In which Netty peers into The Magic Toyshop …October 19, 2011
You can never read enough books, so in addition to Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge (and another book blog waiting in the wings; stay tuned), I am also in a book group. The premise is that each member gets to choose a book when it comes our turn, every couple of months or so. I mention that here because our current mission is to “choose a book you loved when you were 12”. A fascinating concept, but in reality a difficult exercise. Loved it back then, all those years ago, but what of now?
I am not a parent, nor have I consistently had dealings with young children, thus there has been little reason for me to revisit the books of my youth. I reread Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland last year for Andy and Netty Revisited (see our March 2010 archive if you’re curious), but perhaps that example is the exception rather than the norm; a timeless classic that transcends age. Ditto for the Dr Seuss books, which I have collected both as a child and an adult.
And then there’s fairytales …
I have been thinking about fairytales a lot since reading Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, which is essentially a fairytale for adults. I know as a young child I consumed these as my staple reading diet, but I don’t ever recall having been overly frightened by the concepts therein. Which is ironic, because as an adult looking at the likes of Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, et al, well – there’s some pretty heavy, psychologically compelling stuff going on in there, culminating always in the eternal battle between good and evil.
Carter, who was 27 when The Magic Toyshop – her second novel – was published, apparently baulked at the description of her work as “adult fairytales”, despite literally reworking fairytales into her own fiction, translating those of others, and editing a couple of volumes of them. This is only the second Carter book I have read; I tackled Fireworks, a collection of her short stories, about 20 years ago, but don’t recall having been terribly impressed by it. But Carter’s literary reputation is fierce and her work demanded having another go at it. Which brings us here.
Funny that in Andy’s blog he mentioned his initial grave misgivings about Toyshop, because I was thinking exactly the same thing as I ventured into the opening pages (as in, ‘Geez, Andy is going to kill me for this’.) Funny also that at about the same time I was also thinking, ‘Geez, this would make a really good, interesting, intelligent read for a tweenie-teen’. Uh … wrong on both counts. Unlike, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, I reckon you could possibly do some real damage gifting this to your 10-year-old niece …
The Magic Toyshop is told from the perspective of its young English protagonist Melanie, the 15-year-old daughter of a privileged background. Her parents have left their three children – Melanie’s quiet, model-boat-building brother Jonathon and rambunctious five-year-old sister Victoria – in the care of their housekeeper Mrs Rundle while they are in the United States. Home alone while Mrs Rundle and her siblings are out shopping, Melanie intercepts a telegram bearing the news of the death of her parents in a plane crash; she blames it on an incident from the previous night where, moon-struck, she dons her mother’s wedding dress and ventures into the gardens, only to take fright and rip the garment to shreds trying to get back into the house.
Her mother’s estranged brother Philip sends word via the family lawyers that he will assume responsibility for the children, whereby they are despatched to London by train. Waiting to collect them are Finn and the fiddle-playing Francie, the young (probably late teenage or early 20s) brothers of Philip’s wife Margaret. Thus Melanie is sucked into the vortex of the Flower-Jowle household, over which their tyrannical uncle rules with an iron fist, terrorising his downtrodden, mute wife and her brothers, especially Finn, his toymaking apprentice.
Melanie struggles to come to terms with her new, frugal life in a house devoid of the creature comforts she had previously enjoyed and taken for granted. Her schooling abandoned, her uncle puts her to work as a sales attendant in his toyshop. Already battling with her burgeoning sexuality, she is both attracted to and repelled by Finn, especially after he takes her to a park and kisses her. Otherwise her mundane, stifling life in the household continues until she discovers her uncle’s other passion – besides the toys he carves, he also performs puppet shows for his family. But a pivotal incident at the first performance witnessed by Melanie and her siblings sets in train events that lead to the novel’s final, shocking denouement.
The most striking thing about this novel is its originality and cleverness. It takes the skeleton of the fairytale formula and imposes onto it its own, unique plot. It’s also exquisitely conjured, drawn and realised. And for all the often-unrelenting grimness, there is the deft use of subtle humour; robust and almost caricature-like for Mrs Rundle, gentle and tragic for Aunt Margaret. And in the character of Melanie, Carter has crafted a young fictional heroine for the ages. As Britney would say, not a girl, but not yet a woman – and with all the expected fables and flaws. This book was published in 1967, during the first wave of feminism, which is imbued in both its pages and in the different facets of its major female characters.
The Magic Toyshop was made into a film, scripted by Carter and directed by David Wheatley, in 1987. It’s not a movie I will be seeking out; sometimes I feel it’s better to keep a book in your head, rather than give in to someone else’s visual reimagining of it. I hope not to wait another 20 years, however, before sitting down with my next Carter book. As I’d long suspected, she was definitely worth giving another go. Hell, I might even reread Fireworks.
PS: Just in case you were wondering, after giving it much thought – and first discarding the Nancy Drews and A Woman of Substance-type potboilers I devoured back in the day – I settled on selecting Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising as the “book I loved when I was 12”. I remember it as supremely dark, fantastical, supernatural. Here’s hoping it lives up to expectations.