I would have been 16 or 17 – I was in the Sixth Form, and it was a set text for English Lit coursework. I had always been a keen reader, and had loved many books, but no book had opened my eyes like this one. Using puppets as a metaphor for domination and control, and including a mute wife who wears a heavy silver collar/necklace that was a wedding gift from her husband, this is not a subtle book about patriarchy and male domination. For teen me, it was a revelation.
My mother was a fairly traditional, fiercely intelligent and immensely practical woman, but she didn’t really get feminism. She, like many other women in the 80s and 90s, thought we’d got that all sorted. If only… but I digress. The point, of course, is that I did not have a particularly politically aware/feminist upbringing and Angela Carter’s politics were a revelation to me. I found it incredible that there was all this injustice and imbalance around me – and I’d never put it together before. A bonus, in terms of influencing my young mind, is that The Magic Toyshop (and I was to find out, all of Carter’s fiction) doesn’t really offer solutions; it simply highlights the issues and poses the questions. Carter herself said that her mission was to “demythologise” and that’s exactly the effect she had on me. She shattered patriarchal myths left, right and centre by forcing me to re-examine my assumptions and the assumptions that seemed to keep the world ticking. At the same time, as a fantastically erudite but earthy writer, she lead English-Lit-loving me to study and unpick various classical myths while at-heart-still-a-teenager me revelled in her bawdiness (although this is less in evidence in The Magic Toyshop).
Since enthusiastically lapping up the ideas in The Magic Toyshop, my very smart English teacher (Mrs Todd, I owe you so much!) recommended other brilliant feminist novelists. I can’t absolutely swear that I wouldn’t be a feminist without having read The Magic Toyshop (surely I’d have cottoned on at some point?!), but the book absolutely blew my little mind and set me on a path which has definitely enriched my life. I returned to Carter during my MA (Gender, Literature and Modernity – what a fab course!) to explore her presentation and usage of female bodies in her novels.
As well as working steadily through Carter’s back catalogue (and especially loving Nights At the Circus, The Passion of New Eve and Wise Children), Mrs Todd’s marvellous recommendations lead me to Margaret Atwood (via The Handmaid’s Tale), Jeanette Winterson (starting with the riotous Sexing the Cherry and the autobiographical Oranges are not the Only Fruit) and Toni Morrison (beginning with Beloved). What an education! I only hope that somewhere out there is a former student that I’ve managed to have a fifth the effect on.