Fullness and Absence:
Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
Along with Thomas Pynchon and Cynthia Ozick, the British polymath Angela Carter was one of the most brilliant and innovative writers of the generation of postmodernists to begin publishing in the 1960s. A prolific novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, and children’s book author, Carter was one of those amazing writers who seemed capable of anything. As her career developed, she spent longer and longer on each novel, with each one gaining in richness and audacity, and her last two novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, are two of the very finest novels of the twentieth century’s postwar era. Dying of lung cancer in 1992 at the age of fifty-one, Carter was struck down at the height of her powers, leaving a body of work that—despite the missing decades of peak writing that she would never get to do—astounds with the fullness of what she was able to achieve in her truncated life. While her most dizzying masterpieces began with 1972’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, all of Carter’s work is wonderful, and her early novels amaze with their originality of style and vision.
Many single out Carter’s second novel, The Magic Toyshop, as the best and most representative of her early work, a novel taking up both old and new themes and written in a neo-Gothic style that recalls the creepiness of the Brontës while being decidedly modern in both outlook and method. The novel commences with an overture so strikingly original and so fundamentally primal that it seems hard to believe that it wasn’t already a deeply embedded literary trope. At fifteen, Melanie is discovering her ripening sexuality, and while her parents are away in America she sneaks into their room, unpacks her mother’s trunk to find her wedding dress, and then puts it on. The night outside the window seems enchanted and untouched to her (“the corn was orient and immortal wheat,” Carter writes, quoting Thomas Traherne; Carter references the metaphysical poets often in this section, especially John Donne), and so Melanie wanders out into it, where she’s first awed and then overwhelmed by its vastness. Wholly overcome by the loneliness and potential hostility of eternity, she runs back toward the house for sanctuary, but wearing only her mother’s wedding dress, she’s forgotten to bring her house key. Seeing that her only way back in is up the apple tree that leads to her bedroom window, she takes off the dress and begins to climb, dragging the dress behind her “like Christian’s burden” (in John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian’s burden is the knowledge of sin). She hadn’t been a tree-climber for years—since before she’d gotten her first period—and now the night’s terrors crush in around her and at one point come alive in the form of the housekeeper’s cat, which tears at the dress in the tree. As she climbs, feeling exposed at a level far beyond nakedness, apples fall all around her and she’s torn at by the tree’s branches, leaving her cut and bruised when she makes it into her bedroom. In the morning light she finds that the dress has been cut to ribbons and stained by the tree, as well as by her own blood, and so she buries it deep in her mother’s trunk. The dress’ wreath is somehow missing, though, and she finds it hanging high in the tree, far beyond her reach, so she just has to hope for her family’s distracted blindness to keep her from public exposure.
|A young Angela Carter|
The next afternoon a telegram arrives bringing news of Melanie’s parents’ death, in an airplane crash, and soon afterward she and her two younger siblings are packed off to South London to live with their estranged Uncle Philip, whom Melanie only knows from her parents’ wedding photo. Philip owns a toyshop, where he reigns unquestioned as its creative genius and resident tyrant, striking terror into the lives of his young wife, Margaret, and Margaret’s even younger brothers, Francie and Finn. Like a latter-day Jane Eyre, Melanie finds herself at the mercy of this dark, angry puppet-master who sees her ripening beauty as the perfect instrument to play with in his demented basement theater. Less of a Rochester than a sinister svengali from a Powell & Pressburger film, Philip is also less of a presence than he needs to be to make his character effective. As Melanie grows close to Margaret and her brothers, Philip’s power is felt through the waves of influence that he sends through the house while he toils mostly out of sight in his underground workshop. The house’s dynamics are complex and fascinating, but even though all the other characters’ intertwining dramas are compelling, with each relationship measured in part by its compliance or resistance to Philip’s control, this novel suffers from his absence.
One of the more striking—and shocking—aspects of the world that Carter creates in this novel is the fluidity of the family’s relationships. As Melanie’s sexuality grows, her cousin Finn falls in love with her, and their gradual coming-together allows them to form the basis of a new kind of family that’s wholly independent of the world that they’re trapped in with Uncle Philip. Much more strikingly, however—so striking that it precipitates the end of the toyshop—Melanie’s relationship with her brother Francie comes to light to offer an even broader and more challenging definition of love and family. Unable to bear the truth of their secret, Philip sets fire to the toyshop, sending the whole house up in a Jane Eyre-like conflagration.
|Leda and the Swan|
Carter has several other ongoing motifs at work in this novel, most notably the abandoned, overgrown park that Melanie and Finn visit together (and apart), with its fallen statue of Queen Victoria seeming to symbolize the death of empire, and perhaps even the death of traditional patriarchy. It’s there that Finn first kisses Melanie, and after a theatrical fiasco in which Philip has Melanie playing Leda raped by the swan, Finn takes the swan-puppet to the park and buries it next to the fallen statue. Carter follows each character and theme in this novel to fascinating and inventive ends, but in truth, all the intrigues and echoes and absences in the bulk of the novel aren’t quite strong enough to match the startling thereness of the book’s overture. The drama of the wedding dress makes Melanie into a new Eve, and her naked journey back into her house makes her into a kind of Odysseus as well—with her missing house-key recalling that other new Odysseus, Leopold Bloom—but this creative boldness on Carter’s part doesn’t keep up its momentum when it descends into the labyrinths of the family in London. That this extravagant and beautiful novel doesn’t match its mind-blowing opening isn’t that serious of a criticism, though, because even without the opening, this would still be a remarkable and highly original work. Prefiguring the outrageous and fully accomplished works that Carter would write for decades to come, The Magic Toyshop is a brilliant early step in the direction of genius.