My favourite of the three talks I attended in the Bristol Women’s Lit Fest had to be Bluestockings and Muses, a series of presentations by various academics about the history of women’s writing and some of their favourites. Angela Carter, who went to university in Bristol and maintained many links with the town, was the subject of a presentation by Dr Charlotte Crofts, who has written about her work on film and radio.
To my ultimate shame I’ve not read that much Angela Carter. We had to read a bit of The Bloody Chamber for uni, and I’ve got a beautiful copy of her fairy tales, but she’s always been one of those writers that I know I should read, and therefore never get round to. Likewise Sylvia Plath and Jeanette Winterson.
Upon returning to Leeds I got talking about her with a colleague, who the next day heaped upon my desk no less that seven of her books, Virago classics from the 80s. I started with The Magic Toyshop (different to the cover above), because it featured heavily in Dr Crofts’ talk and I was drawn to the story.
What an amazing book. The first chapter I started on the train to work one morning and almost missed my stop, it was snowing quite heavily at the time and the mesmerizing descriptions of a new woman discovering her body and herself for the first time seemed to fit in perfectly on the snug creaky train carriage and the cold coated landscape outside.
Her use of language is blissful, poetic yet occasionally shocking. She reminded me a lot of Helen Dunmore, although she writes in a completely different style to can tell that each word is there on purpose, but has been placed completely naturally, without pretension.
The Magic Toyshop is the story of what happens when the world falls around you, temptation, family, what is and isn’t sinful, abuse, coming of age and first love and the magic of the ordinary vs the deceitful magic of toys and childhood. I loved Melanie, the protagonist whose journey of exploration one evening leads to the entire family collapsing around her. I found her naive but also very real and good, and I wanted her desperately to grow up and get away from the situation she found herself. I also love the red people, especially Aunt Margaret, and the depiction of how she experiences domestic abuse was so horrific but also so underplayed it made Uncle Phillip even more of a monster.
I wish I’d read The Magic Toyshop as a teenager, and have spent the last couple of days eagerly reading academic criticisms of it. I’m going to have a break, as wonderful as her writing is, too much Angela Carter I think could be quite bad for me, but I very much look forward to reading more.