It’s almost unthinkable nowadays, but Angela Carter wrote about dark themes like violence and sexuality in fairytales, when no-one else dared. She was completely prescient.
In these days of binge watching, we’re used to Netflix shows and horror film tropes, where young women dressed as sexy wicked stepmothers offer apples to pouting Snow Whites, and the handsome Prince is likely to be seduced by the heroine, who by now has her own agency and desire, unlike the older generation of fairytale adaptations.
Carter did it first, but with more subtlety and symbolism. Her novel The Magic Toyshop, from 1967, was fairytale as coming of age, a character study about the joys and sorrows of female adolescence. Melanie is a naive teenager sent off with her brother Jonathan and sister Victoria to live with her aunt Cand uncle. Unfortunately, Uncle Phillip is abusive and his wife Margaret is mute.
It’s obviously creepy, and extremely uncomfortable, taking on issues around family dysfunction, enabling, and what happens when a young girl dares to call out her abuser. But what Carter skilfully does is take the metaphors of lore, myth and fairytale, and root them within contemporary society. Leda and the swan and puppetry become symbolic of patriarchy, dominance and secrecy, where the very people who are meant to keep Melanie safe are the most toxic.
She’s still a firm favourite of mine, and her stories endure, because she wrote with imagination and creativity about universal subjects. The family can’t always be trusted, but kids are resilient.
2 thoughts on “Why ‘The Magic Toyshop’ Endures”
Loved her stories in my late teens and early twenties. Introduced me to what I later learnt was magical realism. Helped me undo all my childhood brainwashed unicorn, fairies and romantic heroes ( including ‘being taken by force’ as a useful fantasy saving me the horror of coming to terms with sexuality and agency).
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Hi Carolyn! Nice to hear from you. Yeah, she definitely put a much welcome spin on that princess nonsense we were force- fed as girls.