The Magic Toyshop
(1967), a magical realism novel by Angela Carter, tells the story of a young girl sent to live with a creepy uncle who runs an even creepier magical toyshop. Carter’s breakout novel, The Magic Toyshop
established her as one of the most inventive writers of the twentieth century. Carter’s family evacuated her to Yorkshire in 1940 so she could live with her grandmother during World War II. Before writing fiction full time, Carter worked as a journalist.
Melanie is a rebellious teenager who loves adventure. She doesn’t feel that she fits in with her peers, and she doesn’t have many friends. One evening, she sneaks her mother’s wedding dress and tries it on. Running around the family property wearing the dress, she feels freer than ever before. She wonders what would happen if she kept on running.
Instead of leaving the property, Melanie returns to the front door. She can’t get inside because she has locked herself out. Her only option is to climb a raggedy tree outside her bedroom window to sneak back inside. Ruining the dress as she climbs the tree, she wonders how she’ll face her mother when she gets home from a holiday. Cursing herself for being so stupid, she hides the dress until she can work out what to do with it.
The next morning, Melanie receives terrible news. A plane crashed over the Grand Canyon. Her parents were on the plane. No one survived the crash. Melanie wonders what this means for her, because she is too young to look after herself. She also has two young siblings, Victoria and Jonathon, to worry about.
Her aunt Margaret and Uncle Philip invite her to live with them. This means relocating from the countryside to South London. Melanie has never met Margaret, and she hasn’t seen Philip for years. She is heartbroken at the thought of leaving the family home, but she has nowhere else to go. She and her siblings make the long journey to South London on their own. Melanie leaves the wedding dress behind.
Life goes from bad to worse for Melanie when she gets to South London. Philip doesn’t want her to stay with him; he has only invited her because it is his duty. He doesn’t care about anything other than his toyshop and his bizarre collection of life-sized puppets. He spends all day in the toyshop and would rather talk to the puppets than his family.
Margaret is not much better. She doesn’t speak because she is terrified of Philip. She sends Melanie notes on scraps of paper when she wants to say something. Melanie knows that Margaret can’t stand up to Philip, and she will never take Melanie’s side on anything. Melanie just wants to rebuild her life and look after her siblings, but Philip has other ideas.
Philip wants Melanie to work in the toyshop with him. She will help him stage puppet shows for the family. No outsiders attend the puppet shows because they are terrified of the wooden monstrosities. Melanie wants to find another job, but Philip won’t let her. Her only comfort is Margaret’s younger brother, Finn. Sweet and charming, Melanie fancies him.
One day, Finn takes Melanie for a walk in the park. He kisses her without permission. Melanie pulls back, angry with Finn for touching her. Attracted to Finn, she wonders if she should let him kiss her again. When she is not working in the toyshop, she is obsessing over their kiss.
Seeing the attraction between Melanie and Finn, Philip decides to exploit it for his own gain. During the next puppet show, Leda and the Swan
, Finn must have sex with Melanie. If Finn refuses, then he can’t live there anymore. Melanie, meanwhile, works in the toyshop and practices her cues for the play. She doesn’t know what Philip is planning.
The days pass slowly; Finn acts strangely. He isn’t sleeping, he looks pale, and he isn’t washing properly. He ignores Melanie, refusing to practice his cues with her. Offended by Finn’s behavior, Melanie stops fancying him. She focuses on her work and plotting a way out of this miserable life.
On puppet show night, Philip hands Melanie her costume—a white dress. It reminds her of her mother’s wedding dress, and she doesn’t want to wear it, but Philip is insistent. Melanie walks out on stage, ignoring Finn the whole time. Finn launches a huge swan puppet at her, trapping her under its wings. She escapes, breaking the puppet and leaving Philip furious.
Philip goes on a business trip for more supplies. Melanie knows this is her only opportunity to escape. She and Finn plot where they should go, and what they will do to together. Melanie doesn’t plan to take her siblings with her; she is leaving them with Margaret. Finn agrees because he doesn’t want the extra hassle.
When Philip returns, Melanie and Finn declare they are leaving. Refusing to let them go, Philip sets the house on fire. Melanie assures her siblings are safe before she runs away with Finn. Margaret finds them and wishes them well. Melanie and Finn shake off Philip’s obsessive and stifling influence and leave.