Among the strangest of all the strange things about The Magic Toyshop (1967) is the fact that it is set when it was written, in the mid 1960s. These were the days when the electrified Bob Dylan shucked off the ‘easy answers’ and ‘easy imagery’ of his early protest songs and became, as Carter put it, a ‘prophet of chaos… clanging and vulgar, neon and plastic and, at the same time, blackly, bleakly romantic’; while the trial of the Rolling Stones could be portrayed as an act of sartorial warfare, with ‘the judge, in ritually potent robes and wig, invoking the doom of his age and class upon the beautiful children in frills and sunset colours, who dared to question the infallibility he represents as icon of the law and father figure’. Over the years, when I’ve asked students to tell me when The Magic Toyshop takes place, they’ve located it at the beginning of the twentieth century in the early days of the decline of the British Empire; or plumb in the middle of the Victorian era, when Dickensian crossing-sweepers begged for alms from top-hatted villains outside Old Curiosity Shops where Little Nell lay dying in a welter of saintly sentimentality. I myself hardly noticed the references to cars and televisions and central heating when I first read it. And Carter clearly intended to generate this chronological confusion: it’s the topic of the book. Her cast of eccentric characters sit on a precarious fulcrum between past and present, like the Western Archipelago itself, like the postwar world, struggling and failing time and again to release themselves from the nightmare of history.
By problematizing the historical location of her novel, Carter put her finger on the pulse of the decade. The precision of the book as an evocation of its period lies in its amazed recognition that 1960s England was still to a great extent 1860s England, that the modern was still struggling to break through the putrescent morass of decaying Victoriana: junkyard relics whose dusty, worn-out, randomly heaped-up contents invade every urban space like Philip K. Dick’s kipple, encumbering every effort of the nation’s exhausted inhabitants to move into another mode of social living. What some now see as acts of massive cultural vandalism in the 60s – the driving of motorways through the heart of great Victorian cities, the wholesale demolition of richly ornamented public buildings, the erasure of parks, fountains, monuments and astonishing feats of industrial engineering – were perceived by many then as a struggle to the death against an oppressive past that refused to die, a grim self-image that pervaded British society from the topmost level of government to your own front room, monstrously perverting every effort to achieve rational change. The Magic Toyshop stands now as a record of this struggle between old and new, the radical young and the reactionary middle-aged. In it, as Carter said of Dylan’s new sound, there are no easy answers, no easy imagery. And the situation seems to have delighted her as a writer as much as it horrified her as a political agitator. It gave birth to her own uneasy imagery, and she went on returning to this clash of timeframes and ideologies in novel after novel, story after story, essay after essay.
The Magic Toyshop has the shape of a Victorian novel. Our innocent but plucky young heroine, nicely brought up and well to do, suddenly finds herself orphaned and penniless, struggling to maintain her identity in the grimmest of working-class households, bravely taking on the burden of responsibility for her helpless younger siblings, wearing her fingers to the bone in appalling conditions, consorting with rough men and women who turn out to have hearts of gold, repelling the unwelcome advances of her evil uncle before winning through to freedom and independence with the heroic assistance of a brave young man. The elements of this plot are so deeply familiar that in themselves they constitute a reminder of how far our Victorian heritage continues to permeate our culture – a situation of which Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events takes full advantage. In Carter’s novel, as in Snickett’s series, each element of the conventional plot undergoes a metamorphosis through the agency of pastiche. Melanie’s wealthy middle-class background, for example, is no idyll – or if it is, it’s a very silly one. The working-class environment to which she’s transplanted isn’t horrible in itself, but only because it’s dominated by an abusive patriarch. Melanie never really takes on the burden of caring for her siblings, although she toys with the idea of doing so when Mrs Rundle puts it into her head. The work Melanie does hardly wears her fingers to the bone; it’s mostly monotonous, and sometimes enjoyable. And so on. But the presence of the familiar Victorian plot keeps reminding us that this book is a fiction, one of an infinite number of fictions by which we measure and judge the lives we lead. And as such, it takes its place among an enormous range of texts – stories, poems, songs and myths – to which Carter alludes in the course of her narrative, as if to demonstrate that we’re constructed from head to toe by the stories we tell ourselves: from the fairy tale of Bluebeard’s Castle which Melanie can never get out of her head, to the poems of Donne and Keats from her school anthology, quotations from which open and close the book; from the Irish songs that comfort the ‘Red People’ in Uncle Philip’s menagerie to Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic Through the Looking Glass, which supplies Finn’s Pleasure Ground with its chessboard pavement, gives Aunt Margaret her unruly head of hair – borrowed from Carroll’s White Queen – and invites Melanie to wonder if she is being dreamed by Mrs Rundle (p. 95) as Alice is dreamed (perhaps) by Carroll’s Red King. And everywhere in the novel there are references to Shakespeare, the English ‘national bard’ whose words have taken root in the thoughts and conversations of all Carter’s characters as if in confirmation of the playwright’s dubious status as spokesman for all humanity. It’s worth lingering for a while on the significance of this wide range of textual reference.
If our minds are shaped by old fictions – from the ancient, such as the story of Bluebeard, to the Elizabethan – Donne, Shakespeare – and the late Victorian – Frances Hodgson Burnett, the younger Yeats – then how we tell stories acquires an importance that’s hard to exaggerate. The twists Carter gives to all these tales and allusions become the signs of the times, the markers that indicate potential transformations we will undergo as we launch at last into the new and unexpected narratives that will shape our future. One of the questions this book asks is: will these new narratives succeed in breaking free from the cycle of repression and oppression that has stunted our growth in the course of the twentieth century? – that has left the bulk of the world’s population, at a time of unprecedented technological innovation, locked in a desperate hand-to-mouth existence, needlessly imprisoned in a state of intellectual and political disempowerment, and ignored or humiliated by their self-appointed rulers? Another question she may invite is: which parts of the old stories are worth retaining, and which need to be rejected as the instruments of tyranny, the tools rather than the indicators of a corrupt social hierarchy? As one might expect, she doesn’t answer these questions – she doesn’t pose as a reader of tea-leaves, as Francie does very briefly when he tells Melanie that someone will soon be leaving on a journey. But we can better understand the terms of the two questions if we look at some of the odd things she does to the familiar novelistic situations she sets up.
Here are a few of them. For one thing, the book is full of absurd and excessive touches. The nanny who cooks only bread pudding and who has changed her name to Mrs Rundle by deed poll. The puppet in Uncle Philip’s workshop which bears an uncanny resemblance to Melanie when she put on her mother’s wedding-dress and climbed a phallic apple-tree – an incident he cannot possibly have known about. The twelve-year-old boy who is so uniquely obsessed with sailing ships that he eventually disappears into his own fantasy. The dog that beats its tail in time to music, and which is spotted at the end of the book running upstairs with a basket of flowers gripped between its teeth, in exact mimicry of the portrait of it that hangs in the kitchen. The severed hand of a child that appears in a kitchen drawer, then disappears without explanation. Any reading of The Magic Toyshop has to account for these bizarreries in one way or another; if not, it won’t be an honest response to Carter’s text.
One way of accounting for them is to say that they’re there to remind us, over and over again, that what we’re reading is fiction; that we shouldn’t let ourselves be seduced into accepting it as a slice of historic truth, as we might if it posed as ‘realism’. Bertolt Brecht did something similar in his drama, which he designed as an instrument for exposing the fantasies and fabrications by which the ruling classes maintain their grip on power. Into each play Brecht incorporates a series of devices that make us step back and recognize our position as a theatre audience, capable of analysing the action dispassionately without having our judgement impaired by an excess of imaginative sympathy. Analytic detachment is built into Carter’s novel by the fact that her characters – especially our heroine, Melanie – are so detached from things themselves: ‘She thought vaguely that they must look very striking, like a sot from a new-wave British film, locked in an embrace beside the broken statue in this dead fun palace’ (p. 106). The dog, too, in her uncle’s household, might have been invented simply to surprise us into reassessing our relationship with the narrative. At several points in the story Melanie is not sure if she is looking at the dog or at Finn’s painting of the dog; and the moment in the last chapter when it appears with the basket of flowers might be meant to make us recognize the sheer absurdity of trying to distinguish a painted animal from a ‘real one’ – when the real one is itself only a fabrication constructed from words on a page. The absurdist elements in Carter’s book help to prevent us from abandoning our reason in sentimental sympathy with the plight of our lovely heroine, as we are constantly invited to do by Victorian narrators. But each has, too, a specific function at the moment when it occurs. Each one helps to point up other, less obvious absurdities, which permeate the culture of the 1960s.
Take Mrs Rundle, for example, whose fake title articulates her desire to rewrite history so that she will have fulfilled her destiny as a woman – according to the Victorian conventions by which she lives. She is described entirely in terms of popular fiction: the plays of J. M. Barrie and the comic theatre of the 1950s: ‘She had hairy moles and immense false teeth. She spoke with an old-world, never-never land stateliness, like a duchess in a Whitehall farce’ (p. 3). And she prays in church ‘astonishingly’ for a fake memory to go with her fake name: ‘Please God, let me remember that I was married as if I had really married […] Or at least […] let me remember that I had sex’ (p. 8). Mrs Rundle is clearly ridiculous; but she’s no more ridiculous than, say, Melanie’s father, who insists that his family go to church as a means of forgetting his own class origins: ‘Born in Salford, it pleased him to play gently at squire now he need never think of Salford again’ (p. 7). Indeed, he has so immersed himself in his public role as a successful writer that his own daughter cannot imagine him ever abandoning his tweeds, his tobacco and his typewriter ribbon – even when dying in a plane crash or making love. And his wife, Melanie’s mother, is not much more substantial: she is a set of clothes, and in the course of the novel anything else about her rapidly melts away into oblivion before the more robust presence of the new family Melanie finds in South London.
The rural idyll in which Melanie lives at the beginning of the novel is, in fact, an elaborate fake. So, too, is the ‘naturalness’ of the class system that all this fakery is constructed to preserve; or the illusion of permanent prosperity her first family lives under, which tricks Melanie’s father into failing to save money against a rainy day; or the moral system that assures Melanie she is being ‘punished’ for stealing her brother’s unwanted Biggles books when the false eyelashes she buys with the proceeds prove impossible to apply. The happy family home, too, of the novel’s opening pages, is an elaborate forgery. The loving parents who die, for instance, are total strangers to their children. They know so little about their son that they buy him Biggles books on the basis of his appearance – because he looks like the kind of boy who will enjoy such texts – not of his tastes or wishes. And the three children in this idyllic home spend all their time apart, in separate rooms – in Melanie’s case, at least, behind a locked door. The world they inhabit is the epitome of middle-class individualism, where other people are simply irrelevant to a person’s existence except as an unfocussed backdrop for their private internal dramas, and where money is never thought of except as a kind of atmosphere, a pervasive presence whose loss is unimaginable. Their move to Uncle Philip’s household makes them sociable, as they never were at home.
Mrs Rundle’s name identifies her as the nexus of a network of fantasies that envelop Melanie in the novel’s opening pages. So it’s interesting that she should prove the most enduring element from Melanie’s earlier life later in the novel, reasserting her claim to remembrance by sending the children practical, warming Christmas presents at a time when they have nothing else – and when their parents have left them nothing of themselves at all. Uncle Philip has the role of the moustache-twirling, sadistic, self-satisfied stage villain of Victorian melodrama in this novel; but his contempt for Melanie’s father has a sound material basis:
‘I never could abide your father,’ [he tells her.] ‘He thought ’isself too good for the Flowers by a long chalk, he did. A writer, he called ’isself. Soft bastard, he never got his hands dirty.’
‘But he was awfully clever!’ protested Melanie, stung with defiance at last.
‘Not so clever he thought to put a bit by to take care of you lot when he’d gone,’ Uncle Philip pointed out reasonably. ‘And so I’ve got his precious kids all for my very own, haven’t I? To make into little Flowers.’ (p. 144)
For Uncle Philip, children are there to be shaped into puppets, to perform scripts of his own devising. This is pernicious; but in the rural idyll that opens the novel, too, Melanie is little more than a puppet, shaping and reshaping herself in front of a mirror, but each time coming up with a male fantasy of which her father might approve – in other words, bodying forth a script devised by some higher authority. It’s worth considering, then, how far her life before and after her symbolic Fall in the Edenic garden of her father’s mansion may be described as an exile from Paradise. Or should it rather be described as the first step in the direction of a potential escape-route, a route that would have been closed to her if she had remained her father’s daughter? This view seems to be supported by Melanie’s reaction to a customer who enters the toyshop about half way through the novel. ‘She was an expensive woman,’ we’re told, ‘all in suede, come by car from north of the river. She represented a type of customer they persistently attracted, whom Uncle Philip especially loathed’ (p. 95). Melanie finds she shares Uncle Philip’s loathing, serving her with reluctance and mentally branding her ‘mean bitch’ when she buys the cheapest toy on offer. And as she leaves the shop, we’re told: ‘She was the sort of woman who used to come for the weekend at home, sometimes, with a suitcase full of little black dresses for cocktails and dinner… Melanie could easily have grown up into that sort of woman’. In the course of Carter’s novel, Melanie’s class sympathies shift, and it’s the analytical advantage this profound shift gives her that opens up new possibilities of escape for her from the restrictions and absurdities of middle-class fantasies about women, in which she is so sensuously enmeshed in the book’s first chapter.
Melanie’s reaction to the ‘expensive woman’ also shows how she is starting to make an internal map of London, despite her limited experience of the city. Her division of it into two halves, North and South, with different class affiliations, is one Carter returns to throughout her writing – as in her final novel, Wise Children, whose narrator tells us: ‘Once upon a time, you could make a crude distinction, thus: the rich lived amidst pleasant verdure in the North speedily whisked to exclusive shopping by abundant public transport while the poor eked out miserable existences in the South in circumstances of urban deprivation condemned to wait for hours at windswept bus-stops while sounds of marital violence, breaking glass and drunken song echoed around and it was cold and dark and smelled of fish and chips. There’s been a diaspora of the affluent, they jumped into their diesel Saabs and dispersed throughout the city’ (p. 1). Melanie’s recognition of the suede-clad woman as a migrant from the affluent North marks a stage in her naturalization as a citizen of the capital.
But let’s return to Mrs Rundle one last time. As we’ve seen, her name is one of many fantasies that dominate Melanie’s rural childhood; but it’s also representative of the most potent female fantasy of all, the myth that marriage represents the ultimate fulfilment for a woman. And this myth takes a terrible grip on the novel, monstrously seizing hold of and imprisoning all the female characters we meet. On her wedding day, Melanie’s mother disappears in a ‘pyrotechnic display of satin and lace, dressed as for a medieval banquet’ – we’re never told whether as a guest or as the decorative main course. After this ‘epiphany of clothing’, she never really re-emerges from under the weight of her extravagant garments, and a memory of clothes is all that’s left of her after her death. On her wedding day, Aunt Margaret loses her voice and acquires a straight grey frock and a jewelled choker as emblems of her slavery. Melanie practises repeatedly for her wedding day in the course of the narrative: first with her visions of a ‘phantom bridegroom’ in some ‘extra-dimensional bathroom-of-the-future in honeymoon Cannes. Or Venice. Or Miami Beach’ (p. 2); then when she dresses up in her mother’s wedding dress and finds herself assaulted by a monstrous apple-tree, emblematic of the violent and oppressive masculinity her daydreams have not yet equipped her to deal with. Later she is dressed as a reluctant child-bride by Uncle Philip in an effort to enslave her in his egocentric fantasies, as he has enslaved her aunt; and she’s assaulted again, this time by Philip’s puppet-swan. And finally, new visions of marriage usurp her visions of the future. No longer convinced by the notion of a ‘fancy’ marriage to her phantom bridegroom, she dreams in the end of a working-class marriage full of red-headed children, poverty, squalor, and a replacement Philip in the person of Finn, who appears to her in the role of husband when he takes over Uncle Philip’s chair in the kitchen. Is the vision she has at this point an accurate reading of her future? For her, at this point in the book, it’s the ultimate nightmare, and Finn seems to her less the mythic hero of old Ireland than the end of the road; but he also ends Philip’s swan, burying it in the ruined Victorian pleasure garden where it belongs, then coming to Melanie for comfort, crawling into her bed at night like a child in search of warmth and approval. There’s a potential here for balance and equality between them, if they can find a way to break the vicious cycle of birth, marriage and death that shaped them.
The most monstrous manifestation of marriage in the book is the moment when Melanie sees the severed hand of a little girl in the kitchen drawer. It’s the hand of a child bride as Philip might have imagined it:
It was a soft-looking, plump little hand with pretty, tapering fingers the nails of which were tinted with a faint, pearly lacquer. There was a thin silver ring of the type small girls wear on the fourth finger. It was the hand of a child who goes to dancing class and wears frilled petticoats with knickers to match. From the raggedness of the flesh at the wrist, it appeared that the hand had been hewn from its arm with a knife or axe that was very blunt. Melanie heard blood fall plop in the drawer. (p. 118)
The little girl’s hand might suggest to us that this is the moment when Melanie recognizes that her connection with her past has now been violently cut off; after all, the hand belongs to the kind of girl she once was, a child from a prosperous background for whom nothing was too fancy. But the vision also invites us to think of marriage, since the fourth finger is the place for a wedding ring, being the finger ‘from which a vein leads to the heart’ (p. 120). So marriage too would seem to be a form of severance or cutting off. Above all, perhaps, it is a means of infantilizing women. The silencing of Aunt Margaret renders her childish; and Uncle Philip imagines his child-bride Leda as a child when she is violently wedded to the swan, and attempts to represent Melanie as younger than she is when he incorporates her into his appalling Christmas show, his pastiche of the Christmas story in which another virgin, Mary, was impregnated by another winged visitor from heaven. It’s not surprising, in other words, that the moment when Melanie finds the hand is the moment when she recognizes for the first time her affinity with the Jowles, and especially Margaret. She has become one of Philip’s many imaginary brides – among them Mary Queen of Scots and Philip’s own sister, Melanie’s mother, whose wedding picture he keeps in his room as if from an incestuous desire to share her marriage with the brother-in-law he despises – and as such she has become Margaret’s honorary sister, able to exchange glances of solidarity and understanding with her despite her dumbness.
The severed hand is just one of several emblems in the book of arrested development: of organic growth stopped in its tracks, which is one way of describing the Victorianism of 1960s England. Uncle Philip’s house in particular is full of such emblems: the fact that it is a toyshop, and one self-consciously modelled on a Victorian business, indicates his dedication to the infantilizing of its inhabitants, stopping them dead at a primitive point in their personal evolution. Presiding over the building is a cuckoo clock containing a real stuffed cuckoo: the herald of the Spring symbolically murdered on one of its annual visits and incorporated into the machinery that measures Uncle Philip’s inflexible timetable. On the shelves of the shop are toys that diminish the members of Philip’s ersatz family by mocking them: monkeys wearing Margaret’s and Francie’s clothes and playing Irish music on their own instruments, the fiddle and flute; a Noah’s ark with a miniature Finn on board, which is bought and taken away in cruel mockery of the ‘real’ Finn’s inability to liberate himself from Philip’s clutches. But the toyshop is no more infantilizing an environment than Melanie’s father’s house. There her little sister Victoria first learned to act like an infant, despite being five years old – the age when most children start school. Melanie imagines her continuing as an infant for the rest of her life, hidden away like a second Mrs Rochester in an upstairs room of the family house and ‘pushing her indecent baby face against the bannisters to coo at unnerved guests’ (p. 8). The world of post-Victorian England babifies its female citizens; and the Victorian origins of this process are indicated by Victoria’s name. The British Empress is alive and well in the 1960s, but dwindled to the stature of a cooing toddler and with no prospect of achieving anything more impressive than a baby achieves for the rest of her insignificant and slightly embarrassing existence – despite all the potential for intelligent action cooped up in her diminutive head.
If Victoria is an infantilized Queen, the magic toyshop itself is a kind of shrunken, worn-out replica of the lost British Empire, containing within itself all the essential components of that vast edifice – rather as the Crystal Palace, to which the novel alludes in its usual slantwise fashion, contained representative products from every corner of Britain’s global demesnes. The Jowles are the last sorry remnants of the colonies, flamboyantly Irish in their every word and gesture, playing traditional music, embodying famine, donning Easter Rising trilbies, spouting fatalistic rhetoric and nurturing a dark family secret which is merely one more affirmation of the many cod Irish myths they personify. The silent stoicism of Francie and Margaret under Uncle Philip’s tyranny makes them horrifyingly complacent with it, as they watch Finn’s defiance escalate towards its suicidal climax. Melanie is equally complicit, acquiescing to the various roles imposed on her in the toyshop, allowing herself to be absorbed into the Jowle family, finally letting herself be rescued from a fire by Finn – who often wears a second-hand fireman’s jacket – at the book’s conclusion. Each of them has allowed him- or herself to become Uncle Philip’s toy, his puppet, incapable of thought except in the terms he permits them to think in.
Yet by the time he rescues Melanie, Finn has taken the last and boldest step in his career as an insurrectionist: he has destroyed Uncle Philip’s swan, which is as much a token of mythical Ireland, thanks to Yeats, as it is of patriarchal oppression. Melanie has abetted him in this revolutionary act. Finn has regained his voice and so has Margaret; the two of them have kissed as they parted with ‘stately formality […] like fellow generals saluting each other the night before a great battle where one of the is like to die’ (p. 197). The revolutionary promise of the name Melanie gave the Jowles when she first came to the toyshop – the Red People – has been fulfilled, and a departure from the cycle of oppression even looks feasible. The final sentence of the novel finds Finn and Melanie standing on the edge of an uncertain future in another garden, facing each other with a wild surmise (p. 200); and the phrase both conjures up the spectre of colonialism and entertains the possibility of change. It comes from Keats’s famous sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, in which he exults over gaining access to the works of the epic poet in translation (Keats’s family couldn’t afford to have him educated in Greek, which at the time was the preserve of the British elite). The young poet compares the experience of reading the Iliad and the Odyssey to that of a Spanish conquistador confronted by the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the New World:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Cortez is of course the embodiment of colonial oppression – another Uncle Philip. Yet Keats’s poem is a celebration of success in overcoming the disadvantages of his educational background – an effusion of pleasure in new knowledge, and in the promise of further knowledge yet to come. That such knowledge might include ‘new planets’ as radically different from the old as Utopia was different from Europe has been the hope of imaginative writers since the sixteenth century – and Utopia, too, was located in the New World. Carter’s final phrase contains, then, the hope of new knowledge – even as it reminds us of the poetry Melanie imbibed at school, not all of it dedicated to the celebration of oppressors or of marriage. It sums up the hopes and fears of her epoch as quirkily and vividly as the rest of the book does. And one might surmise, too, that it instructs her readers in the state of mind they should entertain when approaching her experimental fiction.
 Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 323 and 107.
 Quotations are from Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2009).