Women in the 1960s: Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop

©2014 Textbook 45 Pages


In 1967, Angela Carter published a novel about an adolescent female protagonist growing up in a patriarchal system. Published at a moment in history when significant change, not only for women, but all of the western world was about to take place, The Magic Toyshop illuminates the metamorphosing social dynamics. Angela Carter sensed this moment but did not know where it was going to lead and what it would offer women. Guiding the reader through these pending seismic changes is Melanie, the novel's protagonist. As opposed to the other female characters of the novel who occupy only a fixed role suiting patriarchal hierarchy, Melanie is constantly shifting roles. She can be read as representative of the rebelling female, challenging patriarchal order. Melanie realises that none of the potential roles society offers women will satisfy her. In the end, she has the chance to enter a new world and a relationship defined by equality.


constructions through creating an independent identification of herself. The
conventional association of women with physical illness and men with emotional need
is challenged and mocked through bizarre events (Peach 181). In the use of gothic, fairy
tale and dystopia, Carter establishes new representational spaces for sexual identity
(Bristow and Broughton 15). As Carter puts it, the pressure of the new wine makes the
old bottles explode (qtd. in Gamble, "Fiction" 33).
Toyshop offers representations of women as brides, mothers,
housewives, puppets, daughters, objects, wives, consumers and victims. However, these
roles are not taken for granted but eroded by Carter, twisted in ways questioning their
very nature which was once fixed by a patriarchal society. It is a women-centred text,
not only because of its female protagonist, but also its female narrative point of view.
Initially, this paper offers a definition of representation according to Stuart Hall
and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Subsequently, to provide prospective and a
counterweight to the world Carter presents in her novel, the social circumstances of the
1960s, especially the late 1960s, are discussed and analysed. Finally, the various
characters, namely the protagonist Melanie, her mother, Mrs Rundle, Aunt Margaret, the
statue of Queen Victoria, two female customers and Aunt Margaret's mother are
analysed and interpreted. Victoria, Melanie's younger sister, will be left out of this
analysis, as she is still an infant.

2. Definition of Representation
Representation forms a major part of the analysis and it is a term of many meanings and
understandings. In using this term, I follow the lead of Stuart Hall who posits that
representation produces culture. Central to his conceptualisation is that through
language, signs and symbols are used to represent thoughts, ideas and feelings in a
culture. Identity and knowledge are quintessential factors because each person gives
meaning to things by how she represents them. For instance, a woman in an
advertisement holding a broomstick or vacuum cleaner, or wearing an apron is
automatically associated with a housewife. Hence, meaning is constructed through
language as a part of discourse which has a material effect on our lives, cultures and
politics (Hall 1-11). "Representation connects meaning and language to culture [...], it
is the production of meaning through language" (15-19).
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary suggests two relevant meanings for the
1. To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind by
description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our
mind or in the senses; as, for example, in the sentence, `This picture represents the
murder of Abel by Cain.'
2. To represent also means to symbolize, stand for, to be a specimen of, or to
substitute for; as in the sentence, 'In Christianity, the cross represents the suffering
and crucifixion of Christ.' (16)
In our minds we carry a system of concepts and images which represent the world to us.
These concepts and images in a culture combine to form a shared conceptual map and
are exchanged through language. Language consists of signs that serve to express
meaning and communicate our thoughts (16-21).
Thus, representation is created through signifying practice, the process of sense-
making. Humans are the signifying monkeys who turn signs into representations on the
basis of differentiation. Without difference, meaning would not exist as it is constructed
in a dialogue with the 'Other' (225-237). "The 'Other' is fundamental to the constitution
of the self, to us as subjects, and to sexual identity" (237). Difference is ambivalent, it
can be both positive and negative in that it not only creates a sense one's own self but
can also create negative feelings of hostility and aggression towards the 'Other' (238).
When the portrayal of women in Carter's The Magic Toyshop is analysed, it is
apparent that a signifying practice is taking place in making sense of these
representations of women which are different from those of men. As Spivak explains,
woman is the subaltern that is left out from history and literature. These once used to be

exclusively male spheres and consequently also excluded women from representation
(594-597). Angela Carter challenges this notion. Her female protagonist tries out all the
culturally available identities of women in the late 1960s; however, she remains
unsatisfied with all of them. At the end, it remains unclear what will happen with her.
Carter leaves Melanie's future open. Perhaps because Carter herself did not know what
the future would bring. But it is unmistakeable that she thought that the condition of
women was going to change drastically.

3. Background
The Magic Toyshop was published in 1967 in the midst of a decade of changes in Great
Britain. Dubbed the Swinging Sixties, the decade was a time of increasing economic
prosperity as the standard of living improved and an embourgeoisement of the working
class occurred (Brooke 44-47). Average personal income increased by 130 percent
between 1955 and 1969, consumerism escalated and people spent money on luxuries
and entertainments: cars, washing machines, televisions and refrigerators became
common purchases (Sandbrook 191). It was a decade of enthusiasm for science and
technology, also called the space age (46).
The model Lesley Hornby, better known as Twiggy, remembers the early sixties
as a period in which "everything [had] to be in fashion immediately and then out again,
constantly changing" (qtd. in Sandbrook 59). This chain of new rewards, household
goods, clothes and experiences also broadened people's horizons and became accessible
for millions of ordinary people. Women were accepted as part of the labour force and a
new companionate relationship between husband and wife developed (Sandbrook 192-
Usually, the period is associated with economic decline, but to most consumers it
remained remarkably positive (83). Paradoxically, despite it being characterised by
revolutionary change, it was also a period of continuity (198). The journalist Johnathon
Aitken associated the sixties with the values wealth, sex appeal, fame, youth, talent,
novelty and quick success. These fitted the policy of a democratic, dynamic and modern
Britain which Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister of that time, pursued (229). But in
truth, Sandbrook claims, "most people remained completely untouched by the swinging
social revolution that was supposed to be shattering the old boundaries and creating a
new class" (275).
Britain's fashion industry grew more important than ever before, bringing forth
ground-breaking inventions such as the mini-skirt (275). Very popular among young
women was the so-called dolly bird look, appearing rather boyish and supposed to
provocatively communicate independence. In contrast, many women criticised the
female fetish of the dolly bird representing an image of sexual vulnerability. Dolly birds
rather resembled puppets and turned woman into the "female eunuch" (Greer qtd. in
Sandbrook 235-238). In the late 1960s, the female body became identified with
eroticism rather than reproduction (Sandbrook 696).
Due to a range of new household items, women spent less time on housework

and obtained more free time (63). Moreover, it was a "golden age of university
expansion;" (331) demonstrated by the founding of all the red brick universities. The
establishment of the Open University
in 1969 was another step to in this direction.
Overall, educational opportunities for women rapidly increased. They read more than
men; book sales substantiated that people read more than at any time in history. The
Public Libraries and Museums Act in 1964
made books available to everyone (409).
News and information were transmitted at greater speed and one could broaden one's
knowledge even while staying at home because of technological innovations (Wigny
"There were signs of a stronger stirring in the women's movement in the mid
1960s" (Thane, "Women" 405). Groups like the Fawcett Society and the National
Council of Women
[...] aimed at constitutional pressure for equal opportunities, equal pay, equal
taxation and improved treatment of single mothers. [...] From 1968 a more radical
strand of feminism emerged out of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and
other radical groups. It was also inspired by the growing civil rights movement in
the United States. (405)
According to Thane, no improvement in gender inequalities took place.
It is sometimes interpreted as a conscious revolt by young women against the lives
their mothers led in the 1940s and 1950s, which are portrayed as narrowly
domestic and bounded by consumerism. (409)
She speculates that due to increased wealth and access to consumer goods in families,
women became more confident and passed a "greater sense of control over their own
lives" (409) to their daughters, who took this sense differently (409). Nevertheless,
Bloch and Umansky claim that the whole sixties culture remains a period of male-
dominated movements (1). Sandbrook opines, "women [...] were beginning to cast off
their age-old anxieties about childbirth and motherhood" (237). From 1950, the public
sphere became more open to women, but still the primary role expected of them was
motherhood (Brooke 44).
Legal progress took place with the Abortion Act in 1967, which allowed women
to procure abortion safely. The National Health Service Act in the same year constituted
that marital status had no influence on women's access to contraceptives. In 1969, the

Family Law Reform Act set the minimum age for marriage without parental consent at
eighteen and divorce was made easier, "leading to what has been called the most
profound and far-reaching change to have occurred in the last five hundred years"
(Ferris 288). The Equal Pay Act in 1970 legally abolished difference in treatment over
employment and earnings.
Furthermore, in 1961, the pill was introduced. In the beginning, it was spread
mainly among middle class women and took about six years to be accepted as a popular
contraceptive in Britain (280). However, Sandbrook argues that the impact of the pill on
the beginning of the sexual revolution in Britain between 1965 and 1969 is exaggerated.
It became more important in the late 1960s, thus having an impact only from the 1970s
onwards (489).
The 1960s marked the peak of lowest births since the Second World War and the
"widowed single mother, a familiar nineteenth-century figure, has been replaced by the
divorced, separated or never-married single mother" (Thane, "Women" 393). Women's
magazines encouraged women's domestic roles as well as personal appearance and
fashion, i.e. consumerism. Only in the 1970s did they begin to emphasise careers and
paid employment (398). According to Sandbrook, "[in] the beginning of the sixties five
out of every six women read at least one magazine a week. [...] [Magazines then]
concentrated more on the woman as consumer than the woman as housewife" (238).
Parties and international travel were the dominant features of feminine lifestyles
depicted in British Vogue of the sixties. In 1964, adverts for hotels and travel
outnumbered those for fashion for the first time in Vogue's history [...]. (Warsh
and Tinkler 23)
Despite the fact that feminism remains a 'minority obsession' in the end of the
sixties, the decade remarkably changed the lives of many women. The increasingly
flexible nature of work, the technological transformation of the household, the
liberalisation of divorce and legalisation of abortion enabled women to participate in
British national life as never before (Sandbrook 704). Nevertheless, women's earning
was regarded as additional income to the family, not the mainstay (Wilson 250).
Although education and work in the 1960s were still a male occupation (Thane,
"Women" 403), a girl of sixteen in 1970 was more likely to continue her education than
in 1956 (Sandbrook 704).
She was more likely to pursue her own intellectual and cultural interests for as
long as she liked, to marry when and whom she wanted, to have children when
and if she wanted, and, above all, to choose whether she remained at home as a

housewife or pursued her own career. These were not small advances, and they
had a profound effect on the ways men saw women and women saw themselves.
By the 1960s, the man's position as provider in the home was beginning to be
eroded by women's employment and consumer power (Ehrenreich qtd. in McLeer 90).
These developments also affected family relationships, which were broken down and
thus were turning nuclear families into increasingly isolated entities (Thane,
"Population" 54).

4. Angela Carter
Angela Carter was born in 1940 and died in 1991. Posthumously, she became a popular
author at English university campuses (Gamble, "Fiction" 7). During her career, she
produced a vast variety of works, ranging from novels to short stories, verse and film
screenplays to journalistic output. She travelled widely and was fascinated by sexual
politics, in particular by images of women and the role women had in creating, directing
and shaping the pictures that circulated of them (Stoddart 3-5). She came of age in the
1960s and said of herself as being "in the demythologising business" (qtd. in Gamble,
"Fiction" 10), seeking in particular to dispose of the "social fictions that regulate our
lives" and to question "[how] that social fiction of femininity was created, by means
outside my control and palmed off on me as the real thing" (Carter qtd. in Wyatt 549).
According to De Beauvoir, myth fixes the roles women can play in society and renders
women's lives static and unchanging (95-97). Against that myth Carter fought.
Thus, Carter's work fits into this time, beginning to "represent how women have
a conflicted relationship with their production as feminine subjects" (Bristow and
Broughton 10). Women began to question their objected and marginalised position in
society. Carter's "style answers to a pattern of social and intellectual mobility"
(Britzolakis 53).
In Notes from the Front Line Carter points out:
There is a tendency to underplay, even to completely devalue, the experience of
the 1960s, especially for women, but towards the end of that decade there was a
brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally
in human history; when, truly, it felt like Year One [...] I can date to that time and
to some of those debates and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society
around me in the summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality
as a woman. (Carter qtd. in Hanson 60)
She explains how she was influenced by the 1960s' sense of optimism and possibility,
reflecting the late 1960s turbulences.
Civil rights movements took place in the USA, student protests occurred in
France and other European countries in 1968. However, Sandbrook suggests that those
upheavals cannot be compared with the small-scale events that took place in Britain
(543). In contrast, Bristow and Broughton claim that "it felt as if an established cultural
order was being turned on its head" (10). According to Waugh, "there was undoubtedly
much radical and popular optimism about the dawn of a new social order" towards the
end of the 1960s and "enormous transformations in attitudes to authority, sexuality and

censorship, and civil liberties" took place (qtd. in Stoddart 11). Familiar symbols and
conventions, identities and the understanding of history and truth were regarded as
relative rather than fixed or eternal concepts (Stoddart 11).
Carter, familiar with European art, French symbolists and dadaists, inquires into
the "way in which meanings, boundaries and identities are rendered real through
cultural and linguistic metaphors" and takes a critical look at what we take for granted
(Peach 2009: 8p). Her "novel's concerns with the female body and sexuality are typical
of Anglo-American feminist art and literature of the late 1960s and early 1970s" (66).
Carter antagonised phallocentric discourse that emphasised motherhood and
reproduction and which deprived mothers of their "identity as [women] and as [lovers]"
(Holmlund 290).
The Magic Toyshop is situated at a moment just before the women's movement
really took off in Britain. 1968 marks a crucial point in history due to a heightened
awareness of society. This awareness concerned politics, gender, race and class issues
which were very important to the people. Riots took place all over the world. Students
in Paris were demanding equal access to education and in many American cities people
took to the streets for racial equality and rebelled against the Vietnam War, as they did
in London. From then on there was an increased possibility of rioting and making a
difference. As stated before, Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop was published just
before this remarkable year. It was a transitional point in history, a period when the
questioning of patriarchal structures could no longer be avoided.

5. Summary of The Magic Toyshop
The Magic Toyshop is a Bildungsroman. This genre is generally characterised by a
psychologically and physically growing protagonist. That is exactly what happens to
Melanie, who in the novel undergoes her rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.
She is a fifteen-year-old girl who grows up in a middle class household in the
countryside with her twelve-year-old Jonathon and her five-year-old sister Victoria. Her
parents are travelling to America and the housekeeper Mrs. Rundle cares for the
One day, after a night in which Melanie had tried on her mother's wedding dress
and accidentally destroyed it, a telegram arrives announcing her father's and mother's
death in a plane crash. The three orphans then have to move from the country to London
to the house of their mother's brother Philip Flower. Uncle Philip is the archetypal
patriarch in the toyshop he owns. Through his aggressive nature and control of the
budget, he exerts absolute control over his Irish wife Margaret and her two brothers
Finn and Francie.
In the beginning, Melanie is ignored by Uncle Philip, but then has to act in one
of his puppet shows, in which she is supposed to take on the role of Leda being raped by
Zeus disguised as a swan. Since Melanie's arrival in London, she develops a blossoming
relationship with Finn, who is rebelling against Uncle Philip and his stern control. When
Uncle Philip and Jonathon go on a trip, the rest of the family is left at home. Because of
this perceived freedom, everyone is relieved, and celebrates and enjoys their time.
Melanie discovers that Aunt Margaret and her brother Francie are in love, which is one
reason for Uncle Philip to explode with anger and burn down the house when he returns.
While Melanie and Finn escape safely into the garden, the fate of the other characters
remains unknown.


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Publication date
2014 (May)
women angela carter’s magic toyshop

Title: Women in the 1960s: Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop