The Magic Toy Shop
‘The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land. She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her own mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortez, da Gama or Mungo Park. For hours she stared at herself, naked, in the mirror of her wardrobe; she could follow with her finger the elegant structure of her rib-cage where the heart fluttered under the flesh like a bird in a blanket, and she would draw down the long line from breast-bone to navel (which was a mysterious cavern or grotto), and she would rasp her palms against her bud-wing shoulderblades. And then she would writhe about, clasping herself, laughing, sometimes doing cartwheels and handstands out of sheer exhilaration at the supple surprise of herself now she was no longer a little girl.’
I’m not sure if the names of Cortez, da Gama or Mungo Park have quite the same magic they had when I was growing up but I’m sure they did when Heinemann published Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop in 1967. Even if today they don’t, as an opening this is hard to beat, the sheer, clean, joyous sensuality of it beautifully, even lovingly written. And then in the second sentence there’s the allusion to John Donne’s Elegy XIX, On his mistress going to bed, containing amid all its eroticism, those same images of newly discovered, unexplored lands full of unknown riches which Angela Carter herself evokes with her series of explorers.
Just a few days ago, I rediscovered my copy of The Magic Toyshop, the first UK paperback edition published by Pan Books in 1969 with that startling cover. I bought it an age ago from a second-hand bookshop for 80 cents. Even then it was beaten-up and yellowing, the cover and spine damaged. If I donated it to our local book fair, the sorters would toss it in the recycling bin as unsaleable. I haven’t read the novel for years (though now it’s on my bedside table) but I remember it as a strange, unsettling fable transported into the London of the day. Uncle Phillip is the genius of the toyshop, the maker of the toys though especially of puppets. But he is also the ogre who holds the members of his household prisoners under his spell, heaping humiliations on them while pulling at their strings like those of his beloved marionettes. Finally Melanie and her companion, Finn escape when the house is consumed in a huge conflagration that destroys everything inside and out. In the end, they are left with only each other to rely on. As Angela Carter puts it in the final line in the book: ‘At night, in the garden, they faced each other in a wild surmise.’ There are echoes here of the first garden, Eden, where sexual love was innocent, and of the final lines of Keats’s sonnet, On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer,
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
All of this brings us back to the beginning again: to new worlds and extraordinary possibilities after an escape from imprisonment, squalor and sadism.
So what does all the above say about the cover of first UK paperback? That in its over the top way, it’s just right. As a friend of mine said, it’s an odd mix of the fitting and the completely unfitting, like the unease in the novel itself. Creating unease is something which Angela Carter did better than anyone. That cover talks directly to opening paragraph while including hints of what else is in store for the reader. The woman’s body is rounded and sensuous, the tiger’s mask, bizarre, and the bear’s head in the corner of the mirror– it’s easy to miss it – creepy. These incongruities reflect Angela’s handling of sexuality in the novel, which it can be either clean, as in Melanie discovering herself, or degraded where Uncle Phillip attempts to manipulate her and Finn into acting out his brutal fantasies. And of course, the cover draws the eye and in 1969 maybe it was shocking. It’s a find. It stays on my bookshelf until it falls apart.