By Maggie Tonkin (auth.)

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The Flowers’ household is a Gothic mansion writ in suburban mode: distinctly unheimlich in the sense identified by Freud, that is to say, un-cosy, un-homely. Here for the first time the orphaned Melanie experiences solitude and misery and is exposed to violence. Here she finds out about ‘real life’ as Carter has it, that is to say, she learns the ugly lessons of poverty and Olympia’s Revenge 37 powerlessness. What she learns, in fact, is that all she had previously taken to be real was an illusion.

As John Cohen states, ‘the epoch of modern automata opens with Descartes’ (68). Gaby Wood recounts the possibly apocryphal tale of Descartes’ last journey, a boat trip to Sweden to visit Queen Christina, on which he was accompanied by a mysterious ‘daughter’ named Francine, who was eventually discovered to be an automaton that Descartes had constructed as a memento of his dead infant daughter Francine. When the ship’s captain learnt about the automaton, he ordered that it be thrown overboard, for he regarded it as an ‘instrument of dark magic’ responsible for conjuring up bad weather (3–4).

It is the dress, we are given to understand, which seduces the living woman into acting the part of the doll. The dress promises to transform the female subject into a culturally sanctioned image of desirable femininity. Even though Melanie knows she is about to be symbolically raped by Uncle Philip’s swan puppet, when she puts on the Sylphide dress, ‘[i]n spite of everything’ she is ‘flattered’, because she ‘would be a nymph crowned with daisies once again; he saw her as once she had seen herself’ (141).

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