First published in 1924 The Mysterious Toyshop is an early example of a story that looks back on the idealised Victorian Christmas. The days when it always snowed and ‘streets were dimly lighted with flames of gas, quivering in tall lamp posts set far apart.’
One December in the late 19th century a toy shop springs up out of nowhere, in a place ‘every Londoner knows, the quaint streets which run each side of the thoroughfare of Holborn.’
It’s somewhere you can imagine the five children of E. Nesbitt’s stories stopping off on their way back from the British Museum.
Or maybe Hermione, Ron and the other one paid a visit? For this is the sort of establishment you might very well find in J.K. Rowling’s fictitious London street, Diagon Alley. Although author Cyril Beaumont never spells it out, the toyshop is pure magic. Its products are imbued with some sort of divine qualities, the product of a reclusive toymaker who labours day and night in a workshop upstairs: ‘His hands, pale almost to transparency, performed curious gesticulations.’
The staff on the shop floor are equally inhuman: ‘Quaint as the toys themselves… their movements angular and spasmodic, as if they had absorbed something of the nature of the toys which surrounded them.’
The toyshop is a sensation, visited by some very fine society types who quickly turn it into the hot topic of the festive season. Eventually it comes to the attention of a particularly important gentleman who sets his sights on acquiring one of the shop’s most exclusive items, and sets in motion a chain of events that will destroy the magic of the toyshop forever.
To express his determination the gentleman takes out a snuff box, ‘and underlined his words with sundry taps of his finger-nail upon the lid, after which he opened the box, took a pinch of the contents and proffered the box to his companion.’ You don’t see much snuff in children’s books these days. More’s the pity.
I’m not sure if author Cyril W. Beaumont really worried about whether he was writing something for children – it’s the grown-ups who are obsessed with the Toyshop, children don’t really feature. For Beaumont it was the chance to let loose and describe a lot of beautiful things. He’s famous for writing about dance, and special attention is paid to the model ballerinas which adorn the store and enrapture the male visitors: ‘Her features, her limbs, her skirt all so exact, that for the moment the customer blushed to find himself face to face with Taglioni. Hidden in her body was a musical box which played the sad air from La Sylphide.’
This beautiful world is ably captured by Wyndham Payne, who would go on to produce the first illustrated edition of Wind in the Willows. Using the limited colour palette of red, green and yellow he adds a suitably candy-land quality to this Nutcracker-esque, and occasionally nightmarirsh tale.