Melanie is fifteen, innocent, and full of romantic dreams. She pretends to be a girl in a film, a magazine, a painting.
She was too thin for a Titian or a Renoir but she contrived a pale, smug, Cranach Venus with a bit of net curtain wound round her head (…) She stuck moon-daisies in her long hair and looked at herself in her mirror as if she were a photograph in her own grown-up photograph album. (…) 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.
No good can come of this, of course, particularly not in a novel by the great English writer Angela Carter, who never trusts a romantic dream. One night Melanie puts on her mother’s wedding dress and accidentally tears it. The next day, a telegram arrives. Her parents are dead, and she must go to live with relatives in London.
In the house of her uncle, a tyrannical toymaker, and his unwilling apprentice, the vulpine young orphan Finn, Melanie’s sexual awakening ceases to be a romance and becomes a dark and dangerous fairy tale. In this new house there are no mirrors but there are eyes, judging Melanie for good or ill. When her uncle assigns her the title role in his marionette performance of Leda and the Swan, she realizes that to survive she must refuse this latest female role: that of puppet on his patriarchal stage.
‘The Magic Toyshop’ (1967), the best of Carter’s early work, is being published in the Netherlands as a ‘forgotten classic’, in a fine translation by Marijke Versluys. The appellation doesn’t do justice to Carter’s stature: in Britain she’s thoroughly established in the literary canon, while elsewhere in the English-speaking world she falls somewhere between canon and cult. But it’s true that she’s little known in the Netherlands. Though she’s a sharp-eyed observer of the condition humaine, Dutch readers tend to like their social criticism straight, or with an ironic twist, rather than the sophisticated literary cocktail Carter serves of sly comedy, eroticism, and Gothic dread, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and Poe.
As her literary influence grows, however (see below), it might be time for readers in the Netherlands to take notice. In ‘The Magic Toyshop’ she was already exploring the themes that inform her later work, including Britain’s class divide, the tyranny of fathers, the cruel and innocent fantasies of teenage girls, the charged connection between power and desire. Along with mirrors, the theater recurs as a metaphor in her work. Melanie is one of Carter’s many women who learn to be themselves by playing a part—only to discover that the performance is dangerously real.
Youthful energy and imagination paper over the cracks in this early work, especially a disconcerting contrast between a surrealistic plot and a realistic narrative style. In ‘The Magic Toyshop’ Carter mixes ordinary details—cups of tea, inadequate plumbing, worn toothbrushes—with implausible events, such as a severed hand that turns up in the kitchen drawer. Carter must have borrowed the trick, without quite knowing how to work it, from films by Fellini and Buñuel.
In many ways this is a book of the 1960s. Carter was speaking for a postwar generation of long-haired kids who had claimed England as their decaying pleasure garden, the sacred images of Empire as their box of toys. The scene in which Melanie and Finn kiss in a neglected park, beside a fallen and defaced statue of Queen Victoria to which Finn has just affixed his wad of gum, gives a hint of Carter’s anti-establishment attitude.
Yet even this early work of Carter’s is layered and tricky, sexy and cerebral. Rereading it, I mainly notice how timeless and innovative it still feels, and how great Carter’s power still is to delight and surprise.
Trouw, January 28, 2015. Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (1967), Het nichtje van de poppenspeler (Nieuw Amsterdam, 2016)
Imagination and influence
Angela Carter (1940-1992) is regarded as one of Britain’s most important and influential postwar writers. For much of her early career she worked on the margins of the literary establishment. Popular acclaim came late, not long enough before her death from lung cancer at 51. It was only afterward that her work was fully recognized for its fierce, unorthodox feminism, playful sensuality, intellect and imagination.
Carter grew up amid the “seedy respectability” of postwar South London, a place and time so unimaginative it left her with a lifelong craving for the exotic and the unexpected. At 18 she went to work for a local newspaper, following in the footsteps of her journalist father. She later studied at the University of Bristol and published her first novel at the age of 26.
Along with the intellectually brilliant feminist adventure yarn ‘Nights at the Circus’ (1984), her best-known book is ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979), a volume of sophisticated, erotic, feminist retellings of fairy tales. Folk tales, Carter argued, were full of sexual symbolism to begin with: think of Bluebeard with his murdered wives, or ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ In her story ‘The Company of Wolves’ (and in Neil Jordan’s 1984 film of the same name), human and animal merge and Red Riding Hood and the wolf go to bed together as equals. Carter was interested in sexual desire, how it can make women vulnerable or, if they choose to own it, become a source of their power.
In a 1985 interview with Marc Chavannes in NRC she admitted that some readers found her work “a bit much.”* But she never thought literature should be a difficult or depressing enterprise. “Pleasure has always had a bad press in Britain,” she once wrote. “I wish there was more of it around.”
Any number of contemporary writers acknowledge her influence. Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan were her protégés, Margaret Atwood and Fay Weldon her friends, Kazuo Ishiguro and Pat Barker her students. Above all, she opened a door for English-language writers to slip out of realism and explore beyond it. Sarah Waters, David Mitchell, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, and many more have taken their inspiration from her baroque mix of intellect and fantasy, her fearless eye and her passionate heart.
*Sommige mensen vinden het een beetje veel wat er op ze afkomt als ze mij lezen. “Some people find it a bit much, what comes at them when they read me.”