Thursday, 22 November 2012

Angela Carter's 'The Magic Toyshop'

Angela Carter’s fiction is often defined through her feminist re-writing of social conventions. Indeed, Carter described herself as being 'all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode.' She attempts to do this no more so than in her 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop, in which the 15-year-old protagonist Melanie is torn from her middle class world following the sudden death of her parents and flung within the bosom of an oppressive familial structure as her uncle terrorises his mute Irish wife and her brothers.

Despite its uninspiring title The Magic Toyshop is an incredibly well-written novel in which Carter’s precise and focused writing breathes life into the mundane. Like an artist, Carter is vividly able to paint a scene in which she questions almost every aspect of social convention. Gender, class, culture, patriarchy, the nature of sexual taboo – not much is left unscrutinised by Carter, so much so that the reader eventually feels as if Carter’s “putting old wine in new bottles” is intended to shock, rather a genuine attempt to question ingrained mindsets.  This idea isn’t helped by the fact that the characters only transcend social constraints when placed in an alien setting. The Irish family, who practise incest, gender equality and free love, are foreign, red-haired and dirty and are therefore entirely removed from respectable 1960s British society. Consequently, the reader ultimately feels that this social liberty is unattainable within respectable means.

Undeniably, every line is claustrophobically enveloped with symbolism and references to psycho-analytical theory which causes the slowing of the plot. Fortunately, this does not reduce the effectiveness of the novel as a whole due to its focus being not on the actual storyline, but on the message it attempts to portray. Nevertheless, Carter’s rigidly anti-Patriarchal mindset teeters from the sublime to the ridiculous at times, no more so than during the almost comical scene where Melanie, acting as the mythological Leda in one of her uncle’s puppet shows, hysterically overreacts to being raped by a wooden swan. As the novel’s genre is magic realism, the reader is supposed to feel at this point that the puppet actually transforms into the mighty Zeus. Yet Carter’s writing in this scene becomes as wooden at the puppet itself, leaving the reader biting their cheeks in amusement.

Nevertheless, it is incredibly hard to find fault with Carter’s style of writing as a whole. Her character descriptions truly hit the nail on the head, evoking vivid imagery without the use of clichés. Her greatest descriptions revolve around Finn, Melanie’s romantic interest and one of the more intriguing characters in the novel. His otherworldly air is summed up beautifully through Carter’s alignment of him with both folklore and mundane life:

‘Maybe his legs were hairy under the worn-out trousers, coarse-pelted goat legs and neat, cloven hooves. Only he was too dirty for a satyr, who would probably wash frequently in mountain streams.’

Despite Carter’s tiring and incessant attempts of pushing boundaries, The Magic Toyshop is both a charming and disturbing novel in which a young, spoilt, virginal girl is forced to accept the harsh realities of the real world and discover her role within it. For many, Melanie is the female Holden Caulfield, an accessible and likeable character who shares the universal woes of teenage girls. Whilst Carter’s new wine does not necessarily cause old bottles to explode, it is a task in itself to emotionally move on from the all-encompassing, soul-absorbing world she creates.

-Claire Gogarty

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