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' (from Carter’s ‘Notes From the Front Line.’) She does this most notably 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 an oppressive familial structure in which her uncle terrorises his mute Irish wife and her brothers.
Despite its misleadingly juvenile title The Magic Toyshop is a sophisticated and well-written novel in which Carter’s precise and focused writing breathes life into the mundane. Like a painter, Carter is vividly able to create 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 than being a genuine attempt to question ingrained mindsets. Nevertheless, the characters do finally 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. The theme of spying runs throughout the novel and is clearly a nod to feminist theories of the male gaze, whilst even the mundane act of an object falling is laden with symbolism:
“She said to the Daisy girl with her big brown eyes: 'I will not have it plain. No. Fancy. It must be fancy!' She meant her future. A moon-daisy dropped to the floor, down from her hair, like a faintly derisive sign from heaven.”
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 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.
“It was a grotesque parody of a swan; Edward Lear might have designed it. It was nothing like the wild, phallic bird of her imaginings. It was dumpy and homely and eccentric.”
Evidently, a home-made swan puppet would be ‘dumpy and homely,’ thus Carter’s description is superfluous and serves no further narrative function beyond prolonging the clumsiness of the scene.
Nevertheless, it is hard to find fault with Carter’s style of writing as a whole, and her ability to evoke vivid imagery without the use of clichés is one of the reasons why The Magic Toyshop is so encapsulating. 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 young female readers, 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.