“So they went into the basement, a long, white-washed room running the whole length of the house. A window at one end gave onto a coal hole; a little daylight filtered through at an angle from an iron grating in the pavement above. There was a clean, sweet smell of new wood and a tang of fresh paint. Wood shavings crunched underfoot. A carpenter’s bench ran along one wall, covered with a wooden-leg factory Walpurgisnacht of carved and severed limbs. There was a rainbow-splashed painting bench along the other wall. The walls were hung with jumping-jacks, dancing bears and leaping Arlecchinos. And also with partially assembled puppets of all size, some almost as tall as Melanie herself; blind-eyed puppets, some armless, some legless, some naked, some clothed, all with a strange liveliness as they dangled unfinished from their hooks.”
One of the particular advantages of adulthood (few as they often are) is the ability that it brings to reflect with fresh perspective on the internalised messages of our youth. This capacity to rearrange the unquestioned truths of our past can be something of a double-edged sword. Children’s fiction and its affirmation of characteristics such as self-belief and trust are typically repositioned as exclusive to the naiveté that we permit children, with adults expected to trade these traits off for the stress and embitterment that society advocates as an aspect of our generational inheritance. Part of this exchange does, however, involve an entirely necessary reexamination of the more problematic messages implicit in the stories that we are handed from our earliest moments. Where we are encouraged, – through the norms of a society determined to pursue for-profit conformity – to do away with the idea that we hold the key to our own deliverance from cultural expectations, we are simultaneously held to active account for the performance of gender, sexuality, and external identity that most children’s literature unapologetically promotes.
Yet there are significant efforts to acknowledge and revise the messages that so many of our culturally-centralised stories hold dear. Attempts to write the silences inherent in large swaths of Greek mythology – as with Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s aptly-named The Silence of the Girls – have populated the fictional world in recent years. Recognition of the issues inherent in traditional fairytales, encapsulated in the rescue of countless irritatingly helpless maidens by the strong (albeit fascinatingly one-dimensional) hero, have also been a topic up for popular debate. While Disney films will continue to be my go-to on rainy, springtime afternoons, the narrowness of the female character in these depictions has become the butt of countless jokes. And although the ‘snowflake’ millennial will continue to be mocked for her attention to the messages inherent in the media with which we are surrounded from birth, it is the job of any self-aware human to examine how her life is populated with a host of fictions disguised as truths and delivered by the agendas of others. While a good amount of this culturally-determined idea of identity is unavoidable, it is also the case that awareness is a good in and of itself.
Angela Carter’s work embodies one of the earliest and most successful attempts to rework traditional narratives on gender and identity. Arguably her most skilfully-executed book, The Bloody Chamber is a collection of fairytales – plunging the narrative potential of Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast, among others – written with a dramatically alternative take on both gender and sexuality. The stories that emerge are haunting, elegiac, and a tense reversal of the truths embedded in us about the tales that we know so well. In all of her works, Carter invokes a unique approach to female identity that plays off of contradicting all of the elements that one might expect from traditional stories of gothicism and fairytale-esque fantasies. Her willingness to engage with crudeness – from the burping, farting and less than-perfectly performative heroine of Nights at the Circus to the hygienically-challenged Finn of The Magic Toyshop – and explore the blossoming of sexuality at its most vulnerable point make Carter a voice unlike any other.
“The flowers cupped in the garden with a midnight, unguessable sweetness, and the grass rippled and murmured in a small voice that was an intensification of silence. The stillness was like the end of the world. She was alone. In her carapace of white satin, she was the last, the only woman. She trembled with exaltation under the deep, blue, high arc of sky.
Such a round moon. Trees laden to the plimsoll-line with a dreaming cargo of birds. The dewy grass licked her feet like the wet tongues of small, friendly beasts; the grass seemed longer and more clinging than during the day. Her dress trailed behind her; she left a glinting track in her wake. The still air was miraculously clear. Shadowed objects – a branch, a flower, stood out with a dark precision, as if seen through water. She walked on slow, silent feet through the subaqueous night. She breathed tremulously through her mouth, tasting black wine.”
The Magic Toyshop opens as any good fairytale, with the romantic reflections of a teenage girl – Melanie – flourishing in the earliest flushes of puberty. In the midst of her own physical and emotional self-scrutiny, however, Melanie’s life is thrown into disarray by the untimely death of her parents and the decision that she, along with her two young siblings, must go to live with their phantasmal, toy-making uncle, Philip. As in the best traditions of gothic literature, the toyshop that the siblings arrive to is populated with foreboding – an aunt who has not spoken a word since her wedding day, two Irish brothers of questionable background and motivation, and a building inhabited with life-sized puppets forced to join the rest of the family in an unending play orchestrated by Philip, the puppet master. Melanie is required to shelve her dreams of marriage and society as she attempts to navigate the dictatorial circumstances of life in Philip’s toyshop.
Although circumventing many of the tropes that one might expect from a story that derives so much inspiration from both fairy tales and gothic literature, The Magic Toyshop calls upon traditional characteristics where it serves Carter’s persuasively unique perspective. The orphaned girl, preoccupied with romantic fantasies, consigned to labour under the omniscient cruelty of an unknown uncle. Within this framework, however, The Magic Toyshop has a lot to say about the stereotypical conceptions of gender and sexuality upon which the genres have historically chosen to rest. Where gothic literature and fairytales typically position their female protagonists as either victims of circumstance or the weaknesses of their own gender – the Brontë’s are a notable exception to this – Carter draws upon her own understanding of gender as a performance that we have the power to control. Uncle Philip’s determined understanding of femininity – no trousers allowed, no speaking unless spoken to – dominates the household only because it is permitted. The characters inhabit a life limited by their own refusal to seize what they need from the novel’s oppressor.
There are sufficient debates within feminism’s many branches to occupy the many classes and textbooks devoted to the subject. That Angela Carter’s own ideas about feminism and femininity will find their detractors is a certainty. Yet there is something about her perspective that is imminently suited to the task of rewriting the traditional boundaries of classic storytelling. The Magic Toyshop is seeped in sexual awakening. Melanie’s encounters with her own body, the awareness of her physicality when around the twins who share the house with her, and a disturbing scene in which she is forced to play Leda to Philip’s wooden swan puppet sign-point Carter’s keen awareness of explicit sexual and emotional growth as almost entirely absent from the genres in which she plays. These elements render Carter’s work both fascinating and gloriously unexpected.
“She wondered why he was doing this, putting his mouth on her own undesiring one, softly moving his body against her. What was the need? She felt a long way away from him, and superior, also.
She thought vaguely that they must look very striking, like a shot from a new-wave British film, locked in an embrace beside the broken statue in this dead fun palace, with the November dusk swirling around them and Finn’s hair so ginger, hers so black, spun together by the soft little hands of a tiny wind, yellow and black hairs tangled together. She wished someone was watching them, to appreciate them, or that she herself was watching them, Finn kissing this black-haired young girl, from a bush a hundred yards away. Then it would seem romantic.”
Beyond the magic of her narrative courage, Carter’s work is also profoundly beautiful. The Magic Toyshop is sewn together with archaically lyrical vocabulary, pulling the reader even more fully into the sense of reading a novel both extraordinarily contemporary and yet fundamentally traditional in its origins. The language is as playful and fantastic as the plot, pulsating with the mournful, shapeless shadows that one would expect from any work that claims to exist within the realms of gothic literature. That The Magic Toyshop is one of Carter’s earlier works explains its rough edges. Compared to Nights at the Circus or The Bloody Chamber, there is an uncertainty to aspects of The Magic Toyshop as a place to explore the ways that Carter’s narrative preferences, personal philosophies, and selected genre tropes could intersect and coexist. Yet the novel retains its authority, even in the face of Carter’s later fame and status – it is a story that deserves to be read as much for own successes as those of the author’s later, more celebrated works.
For childhood lovers of the fairytale, particularly in its darker Pinocchio-esque forms, Angela Carter’s work will feel like a journey for which we – as readers – are now better equipped. It is not that Carter’s stories speak more fully to those who have shrugged off the comfortable cocoon of youth but rather that they rest upon a surpassingly human notion of identity – one that is almost completely absent from traditional stories of magic, fantasy, and their place within a tale occupied by young people who should be blossoming into self-awareness. Understanding the vivacity that thrives at the heart of humanity in its flawed, three-dimensional form is something that only growth and experience can teach us to appreciate. The characters of The Magic Toyshop are attempting to navigate themselves through a world populated with violence and oppression, whilst simultaneously exploring the edges of desire and sexual potential that exist even within this harsh and dangerous environment. It is a novel that speaks to the complexity of Carter’s own perspective on identity, roles, and relationships but with such a touch of vibrant, crackling magic that one feels an almost immediate sense of coming home.