The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)
Bluebeard’s Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate
Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.
In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.
Much has been made of Carter’s riffs on folktales in her writings, and especially on the role of the Bluebeard story in The Magic Toyshop. It’s true that she deliberately draws attention to Bluebeard (and the related English folktale of Mr Fox) by getting Melanie to muse on the correspondences; and in fact Carter alludes to her villain’s facial hair by giving him a walrus moustache (though this is not in evidence in the film adaptation, a still from which is on the cover of my edition of the novel). But it’s important to notice references to other fairytales, both explicit and implicit; for example in the dishing up of porridge at the breakfast table we are invited to recall the story of The Three Bears, and there are numerous other instances.
But I’d like to draw attention to the centrality of puppets in the story, part of Carter’s exploration of the dehumanising aspect of absolute power. In the ballet Coppélia (based on E T A Hoffman’s story The Sandman) Swanilda suspects that her fiancé Franz has apparently fallen for the mysterious Coppélia, only to find that the latter is in fact a lifesize puppet. I’m sure Carter has taken elements from this (Franz perhaps suggested the name Francie) and similar tales, not least in the climactic Leda and the Swan scene, to help create such a rich mix of emotions and ideas and images. That Melanie does not regard herself as such a puppet is prefigured in the opening lines of the novel: “The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.”
It has often been said that folktales and myths, despite their often large cast of characters, are essentially about the relationships and dynamics within a family, and The Magic Toyshop largely fits this pattern in that most of the characters are related to each other. It’s hardly surprising that incest rears its head, not just between two of the characters caught in flagrante but also in Uncle Philip’s attempted rape of Melanie through the agency of his giant swan marionette.
Lots of other aspects of this tale make this for me a haunting and consummate piece of storytelling. I particularly like the puns and word-plays that she employs: dark-haired Melanie (from a Greek root, meaning black); the alliteration of Philip, Flower, Finn and Francie; the supine statue of Queen Victoria and the rather passive figure of Melanie’s sister Victoria, the opposite of the active meaning of the name.
The final conflagration, which is almost a deus ex machina resolution (despite being brought about by Uncle Philip himself), is a shocking conclusion but also with mythic resonances as Melanie and Finn, like a pair of doomed Celtic lovers, clamber out onto the roof, out in the open air away from the claustrophobic confines of this modern-day Bluebeard’s Castle.
Repost (today’s the equimox) of review first published here in June 2012