Alicia Stubbersfield has published three collections of poetry to excellent reviews. Her most recent collection is Joking Apart. She has run workshops and read for Ledbury and Aldeburgh Poetry Festivals, and frequently tutored courses for The Arvon Foundation and The Taliesin Trust at Ty Newydd. She was Course Leader for Creative Writing at The Open College of the Arts, lectured in creative writing at Aberystwyth University and now works in the Creative Writing Department at Liverpool John Moores University. Here Alicia discusses Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop.
Alicia Stubbersfield on The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
I first read Angela Carter in a copy of Vogue at my hairdresser's. It was the late 1970s and I still went to Ian Black's, a salon in a narrow back street of the Lancashire town where I'd grown up. Ian's hair salon was, in fact, the ideal place to first encounter the magical vulgarity of Carter's prose, although a surprising place to find Vogue. Ian choreographed 'hair-dressing shows' in Blackpool and, the last time I saw him, described his new idea. The show would end with a woman striding down the catwalk on stilts hidden by a voluminous frock; when she reached the end, she would open her wide skirts and dwarfs would tumble out from between her legs. The hair-styles weren't mentioned. Carter would have loved it, but he wasn't sure that the Blackpool hairdressers were ready - he'd made national newspapers when a previous show ended with a naked man swathed in artificial roses, carrying a flag-pole 'and it wasn't just his flagpole that was upright' said Ian; the offending cock should have been hidden by roses.
The first Carter story I read was The Quilt Maker. A week or two later I took a group of 6th formers to the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank and found a copy of her first collected stories, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974). I immediately felt at home in her stories. Here were worlds which combined the magic of childhood tales, the reality of adult sexuality and eroticism, a joyous irreverence and a serious exploration of character, all expressed through language which felt like it had been reinvented. Carter's use of language - described by Salman Rushdie in his introduction to Burning Your Boats as 'a high-wire act' which takes place over 'a swamp of preciousness, over quicksands of the arch and twee... Too much porphyry and lapis lazuli to please a certain sort of purist' - seduced me completely. I loved the luscious over-writing, the extremes of character and plot, the magic realism for which she has become renowned. It is extraordinary to note that Carter did not win any major prizes in her lifetime. In 1984 Nights at the Circus wasn't even shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the year that the unremarkable Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner won.
After Carter's untimely death in 1992, there was a rush of academic responses to her work, with many PhD students writing theses about her work. One can't help thinking that there were some sighs of relief now that she could be categorized: no more surprises from the woman who refused to toe any party line, even (especially?) for the feminist sisterhood who were generally appalled by her writing about the Marquis de Sade and even more appalled by her sympathy for the men in Marilyn French's The Women's Room. Not what we were supposed to think at all.
The Magic Toyshop was the first of Carter's novels that I read. A 'rite-of-passage' novel about Melanie growing up and becoming aware of the potential of her body ('The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was flesh and blood'), it soon becomes something more disturbing. Melanie, her brother and sister are orphaned and sent away to live in London with Uncle Philip, Aunt Margaret and her brothers, Francis and Finn. The novel uses that convention of many children's books, the absent parents: a situation which allows the protagonists a certain freedom from their established life.
Melanie is revealed to us as a bookish girl. Carter shifts viewpoint in the second sentence, quoting John Donne 'O my America...' to reveal Melanie's explorations of herself and her sexuality. She reads Lady Chatterley's Lover and 'secretly picked forget-me-nots and stuck them in her pubic hair'. This is typical Carter – she takes something which is familiar to us, the tropes of children's fiction, the literature we may have read, and then extends the idea into something unfamiliar but exciting. We trust her and don't need to be encouraged to do so, unlike Jeanette Winterson's character in The Passion who exhorts us to 'Trust me, I'm telling stories'. Angela Carter is the fairy godmother who transforms our experience of reading so that we come out at the end of the novel in 'a wild surmise', just like Melanie and Finn at the end of The Magic Toyshop.
Life is transformed for Melanie when she goes to live with Uncle Philip and Aunt Margaret. Aunt Margaret is dumb - '... it came to her on her wedding day, like a curse. Her silence' - but she is a loving woman and manages to write everything she wants to say on a chalkboard. 'She would have been a talkative woman if she could.' Of course, the reader is aware that she has been silenced somehow – and we haven't even met Uncle Philip. Carter has already established the 'ferocious, unwashed, animal reek' of Francis and Finn, the uncontained maleness of them both. Melanie's, and our, awareness of the differences between male and female is beginning to be established.
The description of the toyshop is reminiscent of many children's books – I remember my mother giving me The Adventures of Rosalind by Charlotte Austen to read when I was ill in bed. In that, as in many other children's books, there was a magic shop that only appeared now and then. Carter's toyshop is there all the time but the events inside it become more and more bizarre and extreme. Melanie describes the place as 'Bluebeard's castle' with its 'long, brown passages, past secret doors, shut tight', and we see in her the seeds of characters who would people Carter's work until she died, many of them women from fairy stories, made flesh.
Uncle Philip likes 'silent women'; trousers on a woman are a 'walking affront' to him and Melanie is warned to dress appropriately or be thrown out of the house. He is a 'genius in his own way' at making the toys and puppets but he is frightening, the ogre of the narrative, the wicked stepfather figure, and Finn warns Melanie not to treat her uncle 'lightly'. Finn shows Melanie the puppets made by Uncle Philip, 'some almost as tall as Melanie herself, blind-eyed puppets, some armless, some legless, some naked, some clothed...' Melanie sees 'a puppet fully five feet high, a sylphide in a fountain of white tulle, fallen flat down as if someone had got tired of her in the middle of playing with her...' This is 'too much' for her and we share her terror. Melanie turns to Finn and says 'I want to go home' – but there's no home to go to. The sense of isolation is emphasized by Finn's description of his, and his brother and sister's, journey from Ireland. Carter creates a universal sense of alienation from these characters' very particular experiences.
Melanie is made to play the part of Leda in a play devised by Uncle Philip of Leda and the swan. The swan is a puppet controlled by Uncle Philip and we see the sexual nuances of his violent behaviour through the swan – an alter-ego which gives him permission to do whatever he likes.
Carter reveals the extremes of violence and love. Finn is good to Melanie, protects her from Uncle Philip, and buries the swan to keep it away from her. He goes to her afterwards and asks to be held – he is so afraid of what he has done – and they sleep together 'peaceful in bed'. Carter gives us a moment of purity before the storm of the novel's end. Finn's burial of the swan echoes Melanie's experience in the garden at the beginning of the novel. They both mark change, the leaving behind of a kind of innocence. Melanie was on the cusp of adolescence and her body's changes; Finn is beginning to leave his family, and all that entails, with Melanie. The real love at the heart of the novel, however, is the incestuous love between Francie and Aunt Margaret. A silenced love which is revealed to Melanie, who treats it in a matter-of-fact way as does the reader. This is a world where 'normal' rules do not apply.
The novel ends when Uncle Philip finds his wife and brother-in-law in each other's arms, so burns the house down. Melanie and Finn are left with nothing, 'facing each other in a wild surmise'. The high drama of the ending is strong enough to hold the extreme emotion we've encountered throughout the novel. Carter's marvellous writing, her characters who act as symbols and real people, and the familiarity of this entirely strange story, not only keep us reading but also make us think about our own lives, our priorities, what is and is not 'normal'. Carter's voice is bold and knowing, never letting us off the hook. If she is sometimes ignored these days for younger writers who have been influenced by her, it is because she cannot be easily packaged up and sold to us as one thing, as they can. The Magic Toyshop is magic realism, it is a rite-of-passage novel, it is a 'cross-over' novel, it is rich and strange and it will stay with the reader for a very long time.