Angela Carter: The Magic Toyshop (1967)

The Magic Toyshop

I’m often tempted to skip the summary when reviewing a book, because, most of the time, the story as such doesn’t tell you a lot about a book. This is especially true in the case of Angela Carter. Her second novel The Magic Toyshop is no exception. It tells the story of a young girl, 15 year-old Melanie, who loses her parents the day after exploring the nightly parental garden in her mother’s wedding dress. She and her two siblings are then sent to her maternal Uncle Philip, a toy maker. At her uncle’s house she meets her Aunt Margaret and her aunt’s two brothers Finn and Francie. One is a painter, the other one a fiddler. It’s a very strange household. Creepy, joyless and fearful when her uncle is around; excentric and exuberant when he’s out. There’s a strange attraction between Finn and Melanie and one night, in the ruin of a magical garden, he kisses her. Melanie is confused by this because she doesn’t really fancy Finn. Additionally they have to hide their attraction because their uncle hates affection and emotions; he only lives for and through his toys and puppets. The grand finale is set in motion when Melanie has to play Leda in a cruel version of Leda and the Swan. Finn not only refuses to play along, but he takes revenge. Will the inhabitants of the sinister uncle’s house be able to free themselves or will they continue to be puppets in his hands?

A summary like this doesn’t tell you anything about the lush richness of the writing or what it feels like to enter an Angela Carter novel. Reading The Magic Toyshop is like entering an antiques shop or a shop with vintage clothes. You move from one beautiful garment to the next, from one arresting object to the following, only instead of objects and clothes you find sentences and images, allusions to fairy tales and myths, all woven into a shimmering tapestry. I felt like walking around in a stuffy room; in one corner I saw Bluebeard, in the next Red Riding Hood, and, over there, in a corridor, I spotted Dickens. Uncle Philip is like Bluebeard but he’s also a counter piece to the many bad stepmothers in fairy tales. He decidedly plays the role of a very bad step-father.  He’s an illustration of Carter’s play with gender clichés and tropes. Why does it always have to be the step mother who is vicious and vitriolic? In The Magic Toyshop the older women are positive, maternal figures. The older man is wicked and the younger are dreamy and wild.

The amazing thing in Carter’s writing is, that in spite of its complexity, it is very accessible and even entertaining. You can read The Magic Toyshop without being aware of the subtext, the allusions and references and still enjoy it. But, of course, she’s an author who makes you want to pick up books on her writing. It makes it so much richer, when you know what she is referring to or what she deconstructs.

Before I end this somewhat disjointed review (we have a heat wave currently and it’s hard to concentrate) I’d like to mention two more elements and maybe someone else can tell me how to interpret them:

Dirt – Dirt plays an important role in this novel. Melanie comes from a rich, elegant environment and everyone is clean at all times. Not so in Uncle Philip’s household where it’s hard to find warm water or soap and the people and their clothes are filthy. I remember from other stories that dirt is important but I’m not sure what meaning it has.

Incest – There’s open incest and incestuous moments in the novel. This is also a recurring theme.

The Magic Toyshop has been made into a movie which you can watch on YouTube. Angela Carter was fascinated by cinema and has twice contributed to the scripts of her own stories. This may be one of the reasons why anyone can enjoy her work – it’s always very visual.

This is my first review for Angela Carter week, co-hosted with Delia (Postcards from Asia).


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39 thoughts on “Angela Carter: The Magic Toyshop (1967)

  1. Grat commentary as always Caroline.

    I love the idea of all the references and influences contained in this work.Such stories can be so much fun.

    I am with you when it comes to summaries. I tend to think that depending upon the point of your post, they can of minor importance. If you have noticed, I sometimes just include a paragraph myself.

    • Thanks, Brian. Of course, if it’s a very plot-driven story, the summary is more important.
      It’s what I like about your reviews. The summaries aren’t the most importnat part.
      Carter’s novels are like a giant puzzle and it’s great to look at all the pieces. I’m not surprised that she’s been studied a lot. But there are many different ways to approach her.

  2. I’m feeling that while reading Nights at the Circus. on one hand it’s a rollicking, entertaining and mesmerising read but there is so much else going on! I just hope I’m picking up on it all!

    • I know what you mean. I don’t think I can pick up on everything in a first reading, I’d have to read her books and stories more than once. I just read a short story and it didn’t mena a thing. I had to google it to fully understand.
      It’s interesting as well. Like solving a riddle.

  3. Now that’s an interesting book. I do find the sexuality in some of her stories a bit disturbing – perhaps it’s just another way for her to break down barriers and make the readers look at things from a different perspective.
    I’m not familiar with her interpretation of dirt but I’d say it could be an allusion to our mortal nature – so perhaps cleanliness it’s not as important since we’ll return to dust at some point anyway.
    Thanks for the movie link, I would love to watch it at some point.

    • I agree about the sexuality. The incest theme is recurring and there’s violence as well. But it never feels voyeuristic. It’s more transgressive.
      I thought at first dirt meant wildness but Philip is anything but wild.

    • Thanks, Lindy and I’m so glad to hear that. She’s one of those writers whose stories and novels are all linked and connected somehow. Symbols and characters return, are picked up again and looked at from another angle.
      It get mre interesting, the more you read, I think.

  4. I love the way you’ve described the experience of reading this novel as akin to entering an antiques shop or vintage clothing store. I’m woefully under-read when it comes to Carter, but the richness of her styles certainly appeals to me.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. The image just popped up in my mind when I tried to put into words how I felt about the novel. I love antiques shops. Even when they are stuffy. So much to discover.
      I hope you’ll like her, should you read more of her.

  5. I never really thought much about uncle Philip as a sort of evil step father figure. I have read The Magic Toyshop twice now and it just goes to show how many different angles and interpretations there are to the novel. I’m sure you could read it over and over and find things you never picked up on before. Great review! I now want to pick it up for a third time!

    • Thanks, Yasmine. I’d like to read your thoughts on it as well. It’s a very rich book, so it’s impossible, I’d say, unless you read very closely, to get everything the first or even second time.
      It has a fairy tale quality without any magical elements, so I figured her stood for the bad stepmothers. I’m sure there are other interpretations.

  6. I wasn’t sure I ever fancied reading this – I have only ever read The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – but you’re making me change my mind 🙂 thank you for an excellent and far from disjointed review.

    • Thanks, Heavenali. The Bolldy Chmaber is a very different beast. This is more accessible. It has a lot that the later books contains but it’s in a funny way donw to earth.
      I hope you’ll like it should you read it.

  7. What a great review, Caroline. I love the comparison to shopping in an antique shop. Have never read Carter, but now feel that I will, soon.
    One thing I don’t like about the Goodreads site is that every reviewer seems compelled to recite the plot. When there are a lot of reviews, it gets old pretty fast. I don’t mind reading a summary of the plot here, because it’s done only once.

    • Thanks, Carole. I think you’d like this. I know you love those vintage stores too and the book really has this quality.
      Sometimes I write long summaries but often I add the blurp and just write my own thoughts. I’ve so often been disappointed by a book when I picked it up because of the summary because the writing was bland or the styled didn’t appeal.

  8. I felt very much like a spectator (or maybe a very uncomfortable voyeur) enclosed in the strange world above the toyshop – it felt quite claustrophobic at times. Also, I felt rather horrified when I read the description of the bathroom! I’m not sure what dirt symbolises, but it really stuck out for me, too.

    One thought that popped into my head is that maybe the toyshop represents a warped kind of Mt. Olympus, where Zeus ruled and incest wasn’t unknown amongst the gods and goddesses? The thing with the swan in the story and Zeus changing into a swan is a pretty big clue that there might be a connection? I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story for others. 🙂

    I think part of Carter’s overall project was to make readers question their own assumptions and moral certainties, which is one of the reasons she ‘plays’ with the incest theme. I think she wanted to make us feel uncomfortable so we’ll ask ourselves why we feel that way and challenge our way of thinking about the world?

    • I had moments in which I felt uncomfortable as well. It’s such a suffocating world – over which the uncle reigns.
      I like the idea of Mt Olympus – and it ties in with the incest theme, you’re right. I wanted to write more as well but it would spoil too much.
      The dirt was hard to take. Of course there’s the contrast between her former life – which – in retrospect was kind of lifeless.

  9. Wonderful review, Caroline! I loved your description of Carter’s prose. Your comparison of Carter’s prose with the experience of visiting an antique shop and finding many treasures there made me think of the heroine in Alexis Smith’s ‘Glaciers’ and the way she finds treasures with her father when she visits antique shops 🙂 I also loved your observation about how Carter plays around with fairytale archetypes and makes the uncle the evil person in this story while the women are benign. I also liked Delia’s interpretation of dirt. One more thing I could think of is that many of the things that we eat, especially the vegetables and fruit, all come from the soil and they are made of ingredients from the soil and it is difficult to separate them from that. In that sense, I think dirt is really a part of our life, without us knowing or realizing it. Thanks for the link to the movie. I hope to watch it after reading the book. I have just started ‘The Magic Toyshop’ and I am looking forward to continuing it today.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I didn’t know you were reading this as well. It will be so interesting to discuss it.
      Yes, Glaciers, it’s true, I’d forgotten that element. It was one of the reasons which made me love it. She turns many clichés upside down. It’s one of her many appeals.
      I suppose that dirt does signify nature in some way. I’d be curious to hear what you think once you’ve read it.
      I’ll watch the movie soon as well. I started last night but then I had no time. Btw – Violet reviewed it as well and her post is great.

  10. I thought I would take a little break from Carter after this week, but now I just ordered The Magic Toyshop. I find that with her books especially, the summaries never quite prepare you for what you get.

    • No,thye really don’t.
      I’m glad to hear you will continue exploring her. I find reading several of her books close together make you even appreciate it more as so much is connected.

  11. I heard of this at a book festival recently, I remember thinking to myself at the time that I should read it, I must have forgotten.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your review, it’s definitely reminded and encouraged me to read the book.

  12. “exploring the nightly parental garden in her mother’s wedding dress”. Do you mean that she wears her mother’s wedding dress? I’d pass because of the incest. I’ve read some of her short stories but that’s it.

    • Yes, that’s what I meant. I don’t think you’d find the incest in this very disturbing. It’s wanted on bozh sides and we don’t really get to see it as such.

  13. Hello Caroline, I thought this was a splendid review. You are so right when you say that it’s all about the language and the mood in Angela Carter’s work, the plot summary doesn’t give you much idea at all.

    Your point about the dirt is so interesting. I have just read ‘Several Perceptions’ and ‘Love’ which were written just after (I think) ‘The Magic Toyshop’ and there are dirty men in them too, especially in the first as Joseph just stops washing at all. It’s the men who are so markedly dirty, and they’re a bit dangerous and possibly mad, so I wonder if the dirt is connected to male sexuality? Or just rejecting the conventions of modern society? Women are often painted or transparent or perhaps a bit grubby, but it’s the male dirt which really stands out and repels. I wonder about some of her other books?

    • Thanks, Helen.
      You right, it’s the men who are dirty. Interesting that this reappears in both Several Perceptions and Love. Male sexulaity and wildness are possible meanings. It’s not the bad or mean people who are dirty. At least not in Uncle Philip’s house. And the dirtiest of them all, Finn, is also the most rebelliuos and sexual. So it sounds as if you were in to something. Dirt is mentioned in some of her shorter fiction as well.
      It’s so fascinating, isn’t it?

  14. Pingback: Book Review – Angela Carter Week – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter | Vishy's Blog

  15. Pingback: Angela Carter Week June 2014 – Wrap-up | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  16. Angela Carter’s worlds really are very otherworldly, aren’t they? I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to read more of her work this past week, though she is certainly someone I will read more of. Her writing is lush and beautiful and she must have been quite a wordsmith just judging by the few things I’ve read she’s written–very intellectual yet accessible, too. I always wonder what the imagination is like with a person who can come up with these sorts of stories!

    • Very otherworldly, indeed.
      It would have been interesting to hear her talks. I think she wasn’t one of those shy authors who can barely say a word when spoke to. I think she was very lively.

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