1967: The Magic Toyshop


As I enter my fiftieth year (which I will celebrate simply for the fact of still being alive) I thought it would be interesting to commemorate the anniversary by reading some novels published in the year I was born – particularly when I realised that I had a copy of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop to hand. Though I have read some of Carter’s short stories, this would be my first novel (and only her second). Whether reading the fiction of 1967 will enlightened me in any way about my own origins is debateable, but if it gives me the excuse to explore some writing from that period which I have so far neglected then it is certainly worth the attempt.

What struck me first about The Magic Toyshop was how similar it was to many of the books I read as a child, beginning, as it does, by separating the children – fifteen-year-old Melanie, twelve-year-old Johnathan, and five-year-old Victoria – from their parents. Sometimes this was caused by war-time evacuation; on other occasions, as here, it was the result of the parents’ deaths. In fact, Melanie’s parents are entirely absent from the novel, dying, as they do, while in America, the children meanwhile in the care of Mrs Rundle. Shortly after, the children must leave their comfortable middle class existence (with luxuries such as central heating which I certainly lacked in my early childhood) and live with their uncle Philip in South London.

Of course, The Magic Toyshop is not a children’s book, as is apparent from its opening pages when one of its central preoccupations, Melanie’s sexual awakening, is revealed:

“The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.”

One night she puts on her mother’s wedding dress and goes out in the garden, only for the door to close and lock behind her. She realises she must climb the apple tree to return to her bedroom, and that she cannot do so while wearing the dress:

“So she must take off the dress and climb into the treacherous and deceitful night… She was horribly conscious of her own exposed nakedness. She felt a new and final kind of nakedness, as if she had taken even her own skin off and now stood clothed in nothing, nude in the ultimate nudity of the skeleton.”

This moment wonderfully conveys Melanie poised (on the branches of the tree) between childhood and adulthood: the dress represents her desire to be a woman but also reveals she is missing her mother; climbing the tree is a return to childhood activities (“she had given up climbing when she had started to grow her hair and stooped wearing shorts”) but her awareness of her nakedness (as with Eve) reminds us she is no longer innocent.

Uncle Philip rules his family – his wife, Margaret, and her two brothers, Francie and Finn – like a tyrant. “Do not,” Finn tells Melanie, “treat your uncle lightly.” Finn knows this well, frequently suffering Philip’s violent outbursts:

“’Three minutes late! And you come dancing up in your stinking rags as if it didn’t matter! Do I keep a boarding house for dirty beatniks? Do I? Do I?’ And he launched a great, cracking blow at Finn’s head.”

Philip makes the toys which he sells – reluctantly, it seems, as he regards them more as works of art than playthings and doesn’t like them touched. He is proudest of his puppets and will occasionally insist that everyone gather in the basement to watch one of his performances.

The novel is redolent with symbolism. Philip not only wants to control his puppets but those around him. Margaret is unable to speak and must write down anything she wishes to say, just as Philip has removed her voice entirely from their relationship. Melanie is made to perform as Leda in one of Philip’s puppet shows where she is molested by a wooden swan of his invention. However, everything is grounded in Carter’s description of the drab surroundings, which feel more fifties than sixties:

“Between a failed, boarded up jeweller’s and a grocer’s displaying a windowful of sunshine cornflakes was a dark cavern of a shop, so dimly lit one did not notice it as it bowed its head under the tenement above. In the cave could be seen the vague outlines of a rocking horse, and the sharper scarlet of its flaring nostrils, and stiff-limbed puppets, dressed in rich, sombre colours, dangling from their strings; but the brown varnish of the horse and the plums and purples of the puppets made such a murk together that very little could be seen.”

In fact, it is, at times, a very Dickensian London, seen also in the grubbiness of the characters, particularly Finn:

“He wore washed-out, balding corduroy trousers, wrinkled with their own tightness. His clothes had the look of strays from a parish poor-box.”

Melanie and Finn’s relationship is also beautifully handled by Carter. She is both attracted and repulsed by him (his “insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness”); he finds her beautiful but also young:

“He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – but was she the prey?”

The Magic Toyshop contains all the fear and thrill of growing up enhanced by Carter’s uncanny ability to marry the grotesque with the everyday. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

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27 Responses to “1967: The Magic Toyshop”

  1. bookbii Says:

    The Magic Toyshop remains one of my favourite books of all time, it is grotesque, camp and disturbing all in one and it never gets old. If you’re looking to explore more by Carter I can recommend Heroes and Villains (I think I am Marianne!) and The Passion of New Eve, both of which are excellent. Great review Grant.

  2. Cathy746books Says:

    Sounds fantastic! I’ve read Wise Children, which I loved, but not this one.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    Sounds interesting. I’ve only read The Bloody Chamber so far by Carter but was given Nights at the Circus for my birthday in December—so hope to read that one soon.

    I hope your reading of 1967 books goes well. I just looked through the books published in the year I was born, 1969. There are a few good ones although I’ve read several of them before.

    • 1streading Says:

      The Bloody Chamber was the first Angela Carter I read.
      I think my reading of books from 1967 will be a combination of some I’ve read before and some which are new.

  4. madamebibilophile Says:

    This was the first Carter I ever read, introducing me to one of my favourite authors. I also have a big birthday this year (I’m 10 years younger than you) so I’m planning a post with books from 1977 at some point. Enjoy your 1967 reading!

    • 1streading Says:

      You may well include Carter’s The Passion of New Eve!
      I also notice Timothy Findley’s The Wars was published that year – he’s a writer I hope to cover as well.

  5. JacquiWine Says:

    Love your analysis and commentary on this novel, especially the various elements of symbolism you’ve highlighted here. Carter is such an imaginative writer – as a story I found The Magic Toyshop beguiling and unsettling in fairly equal measure.

    That’s a great idea to read some novels first published in the year of your birth – which other 1967-ers are you thinking of tackling? By the way, I just realised that Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness was published in my birth year (1964).

    • 1streading Says:

      I do have a list but I’m not entirely sure what I’ll cover – as you know, I’m not very good with sticking to lists!
      My most exciting discovery so far has been a book by one of my favourite writers which I didn’t even know existed!
      Sadly no Elizabeth Taylor for me. Have you checked to see what else was published that year?

      • JacquiWine Says:

        I’ve had a quick look. Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was published in ’64, so I’ll definitely be reading that at some point.

      • 1streading Says:

        I can see that would be top of your list, but lots of other interesting writers like Ngugi, Lem, Lispector, Brautigan… published that year!

  6. MarinaSofia Says:

    What a wonderful idea, especially if you are born in a year which produced some great literature. I’ll have to search and see if my birth year produced similar masterpieces.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m pretty sure every year produced some great literature it’s just that if it was originally in another language it can be more difficult to discover – most lists are very Anglo-centric.

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    What a fun idea! With the world as it is, I often think we should celebrate stlll being here every day.

  8. Caroline Says:

    I’ve read and reviewed thus during my Angela Carter Week a couple if years ago but didn’t rememer anything. A bit sad.
    Heroes & Villains stayed with me though.

  9. roughghosts Says:

    I have yet to read Angela Carter, one of the (many) gaps in my reading. I find the idea of reading books from your year of birth a great one, but in looking up my year (1960) I didn’t find much that grabbed me and a few I’ve already read. However under nonfiction I discovered Night by Elie Wiesel (released in English that year). I have the book, hoped to read it this year but given the state of the world I now have double the reason to get to it soon!

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve always wanted to read Night. I can recommend another two from 1960 – Alberto Moravia’s Boredom (The Empty Canvas) and Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye.
      I suspect what I read from sixths year will be a mixture of re-reads and new to me.

  10. winstonsdad Says:

    Congrats on birthday

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound rather rich in symbolism, like a dense fairy tale.

    I imagine the ’60s for many probably did feel like the ’50s. We impose decades in retrospect to an extent, and those living the life we define them by are often a very small minority.

    In fact, it rather fits with all those 1960s novels in which characters kick against conformity. For that to make sense there must be a lot of conformity to kick against.

    Nice review as ever.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s very true – it’s certainly commonly said that the sixties didn’t come to Scotland until the seventies!. I dread to think what they’ll make of this decade in the future though.

  12. Scott W Says:

    I’ve read at least something by most of the better known of that amazing group of mid-century British women writers (Bainbridge, Pym, Blackwood, Comyns, Taylor, etc.) but Carter is someone I just haven’t read – yet. Your review makes me want to remedy that post-haste. And congrats on the milestone; a friend (who doesn’t blog, alas) did a similar thing when he turned 50, reading everything he could find from 1959.

    • 1streading Says:

      Mid-century British women are a ‘genre’ I’ve rather managed to avoid (unless you count Muriel Spark). I’ve started on Elizabeth Taylor’s back catalogue in recent years, and now Carter, but, as for the others, I haven’t been tempted yet.

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