion poised for the kill—and was she the prey? She remembered the lover made up out of books and poems she had dreamed of all summer; he crumpled up 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. [5]
The tensions that have been building in the house soon come to a head, and a conflagration (both metaphorical and literal) erupts.

The Magic Toyshop is full of pre-echoes of The Bloody Chamber (the "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" references), Nights At The Circus (an orphaned young girl dependent on the exploitative kindness of strangers), and Wise Children (the patent falsity and psychological truth of theater, incest both symbolic and actual, and the catastrophic but cleansing fire that obliterates what has gone before). There are more of would become her characteristic images and motifs: twins, trains, flowers (Uncle Philip's ironic last name), mirrors, opera, adolescence and sexual initiation, among many others.

'She. . .inspected herself in the long mirror. . .Moonlight, white satin, roses. A bride. Whose bride? But she was, tonight, sufficient for herself in her own glory and did not need a groom.' [6] Caroline Milmoe as Melanie in the film version of The Magic Toyshop.

In his biography of Carter, Edmund Gordon describes his encounter with The Magic Toyshop, his first experience of her writing:
. . .I tore through the novel in a few intoxicated hours, stunned by the fearless quality of the imagination on display and by the luminous beauty of the prose. [7]
I had a similar experience on my first reading of The Magic Toyshop, and my re-reading has confirmed it, in my view, as one of Carter's masterpieces (the other being The Bloody Chamber).

The Magic Toyshop was adapted into an excellent feature film in 1987 produced by Granada Television, directed by David Wheatley and written by Angela Carter. Angela Carter currently seems to be having a moment, with recent radio and stage adaptations of Nights at the Circus and Wise Children. Can someone please restore this film and reissue it on DVD or make it available to stream? (Yes, Criterion Collection, I'm talking to you.)

Other works discussed in the series:  

  1. Angela Carter,  The Magic Toyshop, Heinemann, 1967, p. 82.
  2. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 86.
  3. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 174.
  4. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 37.
  5. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 45.
  6. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 16.
  7. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter, Oxford, 2017, p. 417.

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