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.