Molesworth, Mary Louisa 1839-1921

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Mary Louisa Molesworth


(Full name Mary Louisa Stewart Molesworth; has also written under the pseudonyms Mrs. Molesworth, Mary L. Molesworth, and Ennis Graham) Dutch-born English author of juvenile fiction, author of fairy tales, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Molesworth's career through 2002.


A prolific and professional writer of children's books during the late-nineteenth-century golden age of children's literature, Molesworth provides a transition from the earlier juvenile morality tales of the period and the domestic tales popular in the twentieth century. Publishing under several pseudonyms including Mrs. Molesworth and Ennis Graham, Moles-worth authored over one hundred books in several genres: children's fiction, literary novels, fairy tales, ghost stories, and essays. Molesworth primarily composed two different types of children's works—fantasy literature, as seen in The Cuckoo Clock (1877) and Four Winds Farm (1887), and realistic tales of childhood, such as The Carved Lions (1895).


Molesworth was born Mary Louisa Stewart in Rotterdam, Holland, on May 29, 1839, to Scottish parents. Her family moved to Manchester, England, in 1841, residing there for twelve years at increasingly prestigious addresses as her father advanced his career in the shipping industry. Molesworth enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood. She was educated at home by her Calvinist mother and later attended boarding school in Switzerland. She was also instructed by the Reverend William Gaskell, the husband of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, a popular English novelist who influenced such writers as George Eliot. Gaskell is credited with helping Molesworth develop her literary style. Once a year, Molesworth traveled to Scotland to visit her maternal grandmother, an avid storyteller, who filled her mind with

countless tales and awakened her interest in becoming an author. Molesworth and her family often vacationed on England's Lancashire coast, providing the author with experiences she later utilized in her works. As a teenager, Molesworth began publishing stories in magazines. In 1861, without the approval of her mother, Molesworth married Major Richard Molesworth of the Royal Dragoons. The couple had seven children: Agnes Violet, Mary Cicely Caroline, Juliet, Olive, Richard Walter, Richard Bevil, and Lionel Charles. The marriage proved to be difficult; Molesworth's husband received a head wound during the Crimean War, which allegedly caused him to act out violently. In 1869, their oldest daughter, Violet, died of scarlet fever, followed shortly thereafter by their three-month-old son, Richard Walter. The following year, Molesworth wrote her first adult novel, Lover and Husband (1870), which focuses on a troubled marriage. In 1873 financial difficulties forced the Molesworths to move to Edinburgh with the author's mother. After moving to Caen, France, in 1879, Molesworth and her husband received a legal separation; they never divorced. Suffering from emotional stress and monetary problems, Molesworth chose to support her children through her writing career. She wrote at a feverish pace, penning as many as six books per year. Her first seven works—four adult novels and three children's books—were published under the name Ennis Graham, a childhood friend who had disappeared in Africa. Tell Me a Story (1875), Molesworth's first children's book, was dedicated to her daughter, Violet. Molesworth settled in London, England, in 1885, where she befriended such prominent authors as Walter Pater and Rudyard Kipling. After a prolific career spanning five decades in which she published eighty-six books for children, Molesworth died on July 21, 1921.


Many of Molesworth's works are regarded as classics of children's literature, particularly The Cuckoo Clock and The Tapestry Room (1879). The Cuckoo Clock combines a realistic prose style with elements of domestic fantasy. The lead character, Griselda, is a young, lonely girl living in a strange house with her two great-aunts. Frustrated with her daily lessons, she throws a textbook at a cuckoo clock. That night, the cuckoo visits Griselda and takes her to Butterfly Land, the Land of Nodding Mandarins, and the Other Side of the Moon, indirectly instructing her in the virtues of duty, obedience, patience, and punctuality. When the cuckoo introduces her to a real child, Griselda takes on the role of teacher and the cuckoo, no longer needed, disappears. Molesworth tempered her fantastical premise with a real-life moral that all children must balance work with play. In The Tapestry Room, Dudu, a raven with clipped wings, stalks the terrace of the chateau where a little girl named Jeanne lives. Jeanne's visiting cousin, Hugh, is asleep in the tapestry room when Dudu flies to the window and leads him to imaginary lands. In a series of three journeys, the children learn the value of family and the importance of an active imagination. Christmas-Tree Land (1884) is similar in theme to the aforementioned tales, demonstrating the power of imagination and, like The Cuckoo Clock, promoting a balance between work and play. However, Christmas-Tree Land is more abstract, introducing a doppelgänger motif to illustrate the tale's moral lesson that children must learn to appreciate that which they have. Other examples of Molesworth's dream-like tales include the allegorical Four Winds Farm and The Children of the Castle (1890). In these and several of her other visionary fantasies, Molesworth rendered realistic child characters that are often lonely, estranged from their families, and bored with their daily routines. Through the course of Molesworth's narratives, the characters escape into make-believe lands, learning valuable lessons, and returning with a better understanding of reality.

In addition to her fantasies, Molesworth pioneered a distinctive style of realism in children's literature. She wrote objectively about the ordinary lives and problems of middle-class children, incorporating imaginative elements to engage her audience, but adhering to a realistic framework to impart her message. Through such techniques as direct address of the narrator, interpolation of stories, and dream sequences, Molesworth reminds the reader of the distinction between fantasy and reality. "Carrots": Just a Little Boy (1876) centers on the innocence of young Fabian, called "Carrots" because of his red hair, who struggles with a lisp, a limited vocabulary, and his mother's illness. Between the everyday episodes of Carrots and his sister, Molesworth interspersed cautionary tales told by older family members, which admonish carelessness, encourage the children to have good sense, and promote tidiness. Based on Molesworth's own childhood, The Carved Lions tells the story of a young girl who is forced to leave her family to attend boarding school. Disillusioned by her new environment, she escapes to a furniture shop, where she encounters carved wooden lions that come alive in her dreams and help her cope with her troubles. Another of Molesworth's works noted for its autobiographical elements is Tell Me a Story, a collection of six short stories held together by an introduction in which "Auntie," the narrator, recounts a series of tales to children. In "The Reel Fairies," Molesworth chose the name Louisa for her protagonist, an introverted, serious young girl whose only friends are spools of thread. When the spools turn into fairies, Louisa is whisked away to Fairyland, only to discover that, despite the attention she receives there, she would prefer to be at home with her parents. Another story, "Good-night, Winny," bears a striking resemblance to the circumstances surrounding the death of Molesworth's daughter, Violet. Apart from her real-life stories of childhood and her domestic fantasies, Molesworth also wrote traditional fairy tales, which she published in the collections An Enchanted Garden (1892) and Fairies Afield (1911), her final book.


During her lifetime, Molesworth enjoyed popular as well as critical successes. Her books sold well, she received letters from children around the world, and was praised by royalty—both Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Alexandra, Princess of Wales, were reported admirers of Molesworth's tales for children. Moles-worth was also celebrated by leading members of the literary world. English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne favorably compared Molesworth to George Eliot and specifically praised her children's books The Cuckoo Clock and The Adventures of Herr Baby (1881) as being superior to even the most acclaimed adult novels. Critics have valued the respect and understanding Molesworth afforded her young readers, recognizing her as an author who refused to condescend to her audience. Molesworth has been further commended for her use of direct address of the reader and for utilizing more mature language—in an effort to broaden the vocabulary of her readership—than was the custom for children's literature at the time. Contemporary critics have stated that Molesworth's writings began to decline in quality and increase in their didacticism as the author amplified her output. Specifically, such reviewers have complained of Molesworth's use of interpolation, deeming it too confusing for readers interested in the book's main narrative. Molesworth has also been chided by scholars for her employment of an overly-realistic dialogue style for her child characters—which resembles a kind of baby talk—a common Victorian literary technique. Beginning in the early twentieth century, Molesworth's works fell out of fashion with popular audiences as other authors of children's literature, such as Beatrix Potter and A. A. Milne, held more widespread appeal for children. Furthermore, the domestic romances of Molesworth did not fare well against the masculine adventure tales of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. However, Molesworth's contributions to children's literature have remained immensely influential within the genre, attracting favorable comparisons to such authors as Edith Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, and Mary Norton.


Tell Me a Story [as Ennis Graham] (juvenile fiction) 1875

*"Carrots": Just a Little Boy [as Ennis Graham] (juvenile fiction) 1876

The Cuckoo Clock [as Ennis Graham] (juvenile fiction) 1877

Grandmother Dear: A Book for Boys and Girls (juvenile fiction) 1878

The Tapestry Room: A Child's Romance (juvenile fiction) 1879

A Christmas Child: A Sketch of a Boy-Life (juvenile fiction) 1880

The Adventures of Herr Baby (juvenile fiction) 1881

Hermy: The Story of a Little Girl (juvenile fiction) 1881

Hoodie (juvenile fiction) 1882

Summer Stories for Boys and Girls (juvenile fiction) 1882

Two Little Waifs (juvenile fiction) 1883

Christmas-Tree Land (juvenile fiction) 1884

The Little Old Portrait (juvenile fiction) 1884; republished as Edmée: A Tale of the French Revolution, 1916

Us: An Old-Fashioned Story (juvenile fiction) 1885

A Charge Fulfilled (juvenile fiction) 1886

Four Winds Farm (juvenile fiction) 1887

Little Miss Peggy: Only a Nursery Story (juvenile fiction) 1887

The Palace in the Garden (juvenile fiction) 1887

A Christmas Posy (juvenile fiction) 1888

Five Minutes' Stories (juvenile fiction) 1888

The Third Miss St. Quentin (juvenile fiction) 1888

French Life in Letters (juvenile fiction) 1889

Great Uncle Hoot-Toot (juvenile fiction) 1889

A House to Let (juvenile fiction) 1889

Neighbours (juvenile fiction) 1889

Nesta: On Fragments of a Little Life (juvenile fiction) 1889

The Old Pincushion, or Aunt Clotilda's Guests (juve-nile fiction) 1889

The Rectory Children (juvenile fiction) 1889

The Children of the Castle (juvenile fiction) 1890

Family Troubles (juvenile fiction) 1890

The Green Casket, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1890

Little Mother Bunch (juvenile fiction) 1890

The Story of a Spring Morning, and Other Tales (juvenile fiction) 1890

Twelve Tiny Tales (juvenile fiction) 1890

The Bewitched Lamp (juvenile fiction) 1891

The Lucky Ducks, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1891

Nurse Heatherdale's Story (juvenile fiction) 1891

The Red Grange (juvenile fiction) 1891

Sweet Content (juvenile fiction) 1891

An Enchanted Garden: Fairy Stories (fairy tales) 1892

Farthings: The Story of a Stray and a Waif (juvenile fiction) 1892

The Girls and I: A Veracious History (juvenile fiction) 1892

Imogen, or Only Eighteen (juvenile fiction) 1892

The Man with the Pan Pipes, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1892

Robin Redbreast: A Story for Girls (juvenile fiction) 1892

Stories of the Saints for Children (juvenile fiction) 1892

Mary: A Nursery Story for Very Little Children (juve-nile fiction) 1893

The Next-Door House (juvenile fiction) 1893

Studies and Stories (juvenile fiction) 1893

The Thirteen Little Black Pigs, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1893

Blanche: A Story for Girls (juvenile fiction) 1894

My New Home (juvenile fiction) 1894

Olivia: A Story for Girls (juvenile fiction) 1894

The Carved Lions (juvenile fiction) 1895

Opposite Neighbours, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1895

White Turrets (juvenile fiction) 1895

Friendly Joey, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1896

The Oriel Window (juvenile fiction) 1896

Phillipa (juvenile fiction) 1896

Meg Langhome, or The Day after Tomorrow (juve-nile fiction) 1897

Miss Mouse and Her Boys (juvenile fiction) 1897

Stories for Children in Illustration of the Lord's Prayer (juvenile fiction) 1897

Greyling Towers: A Story for the Young (juvenile fiction) 1898

The Magic Nuts (juvenile fiction) 1898

The Children's Hour (juvenile fiction) 1899

The Grim House (juvenile fiction) 1899

This and That: A Tale of Two Tinies (juvenile fiction) 1899

The House That Grew (juvenile fiction) 1900

The Three Witches (juvenile fiction) 1900

The Blue Baby, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1901

My Pretty and Her Little Brother Too, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1901

The Wood-Pigeons and Mary (juvenile fiction) 1901

Peterkin (juvenile fiction) 1902

The Mystery of the Pinewood and Hollow Tree House (juvenile fiction) 1903

The Ruby Ring (juvenile fiction) 1904

The Bolted Door, and Other Stories (juvenile fiction) 1906

Jasper: A Story for Children (juvenile fiction) 1906

The Little Guest: A Story for Children (juvenile fiction) 1907

Fairies—Of Sorts (fairy tales) 1908

The February Boys: A Story for Children (juvenile fiction) 1909

The Story of a Year (juvenile fiction) 1910

Fairies Afield (fairy tales) 1911

*Published in 1879 under the name Mary Louisa Molesworth.

†Published in 1882 under the name Mary Louisa Molesworth.


Roger Lancelyn Green (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Green, Roger Lancelyn. "'Where are that Cuckoo?'" In Mrs. Molesworth, pp. 65-71. New York, N.Y.: Henry Z. Walck, Inc., 1964.

[In the following essay, Green analyzes Molesworth's use of realism in her children's works, noting that "Mrs. Molesworth's remarkable achievement in capturing the sensations and the little things of childhood is accomplished against an uncompromisingly Victorian setting."]

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Angela Bull (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Bull, Angela. "Preface." In "The Cuckoo Clock" and "The Tapestry Room," pp. v-xv. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1976.

[In the following essay, a preface for the Garland edition of The Cuckoo Clock and The Tapestry Room, Bull offers a brief biographical sketch of Molesworth's life and a critical summary of the aforementioned works.]

Domestic fantasy was a product of the late nineteenth century. Its fusion of magic with the ever-popular story of family life was a combination particularly satisfying to the late Victorians with their love of cozy, domestic detail, and their vague yearning for some other dimension to existence—now more often represented by fairy-tale enchantment than by the religious element so important in children's literature a decade or two earlier.

The Cuckoo Clock and The Tapestry Room stand near the beginning of that long line of domestic fantasy that leads on to the novels of E. Nesbit and later to Mary Poppins and The Borrowers. Mrs. Moles-worth admired Hans Christian Andersen, and when she praised his way of "gilding the commonest objects with the brightness of his loving and delicate and humorous fancy," she might have been describing her own methods with the cuckoo clock, which she too portrays in vivid, humorous, and loving detail.

Mary Louisa Molesworth was born in 1839 to Scottish parents of an upper-class but impoverished family. This background explains both the passionate, almost reverent regard for precious and beautiful things that illuminates many of her books, and the snobbery that occasionally mars them. She was brought up mainly in Manchester and at twenty-two married an Army officer, with whom she was not happy. After bearing five children, she separated from him and moved for a time to Normandy (which provides the French background for The Tapestry Room ), until success drew her back to London. Her first adult novel was published in 1870, under the name of Ennis Graham, but from 1875 on she devoted herself mainly to writing for children, publishing over one hundred books. The Cuckoo Clock (1877), her last book to be signed Ennis Graham, and The Tapestry Room (1879) were two of her earliest stories and helped to establish the very substantial reputation she enjoyed in her day. Her books were received with such universal acclaim—adjectives such as charming, beautiful, delightful, were showered on her by reviewers—that it hardly comes as a surprise to find the poet Swinburne comparing her in 1884 with George Eliot. Her last book appeared in 1911; she died in 1921.

The Cuckoo Clock is one of Mrs. Molesworth's very best stories. The unfailing theme of a lonely little girl in a strange old-fashioned house is given vivid and evocative treatment and the plot has a well-rounded unity lacking in many of Mrs. Molesworth's books. The character of Griselda, a quiet, imaginative child who tries to be good but fails at times through boredom, is one of the charms of the book, and so equally is the cuckoo, pompous, self-assured, and condescending, an unmistakable ancestor of E. Nesbit's phoenix. The magic of familiar things, of supernatural adventures combined with plush armchairs and warm feathered mantles, gives the book its delightfully cozy atmosphere.

By contrast The Tapestry Room is chaotic, with many different ingredients thrown together. The story of the English boy going to live with his French relations provides a kind of framework into which are untidily thrust first a romantic, supernatural adventure with a tapestry castle, a rainbow forest, and a dying swan, then a version of the Scottish fairy tale of the Brown Bull of Norrowa, and finally a simple family story set around the French Revolution. But despite its flawed structure, there are reasons for reading The Tapestry Room. There is the brilliantly evoked atmosphere of the high-walled, snow-bound house, real and solid as Mrs. Molesworth's houses nearly always are. Then there are the well-drawn characters of the two children, portrayed in some delightful nursery scenes—practical, motherly Jeanne and dreamy, chivalrous Hugh—given a fairy-tale idealization in Walter Crane's drawings. Lastly there is Dudu the raven, chillingly introduced as an "ogre fairy" and a "wicked enchanter," a splendidly sarcastic, enigmatic creature with a Carrollian habit of snubbing his young companions. From the hotchpotch of the story these creations emerge with the force and humor of Mrs. Molesworth at her best.

Selected References

Laski, Marghanita. Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett. London 1950.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Mrs. Molesworth. London 1961.

Roger Lancelyn Green (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Green, Roger Lancelyn. "Preface." In "Four Winds Farm" and "The Children of the Castle," pp. v-xvi. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977.

[In the following essay, a preface for the Garland edition of Four Winds Farm and The Children of the Castle, Green explores Molesworth's utilization of magic and fantasy in both works, commenting that "these two alone of her books venture into the numinous—the land of the spirit which can only be seen and felt with the aid of allegory."]

"One of the best of Mrs. Molesworth's dream-like tales," is how Charlotte Yonge described Four Winds Farm ; and Mrs. Molesworth's own description of "Forget-me-not-land" in The Children of the Castle may be taken as an extension and elaboration of Charlotte Yonge's reaction: "It would be difficult to describe this magic land; I must leave a good deal of it to that kind of fancy which comes nearer truth than clumsy words." And elsewhere in the same book Mrs. Molesworth seems to be subscribing to the Platonic theory of archetypes: "For all we see, children dear, is but a type, faint and shadowy, of the real things that are."

These two books were not Mrs. Molesworth's first adventures into a magic land, nor yet her last: such tales as The Cuckoo Clock and The Tapestry Room preceded them by ten or twelve years, while The Magic Nuts and The Ruby Ring came at about the same distance after them—to say nothing of her superb fairy tales in the more ordinary tradition in such collections as An Enchanted Garden and her last book, Fairies Afield. But the two books now set before us stand quite apart from all the rest. In the others the wonders are those of a magic world or of traditional fairylands: these two alone of her books venture into the numinous—the land of the spirit which can only be seen and felt with the aid of allegory and is experienced best when the allegory is so indefinite or submerged that the reader feels it without making any conscious interpretation.

In this, Mrs. Molesworth stands midway between George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis. There is doubtless a little influence from MacDonald, perhaps also from such definite allegories as Norman McLeod's The Gold Thread and Mrs. Craik's The Little Lame Prince—but both Mrs. Molesworth's stories, and particularly the second, take a definite step forward in the direction that C. S. Lewis was to explore so fully in his chronicles of Narnia. When the Princess says to Mavis: "Dear child, Ruby cannot hear me yet; she cannot see me. If she could she would feel as you," it might almost be Aslan who is speaking; and the moments of wonder and delight, as when Cousin Hortensia sees the Princess in the Turret Room, are authentic moments of that "Joy" which Lewis sought in vain to describe. Lewis wrote of MacDonald that "the quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live," and that same quality shines faintly but clearly through these two tales. For, indeed, all three authors are glimpsing the same "elusive Form which once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire" and trying to share that glimpse with their readers. Lewis describes this art as mythopoeic rather than literary, and for moments in both stories Mrs. Molesworth achieves a new myth as surely, though not always as clearly, as MacDonald does in The Princess and Curdie.

These two tales are all the more curious and interesting because Mrs. Molesworth seems never to have attempted precisely the same kind of myth-making in anything else that she wrote. She was the author of a hundred books, two booklets, a few uncollected short stories, and a few sets of verses. Apart from a dozen or so adult novels, she wrote many directed at teenage girls, all now very definitely "dated," and many stories of younger children, the best of which achieve a very high degree of excellence and deserve to be remembered. The best known, such as The Cuckoo Clock and The Tapestry Room, are tales of fantasy mingling with real life; the rest are stories—miniature novels—of child-life ranging from small children in Carrots and Two Little Waifs, through older children in such books as Nurse Heatherdale's Story and Peterkin, to stories of children on the edge of adolescence such as My New Home and The Carved Lions, which is certainly the best of all her "real-life" stories and itself touches the numinous for a moment in Geraldine's dream.

The background of her life is very simple. She was born Mary Louisa Stewart, on 29 May 1839, in Rotterdam, Holland, her father, Charles Augustus Stewart, being a merchant shipper. She left Holland at the age of two, but her very earliest recollection was of a furious but exciting storm of wind—perhaps one of those which guided Gratian in Four Winds Farm. After this she lived in Manchester, the family moving, as their fortunes improved, from "a dull house in a dull street" to a more salubrious suburb, and finally into the country. She married Major Richard Moles-worth in 1861, and they had seven children, two of whom died young. By 1878 the marriage had broken down, largely because of Major Molesworth's growing mental instability—the result of a head wound received in the Crimean War—and they separated, but did not divorce.

After some years in France, Mrs. Molesworth brought her children back to England to be educated, and she lived in London for the rest of her life. Her first literary ventures—four three-volume novels—had little success, but Tell Me a Story (1875), Carrots (1876), and The Cuckoo Clock (1877) established her suddenly among the most popular writers of children's books in that golden age in which her contemporaries included Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald, Mrs. Ewing and Charlotte Yonge, and were soon to include Andrew Lang, Kenneth Grahame, and E. Nesbit.

While she was earning money for her children's education she wrote as many as six books in a year; but this did not seem to mar the excellence of her best stories, which appeared for Christmas every year from 1875 to 1911 over the Macmillan imprint, illustrated by the most famous illustrators of the day—Walter Crane for the first sixteen, and later such well-known artists as Leslie Brooke, Hugh Thomson, and H. R. Millar. (It is amusing to note that The Children of the Castle was so called by a mistake on Walter Crane's part: Mrs. Molesworth's own title had been The Princess with the Forget-me-not Eyes!)

She continued writing, though producing fewer and fewer books, until her hundredth, Fairies Afield, in 1911, but lived until 20 July 1921.

Selected References

Laski, Marghanita. Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett. London 1950.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Mrs. Molesworth. London 1961.

Frank P. Riga (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Riga, Frank P. "(De)constructing the Patriarchal Family: Mary Louisa Molesworth and the Late Nineteenth-Century Children's Novel." In Family Matters in the British and American Novel, edited by Andrea O'Reilly Herrera, Elizabeth Mahn Nollen, and Sheila Reitzel Foor, pp. 97-114. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Riga claims that The Palace in the Garden and Molesworth's other children's works offer a "subversive message beneath the tranquil surface of conventionality" in their depiction of the Victorian family.]

In discussing the use of fantasy and fairy tale in children's novels at the end of the nineteenth century, Jack Zipes argues that many of the important writers such as Julia Horatia Ewing, Mary Louisa Moles-worth, and Edith Nesbit, adopted an essentially traditionalist approach. In Zipes's words:

[They] conceived plots conventionally to reconcile themselves and their readers to the status quo of Victorian society. Their imaginative world could be called exercises in complicity with the traditional opponents of fairy tales, for there is rarely a hint of social criticism and subversion in their works. After a brief period of disturbance, the fairies, brownies, elves or other extraordinary creatures generally enable the protagonists to integrate themselves into a prescribed social order.


In an article on Edith Nesbit, U. C. Knoepflmacher seconds Zipes's argument, stating that for Victorian women writers such as Ewing, Molesworth and Nesbit, "fantasy serves an ideology that remains essentially anti-fantastic" (301). Although Zipes and Knoepflmacher agree that the above women writers appropriated what appear to be subversive fairy tale and fantasy motifs, nevertheless, in Knoepflmacher's words, their work "neither radically challenges a patriarchal order nor sharply departs from pronounced moralism" (302).1 In this view, the above women writers tend, with a few after-thought exceptions, to reaffirm the validity of the bourgeois nuclear family as a sound, unquestioned social structure, and thus to validate an essentially patriarchal status quo.

Neither Zipes nor Knoepflmacher depart from a widely held critical consensus about nineteenth-century writers, and especially women writers for children. With few exceptions, critics have argued that nineteenth-century women writers did not seriously question the bourgeois ideology of the fixed and static nuclear family. As Jane Rendall states, central to this ideology is the "concept of the desirability of the private and domesticated family world, apart from the public world of the economic and political marketplace" (44). Nor did nineteenth-century writers, argue the critics, cast doubt upon the "doctrine" of separate spheres which underpinned the nuclear family, with its restrictive views of men's and women's roles. According to the doctrine of separate spheres, women were to play a passive, subordinate and domestic role. Men, by contrast, were to play a more public, active, superior and controlling role.

As some critics argue, this familial ideology was difficult, almost impossible, to challenge. In Women and Fiction, Patricia Stubbs observes that it was dangerous for a writer to question the stable image of the inviolate, idealized nuclear family with its inflexible roles for men and women. A writer who did so would be censored and silenced by "publishers, editors or librarians." Stubbs explains:

If a novel violated social and sexual conventions it was not just frowned upon or ignored. Society operated an extensive apparatus for banning and it did not hesitate to use it. This meant that if they wanted to be published at all, writers had to accept severe restrictions on the scope and treatment of their material.


Critics have agreed that writers of children's books could seldom if ever be exceptions to this general rule. If women writers for children appeared to deconstruct the rigorously conventional image of the nuclear family, they invariably reaffirmed or reinstated it by the conclusion of the novel. The status quo thus remained essentially intact.

I wish to argue that, in contrast to this critical consensus, at least one late nineteenth-century children's writer, Mary Louisa Molesworth, does not merely reinstate traditional paradigms of social order. Instead, she questions the status quo by destabilizing and subverting the rigorously paternalistic image of the nuclear family. Molesworth, well known at her death in 1921 as the writer of over 100 volumes for children, often depicts a traditional family structure that has been altered by various social, economic, and other factors. Parents are often in foreign countries, the army, or dead. In The Carved Lions (1895), for example, the Le Marchants leave Geraldine in a boarding school as they seek economic opportunity in South America. In The Cuckoo Clock (1877), Griselda is sent to live with her great aunts after her mother's death, and in The Tapestry Room (1879), the protagonist's family takes in an orphaned relative. Although the family at first "breaks down" in some of her plots, it appears by the novel's end to be reconstituted according to the "old" order. This reconstitution might lead the reader to see her as merely reaffirming this social order. But this is not the case. The nuclear family with its prescriptive roles only appears to be reconstructed along conventional lines. Molesworth's The Palace in the Garden (1887) is a case in point. The story seems to revolve around what might, under other circumstances, be a cliché: the finding of the lost mother figure, the full reconstitution of the nuclear family, and the reaffirmation of patriarchal order. By the conclusion of the novel, the family is restored; but the customary patterns and roles have been so altered and modified as to constitute an almost new reality. The newly structured family is analogous, but certainly not identical, to the conventional nuclear family.

Molesworth does not openly defy convention in The Palace in the Garden. Instead, she subverts it by indirection. The expected members of the nuclear family are present: a father figure, a mother figure, and children. But they either no longer play the expected roles, or their conventional roles have been modified in significant ways. The aging grandfather—an upper middle-class, stereotypical family patriarch and member of parliament—is transformed from a distant, benevolent authority figure into a man who learns to express the genuine affection he feels for his grandchildren. The children's great aunt, who takes the place of the dead mother, is not at all conventional. She is the former family outcast, who has been rejected because she had disobeyed her parents. All of the family members have ostracized her, including her brother, the children's grandfather. At best she is an unusual choice to assume the role of the absent mother. Since she has not played the restricted role mandated for women, her presence destabilizes the fixed view of the nuclear family. She has made decisions independent of fatherly and brotherly authority. The children are also exceptional. As orphans, they have far more scope for independence. Throughout the novel, they take the initiative rather than being passive, nurtured objects of cultural conditioning. In one sense, rather than be "educated" by their elders, they become the "educators" of their elders. They ultimately play a significant role in facilitating the transformation of the family along unconventional lines. Not only is the family reconstituted along more flexible and dynamic lines, but it is transformed emotionally so that the sterility resulting from unexpressed, even repressed, affection is replaced by a vitality that grows from mutual expressions of love.

This salutary change can be described as a magical transformation, mediated through fantasy and fairy tale. Gussie, the narrator and one of the children, repeatedly insists on the commonsense reality of her account, presenting the impression that she is striving to provide a realistic narrative. But the reality or authenticity of the narrative that reflects her experience does not deny the ethos of fairy tale. Instead, fairy tale elements are metamorphosed and incorporated into the narrative so that the novel itself appears as a contemporary fairy tale complete with a series of traditional motifs, including the magical transformation of the family, and two fairy tale intercessors, who are the equivalent of the fairy godmother or magic mediator and who facilitate the transformation. In Molesworth's novel, fairy tale is not seen as an infantile realm of fantasy which is displaced, as the child matures, by a world of experience based on the reality principle. Fairy tale does not give way to the dull quotidian of empirical reality. On the contrary, the realism of The Palace in the Garden in some ways serves as a mask for a literary fairy tale.

Quite aware of the restrictions placed on late nineteenth-century novelists, particularly woman novelists, Molesworth has dressed her "fairy tale" in what appears to be the conventional garb of realism. In her study Feminist Lives in Victorian England: Private Roles and Public Commitment, Philippa Levine notes that women who wished to make the case for unconventional views often tempered their position to avoid overt hostility and censorship. "Feminists," she explains, "were sometimes cautious in their approach, favouring conservatism in dress as a means of deflecting the cruder criticisms of a bewildered public" (vii). Molesworth takes a similar approach, subverting rather than openly defying convention. I do not wish to make the case that she is a feminist; however, I do wish to argue that she brings—in the guise of a children's story—an approach to the nuclear family that is hardly conventional.

The events of the narrative are deceptively commonplace, and when order is disrupted, its restoration gives the impression of a traditional reaffirmation. The locus of family structure and authority never appears to be ambiguous. From this perspective, Molesworth's novel seems to resolve itself on the reconstruction of the patriarchal family. The story turns on a mystery concerning a family member whose identity has literally been erased (the grandfather has crossed out her name in one of the books they read as children) and hints at the disruption of the family's unity and nurturing function. But its ideology never appears to be put in question. When the three children protagonists—Gussie, the narrator; Tibs, her sister; and Gerald, their seven-year-old brother—are orphaned, the grandfather does not hesitate to assume what he sees as his responsibility as the head of the family. He says to the children, "what I do is no more than you have a right to" (104). Mrs. Munt, the old housekeeper at Rosebuds, the family's country cottage, tells the children that their grandfather could have done his duty differently; he could have sent them to a boarding school or entrusted them to the care of strangers, and thus have further disrupted the family. Instead, he chose to re-open his London house in order to have them near him. Yet he remains emotionally distant from the children.

At the opening of the novel, the grandfather is a typical, remote yet benevolent patriarchal head of family. He seldom visits the three children, and when he does, he treats them ironically and demonstrates no affection. The children, in turn, are not encouraged to show affection. When the housekeeper, Mrs. Munt, explains that their grandfather does love them, but that his own troubles have caused him to withdraw into himself, Tib responds, "I wish he'd let us feel that he loves us, and then we would, indeed we would, love him" (91). This lack of overt affection gives the children a sense of emotional abandonment. Part of this breakdown in the expression of affection and love, as Mrs. Munt explains and the children sense, arises from the absence of a woman in the family: "A lady—a woman in the family makes all so different" (90). As we see from the developments of the novel, this statement does not finally suggest that love and affection are somehow rooted in woman's "nature," but rather that these qualities, encouraged by woman, are at the source of healthy family life.

The nuclear family is thus depicted as incomplete. It lacks the nurturing care of a mother figure. The paternal values of duty, responsibility, authority, and even a kind of love are present, but the informing affection and felt love, cultivated by a mother figure, are absent. And thus, the children feel unloved, resentful, and emotionally abandoned. While the formal order and structure of the patriarchal family remains intact, its emotional and spiritual substance is, if not vitiated, at least in abeyance. The narrative concludes with what appears to be a conventional restoration of the lost order: a mother figure is found and the nuclear family is thus reconstituted. The reader is presented, upon closure, with a family made whole again. The entire narrative appears to have been designed specifically for the reaffirmation of the bourgeois nuclear family, and of its domestic ideal.

The conventional surface of the narrative appears to be further corroborated by a series of intertextual references in the form of books which the narrator mentions during the course of the novel. Many of these are moral tales and behavior books which would seem to confirm not only the conventionality of the author's narratorial intent but also the mode of moral realism that apparently triumphs over fantasy and fairy tale. The works are significant: they include Maria Edgeworth's Parent's Assistant (1796), Mary Hughes's Ornaments Discovered (1815), and Catherine Sinclare's Holiday House (1839). Each of these texts reinforces what appears to be the didactic message of Molesworth's overt narrative. Edgeworth's Parent's Assistant is a collection of tales that demonstrate the unhappy repercussions of lying, thieving, bad company, and idleness. Edgeworth also challenges the notion that fairy tale and fantasy play a positive role in children's education. In the introduction, she explicitly challenges Samuel Johnson's views on children's proclivity for fairy tales, asking, "Why should the mind be filled with fantastic visions, instead of useful knowledge?" Hughes's Ornaments Discovered appears to be an intentional parallel to The Palace in the Garden. Like Molesworth's novel, it features a family disrupted by the death of the parents. The orphan, Fanny, learns her lesson on how to play the conventional domestic role; she discovers that "amiable manners and a well-regulated mind, are the only true valuable ornaments." In Holiday House, Sinclare seems to counter Edgeworth's message about the negative role of fantasy and fairy tale, declaring "All play of imagination is now carefully discouraged, and books written for young persons are generally a mere record of dry facts, unenlivened by any appeal to the heart, or any excitement to the fancy." Yet in the later chapters of Holiday House, she appears to modify her initial judgment. The children's better-behaved elder brother, who had become a sailor, is wounded in action and comes home to die a holy death, piously exhorting the younger children to reform and become sober and truthful. That is, it becomes a moral tale.

As the above intertextual allusions seem to imply, the moral tale with its didacticism and exhortations to conventional patterns of behavior appears to inform Molesworth's novel. At times, the influence is explicit, as the narrator, Gussie, occasionally expatiates on the wickedness of lying, cruelty, and prying into the private matters of adults. She also stresses the fact that while she is considered to be a "naughty" girl, her naughtiness is never cruel or harmful. And while the children undertake adventures without the knowledge either of the housekeeper or of the grandfather himself, they are well-behaved children, careful not to disobey the grandfather even indirectly. Thus, they obtain "permission" from the grandfather for exploring in the secret place behind the locked door in the high wall surrounding the cottage grounds. But they do so, as the reader recognizes, while the grandfather is in a state of absentmindedness. On the surface, however, their lives are carefully regulated. For instance, they are forbidden to associate with the neighbors and are required to live in isolation from other families, an injunction which they do not understand but which they obey.

But this is on the surface of the narrative. In addition to the didactic books by Edgeworth, Hughes, and Sinclare, the narrator also refers to a different series of texts whose messages contrast sharply to the exhortations of the moral tales. While the moral tales appeared to corroborate conventional expectations, these other intertextual allusions point toward the subversive elements underlying the ostensibly unchallenged values of the narrative with its apparent return to patriarchal order. Among these texts, Gussie emphasizes a series of books which feature the essentially subversive world of fantasy, wonder and fairy tale: Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wonder Book, "and best of all perhaps, the dearest little shabby, dumpy, dark-brown book of real old-fashioned fairy tales" (18), which the "realistic" narrator intends to keep for her own children. The fact that the treasured book is worn from reading stresses the key function of such tales in the narrative. As these intertextual references suggest, the didactic and conventional surface of the narrative hides a different series of values which counter rather than reaffirm the ideology of the bourgeois nuclear family. The intertextual references are the cues or signals provided by Molesworth to suggest her apparent conventional narrative is not all that it seems on the surface.

From the outset, Molesworth provides a series of hints that indicate an unconventional view of the family. Gussie as narrator plays a significant role in the indirect subversion of patriarchal norms. From the beginning of the novel, Molesworth problematizes the narrative by providing a naive child narrator, who presents an unusual and by nineteenth-century standards unconventional view of the bourgeois nuclear family. This unconventionality is corroborated by recent studies of how the nuclear family was viewed during the nineteenth century. In Beyond the Family, sociologist and cultural historian A. F. Robertson argues that previous views of the nineteenth-century nuclear family were rigid and incomplete. Although the ideal of the nuclear family was promulgated as a doctrine and although nineteenth-century sociologists and historians alike argued that it was fixed and stable, the nuclear family was far more flexible and dynamic than critics and theorists have assumed. According to Robertson, "static definitions" have prevented historians from seeing that reproduction, the central concern of the nuclear family, "concerns a continually changing ensemble of people" (162). In other words, people, then as now, found ways to vary the family structure in order to accommodate the needs of the different persons who wanted to be part of it.

Previous studies of the family were skewed by the fact that researchers relied on "a single informant," who was invariably the male "household head" (Robertson 162). This observation plays a key role in assessing the significance of Molesworth's child narrator. In providing an alternative perspective of the nuclear family—that of the naive and unformed female child—Molesworth is able to present a far more dynamic and flexible view of the family than was conventionally possible. As Robertson notes, previous studies, even during the twentieth century, have frequently relied entirely on the male head of household, and thus on the male perspective, for information. The result is an incomplete, unnecessarily static and even distorted view of the family. "Construing the life of the household as a function of a single person's career," explains Robertson, "produces patterns which diverge significantly from the more complicated and temporally more extensive growth, decline, and replacement of the entire group"(162). By presenting the narrative through the eyes of a female child, Molesworth provides what may be seen as corrective lenses, which allow a different view of the bourgeois family to come into focus. Throughout the novel the unconventional female view is sustained. This is so even when the first person narrative is suddenly destabilized and fragmented toward the conclusion of the novel, as different narrators are interposed to provide information for the same event. It is noteworthy that none of these narratives is given from the perspective of the male head of household, namely the grandfather, even though he participates directly or indirectly in each of them.

The child narrator as an unconventional informant presents an unusual, and potentially subversive perspective. The ability of the narrator to deconstruct—wittingly or unwittingly—conventionally held views of the family is further enhanced by the fact that she has been isolated from English society and from its conventions in a number of ways. Born in Spain and orphaned at an early age, she has no memory of what a "real" family is supposed to be like. Living with her grandfather has kept her in artificial isolation from other families, as she repeatedly acknowledges in her narrative. Although she states that her ignorance is a gap in her knowledge, this ignorance actually plays a positive role. It is the point of departure for conceiving the nuclear family in different and more dynamic terms. From the outset, for example, she does not perceive the grandfather's benevolent yet ironic and cold distance as normal. On the contrary, she perceives it as a lack, as a problem. She also connects it with the family mystery of the crossed out name that she and the children wish to resolve. She suspects that the answer to the family mystery will help to provide an answer to her grand-father's character, to his cold reserve and his distance. And finally, in a rough parallel to Huck Finn, she comes to believe that good has come out of what would be seen, conventionally, as "naughty" or reprehensible behavior. As she comments in her childlike way:

And even the great thing I have to write about, the thing that put it into my head to write it at all, would never have come but for our being in a way naughty—that is very queer, isn't it? To think that good and nice things should sometimes come out of being naughty!


Her entire narrative may thus be seen as a process of undermining the values of the patriarchal family.

The mystery itself concerns a lost family member, a woman named Regina, whose outcast state is symbolized by the erasure of her name in one of the books the children have found in their grandfather's house. The mystery begins to take shape when the children, still in the London house, find out that they are to holiday at Rosebuds, the family's country cottage previously unknown to them. Gussie remembers that the name Rosebuds is written in one of grandfather's children's books, Ornaments Discovered, but she also remembers that, on the same page, another name has been scored out. On examining the book, the children discover that the scored out name is Regina, Tib's middle name. This clue to the mystery, however, puts them perilously close to what they consider their grandfather's "secrets," which they, as respectful and well-behaved children, cannot pry into. Yet they cannot stop themselves from wondering what the mystery is or what it means. Only later does the reader recognize the hidden irony of the crossed out name in the context of Ornaments Discovered. The name is that of a rebellious woman, the grandfather's sister and the children's great aunt. He had erased his sister's name from a conduct book that had clearly "failed" in its mission to shape her into an obedient embodiment of the domestic ideal. Gussie herself is "naughty" and the resolution of the novel turns on what she considers "naughty."

The mystery of Regina's identity remains concealed from the children. The retrospective narrator, Gussie, knows who she is at the time of writing, but conceals her great aunt's identity from the reader, who is only informed of her real status as rebellious woman and family outcast at the conclusion of the novel. And although great aunt Regina does not actually appear until the close of the narrative, she is indirectly present throughout much of the novel, represented by an ancestral portrait of a young woman named Regina, and by her daughter, who is also named Regina. Regina, the grandfather's sister, Regina the daughter, and Regina in the family portrait are linked not only because they bear the same name, but also because they have an uncanny physical resemblance to one another. Gussie's sister, Tib, whose middle name is Regina, also resembles the three women. The suggestive richness of this pattern of character quadruplets suggests the novel's attempt to demonstrate how varied individuals are accommodated to a single family. In particular, the multiplication of characters who appear to be identical implies that the family's identity and coherence seem to depend on the female line. As we also discover, however, these women are all different, each independent and active in her own way: the woman of the portrait is the enchanted princess of the children's imagining, the great aunt is the out-cast rebel, her daughter Regina is the reconciling mediator, and Tib is the budding romantic who wants the different and unusual.

Through great aunt Regina's "representatives," the narrator is able to depict her in a positive light throughout much of the narrative, before the reader knows the truth about her being ostracized from the family. The children, not knowing who this mysterious figure is, cast her in the role of the princess in a fairy tale they have invented in order to account for circumstances they as yet do not understand. The fairy tale fantasy, far from being inconsequential, actually helps them to reshape reality. Ultimately, the fairy tale projection of the positive figure of the princess, or the good fairy, succeeds in transforming adult reality itself. The outcast woman, whose representatives have been benevolent figures for the children, is in turn revealed to the grandfather as the figure the children have imagined. The fairy tale becomes reality. The children can imagine her as a nurturing figure because they do not know her status as an out-cast, a status that does not interfere with their acceptance of her as a magical intercessor and as a replacement for their lost mother. For the children, there is no social or emotional barrier to her reintegration into the family, or with her assumption of the maternal role. Indeed, through the eyes of the children, and especially through the eyes of the child narrator, the grandfather's erasure of her name and his banning her, and her daughter, from the respectable territory of the family, appears unwarranted and over-reactive.

The children's initiative to transform the family begins—outside of their awareness or intention—when they are moved to the family cottage, Rosebuds. Rosebuds had already been associated with the mystery of the erased name. Gussie's response to this new place signals her recognition that, despite her prosaic tendencies, she has somehow entered into a fairy tale and fantasy realm. On the first morning, she lies in an uncustomarily meditative state between sleeping and waking—the romantic area of the mixed states of consciousness—which she sees in terms of fairy tale:

Oh, it is too delicious—and when you hear all those sounds, as you are lying there still dreamy and sleepy, there is a sort of strangeness and fairyness—I must make up that word—that makes you think of Red Riding Hood setting off in the early morning to her grandmother's cottage, or of the little princess who went to live with the dwarfs to keep house for them.


While still in the London house, Gerald and Tibs, her brother and sister, had already indicated a similar recognition when they first heard of the country cottage. Resisting the idea of a fantasy world, Gerald complains: "I don't like cottages with roses growing over them … There are always witches living in cottages like that, in the fairy tales." And to specify his insight, he adds, "There is in Snow-white and Rose-red" (16-17). Picking up the reference to witches, Tib then adds: "Well … it would be rather fun to have a witch at Rosebuds. I do hope there'll be something interesting and out of the common there—something romantic" (17).

After their arrival at Rosebuds, as their initial responses have already suggested, the children continue their attempt to make sense of the family mystery by incorporating what they know into a fairy tale or fantasy narrative. While playing in the cottage garden, in order to assuage their curiosity about the family mystery, into which they, as good, obedient children, cannot pry, Tib suggests that they fantasize about it, that they "turn it into a play."

We can't leave off wondering, as you say, but we can mix up our wondering with fancy, and make up a plan of how it all was. It will be very interesting, for we shall know there is something real, and yet we can make it more wonderful than anything real could be now that everything's grown so plain—and—I don't know the word—the opposite of poetry and fairy stories, I mean—in the world.


In her narrative or "plan" to represent "how it all was," the romantic Tib recognizes that the fairies have been exiled from the world, that the world has become "prosaic," and so in her narrative, she, like Wordsworth, wants to surround the events of every day with an aura of imagination, thus giving it a sense of the wonderful and the extraordinary. Gussie, though she thinks this a good idea, tells us, "I am not so fond of fancying or pretending as Tib—I like real things. And the idea of a real secret or mystery had taken hold of my mind, and I wanted to find out about it" (43). Tib wants a story of ancient times or ogres, that is, a romance or fairy tale; Gussie wants a prosaic, realistic story of detection. And yet, in the final count, what Gussie tells is a story laced and under-pinned by fairy tale elements and motifs. The conflict between the two children and the two modes of perception dominates the attempt at narration and becomes a dialectic by which the children make sense of their growing but incomplete knowledge of the family mystery.

Once the children decide to act out their narrative, they must first construct a plot that will accommodate their knowledge and perceptions of the mystery. Tib, who "was all for a regular romance," proposes the initial plot in which "there was to be a beautiful lady shut up by a cruel baron, who wanted to get all her money by forcing her to marry his hump-backed son" (79). A prince, of course, will rescue the lady. Since they are to act out the story, however, they run into several problems immediately. While there is a garden wall at Rosebuds, for example, it is too high for the children to climb, and so the lady's escape from the dungeon by going over the wall must be revised: "And we fixed that, instead of 'scaling the wall,' the lady should escape by hiding in the wood till the prince who was to be her rescuer passed that way" (86). Similar problems of production, casting and setting, cause the children to revise their initial concepts to suit the actual conditions they have found, much as the fairy tale mode itself is being revised to have a contemporary significance. But they never lose sight of the essential motifs of the fairy tale.

A new discovery appears to corroborate Gussie's insight that real mysteries are as exciting and interesting as invented ones, and just as surprising. Discovering a locked door in the garden wall and the key to open it, they believe that they will enter a toolhouse which they could use as a "dungeon" in their invented tale. What they find outstrips their imaginings. When they pass through the door, they are greeted by a "perfect flood of light." It was "like the entrance to some fairy palace of brightness and brilliance…. Was it magic? Had we chanced upon some such wonder of old world times as our little heads were stuffed with" (129). Uncertain whether they are "awake or dreaming," they enter "the enchanted palace," and Tib exclaims, "what a bower for a princess!" (133). Gussie makes one of her expected disclaimers at this point in an aside to the reader: "this is not a fairy story; and in the end I think you will allow, when you have come to know the whole, that it is very interesting, perhaps more interesting than a fairy story after all" (131). It is not a fairy story for her, since it is not distant from the children or separated from reality by a clear barrier; instead, it is reality. But despite Gussie's objections, the alert reader notes that her account is suffused with the language, images, and motifs of a fairy tale, albeit transposed into contemporary terms.

The children find themselves in a house that appears to be unlived in, since it looks deserted and dust covers hide the furniture. And yet the place is obviously cared for. They enter what appears to be a conservatory. A second door leads to a hallway "which ends in a very large and handsome drawing room" (135). The doorway leading out of the drawing room is locked, but on one wall they discover a life-sized portrait. Although painted in a different, much earlier age, the portrait—as already mentioned—bears an uncanny resemblance to Tib. A further detail seems to connect the portrait to the family mystery: it is labeled "Regina," which is both the name crossed out in the grandfather's copy of Ornaments Discovered, and Tib's middle name. This un-usual discovery prompts the children to believe that they have entered an enchanted palace. Gerald declares, "Perhaps that lady is really alive, and the fairies have fastened her up into that picture till—till"(139). The others find Gerald's inarticulateness amusing; yet in a sense his assessment proves to be accurate. Great aunt Regina, who resembles the picture, has indeed been banished by the grandfather—an act that has the equivalent effect of enchantment, since it prevents her from being part of the family and erects a "magical," i.e., an insurmountable, barrier between her and her family.

Tib immediately sees the portrait as the new basis for their fantasies, since the woman portrayed can become an enchanted princess. Gussie, by contrast, wishes to solve the mystery it presents. She indicates that this room is not part of an enchanted palace by making a practical move. Finding the key to the door leading into the drawing room, she hides it in a drawer, so that no one can return and lock the children out: "I took the key out of the lock and slipped it inside a drawer of one of the big cabinets where it may be lying still" (144). Gussie proceeds like a detective, who wishes to find the real explanation for what only appears to be enchantment. She recognizes that "the palace in the garden" is linked with the mystery surrounding the crossed out name; but she also understands that the grandfather must explain this to them voluntarily: "What I want is to find out about it from him" (151). Since the discovery of the portrait has given them a new tack, the children abandon their original plot: "For after a while we got tired of our play story about the baron and the hump back and all the rest of it, and then we pretended that we came to visit the princess in her beautiful palace, and that she was very kind to us indeed" (148). That is, by casting the princess in a maternal role, they have substituted an image closer to their true desire for that of the hackneyed romance.

At this point, the equivalent of the magical intercessor of fairy tale arrives in the person of Charles Truro. Charles, a cousin who is acting as a secretary to their grandfather, is kind and affectionate, an attentive listener who immediately wins their trust and confidence. They tell him the secret of their discovery in the garden, seeing him as "a sort of good fairy who was to put everything right" (176). Without their knowledge, Charles intervenes. As the reader discovers later, he is not only the grandfather's secretary, but also the good friend of great aunt Regina and her daughter. Thus, he knows the story of how the old man banished his sister for her disobeying their parents in her choice of a husband. Charles Truro and Regina devise a plan: since she has access to the "old house" which contains the "enchanted palace," she decides to enter the house and the children's fantasy tale, without explaining to them who she is.

Cousin Regina's entrance into the "old house" seems magical. The children recognize her arrival, almost instinctively, even before they see her. Gussie feels the difference in the room: "it seemed warmer, more alive, there was more feeling in it" (181). The family resemblance between Regina and the life-sized portrait in the abandoned house is so striking that when Regina steps into the drawing room for the first time, the children almost believe she has stepped out of the portrait. They accept her presence—her friendship, her kindness, her gifts, her entertainment—as if she were, indeed, a magical figure. When she leaves at the sound of a bell, Gussie comments, "Surely she must be a fairy of some kind, after all!" (197). When the children discuss the meeting later, the only way they can make sense of it is through fairy tale motifs. Gerald is convinced that "she is a fairy, and that she lives in Fairyland," and commenting on the summons by the bell, Tib responds, "That part of it was really like a fairy story" (200-01). The practical, realityloving Gussie adds, "If only she had left a slipper behind her, it would have been a little like Cinderella… though the deserted, quiet room and that part of it, is more like the Sleeping Beauty" (201). And then, remembering their first entrance through the garden wall, she adds, "And the first day, when we were trying to get in at the door in the wall, was like one of the stories of dwarfs and gnomes in the woods …"(201).

The conclusion of the tale is not an abandonment of fairy tale, but instead an incorporation of fairy tale into everyday reality. The fairy tale which helped the children make sense of reality, now succeeds in reshaping reality. The transformation occurs through a series of improbable coincidences—the contemporary version of "magic"—to bring about the "happy ending." Precisely at this point, the hitherto unified view of the first person narrator is interrupted by Gussie's need to be in three places at the same time in order to make coherent sense of the complex ending. She solves this narrative problem by first stating her quandary and then by reporting a series of alternate perspectives that had been told to her later. The break-up of the narrative into multiple perspectives allows the reader to see that the transformation of the family is finally the work of many mediators, not just the children themselves.

In the first of many coincidences, which serve to bring about the denouement, the children break off the key to the garden and are locked in "the palace." The grandfather, who has arrived for a visit, is over-come by fear when they do not return. He believes that they have drowned in the deep pools in an area outside the cottage. Suddenly, his emotions and his imagination are activated; he imagines that they are dead, and is so convinced that he orders the dragging of the pools to find their bodies. This traumatic experience, living through what he believes to be the children's deaths, causes him to acknowledge and express his own emotions for the first time. And it causes him to recognize how much they mean to him. Thus he becomes vulnerable and open to what now occurs. By a further coincidence, his servants, in order to borrow dragging hooks, go to the house where great aunt Regina and her daughter are living. Regina's daughter immediately realizes that the children have not been drowned, but instead have been locked in the old house. She sends her mother, the family outcast, to the grandfather with the good news, while she goes to free the children from the locked up house. The grandfather is reconciled to his sister, whom he had adamantly refused to see for many years. A new family unit is now formed. Order appears to be restored, and the conclusion seems to re-affirm the normal status quo.

However, it is a much altered status quo, and a much more flexible and dynamic grouping than the "nuclear family" with its doctrine of separate spheres and its static, rigidly defined roles. Gerald, whose point of view is ostensibly dismissed by his two older sisters, is nonetheless accurate in his assessment: a fairy tale intercession has brought about a transformation in his life which surpasses the mere factual.

I do understand all I need … I understand that we've got an auntie, and that she's very kind, and that Regina is a cousin, and she's very nice too—so nice that I'm still going to think she's a fairy. That's what I've settled, and I think it's quite enough when only seven.


As Gussie tells us in the last sentences of the novel, the new family grouping has transformed their lives and has transformed the family itself from a sterile grouping of human beings connected by duty and blood ties, to a far more vital unit of people, inter-connected by strong and active emotional bonds: "We are almost always together, grandpapa and auntie and Regina and we children, and very often Mr. Truro too. Grandpapa says he is getting very old but he really doesn't look so, and even when he does get 'very old,' we shall all only love him the better" (298). The simplicity of the final statement, like the surface of the narrative itself, is deceptive. Hidden in the ostensibly naive account written by a child, Molesworth has put into question the view of family which was officially promulgated throughout the nineteenth century.

Instead of the domestic ideal of the obedient, passive Angel in the House, we have not one, but two mother figures: Regina, the rebellious woman, and her daughter, both of whom now act in place of the children's missing mother. Not only are these figures unconventional in themselves; they encourage nontraditional behavior on the part of Gussie. Cousin Regina helps the child, Gussie, to play what was, in the late nineteenth century, still an unconventional role: to write a narrative of her experience. Gussie consciously speaks throughout the narrative about the act of writing, reminding the reader again and again that she is struggling with a difficult narrative, trying to find adequate words to express her point of view. The difficulty lies not in the failure of the child narrator, but in the unusual nature of her task: to articulate an unconventional perspective and to authorize that perspective by the act of writing, an act faciliated by cousin Regina whom the narrator refers to as her writing mentor at several points in the novel. As Gussie's act of writing underlines, the literary heritage plays an important role throughout the novel. The children are always reading and referring to texts. When they first see great aunt Regina through the garden wall, she is reading rather than fulfilling the expected feminine activities of sewing and doing domestic work.

While both of the mother figures and the children themselves play unconventional roles in this family of articulate women, the family structure is also modified by the revised roles of the other characters. The grandfather is no longer the distant family patriarch, but a loving man who is close to his grandchildren, a metamorphosis that is remarkable given the requirements of the patriarchal role. The family is not limited to the mothers, father and children, but is extended to include Charles Truro. It is thus depicted as an open-ended, dynamic and inclusive structure, in which none of the members play a fully conventional role. As Robertson suggests, the nuclear family was, in reality, probably far more flexible and changing than the officially sanctioned paradigm would lead us to believe. Molesworth has thus provided not only a subversive, but perhaps a more accurate, picture of the realities of the bourgeois family than the various regulatory discourses of the nineteenth century would seem to permit.

Molesworth's subtle critique of mainstream values is of particular significance in the context of children's literature as a marginal or inconsequential literary genre. In her discussion of nineteenth-century women artists, Anne Higonnet speaks of the difficulties women faced in charting their careers in territories traditionally reserved for men. Women, Higonnet argues, frequently negotiated positions not in mainstream endeavors, but in areas that were considered to be on the margins of the public artistic and literary domain. According to Higonnet, "Liminal careers provided women with uncharted terrain to claim as their own" (260), and as an example, Higonnet points to the illustration of children's books as one of these "unclaimed" territories. Women who specialized in "unusual or marginal" genres, she argues, "could go far without seeming to break any rules" (260). Moles-worth, who specialized in what appears to be an inconsequential genre, that of children's books, charts precisely such a terrain. And in making this genre her own, she gently questions traditional roles in which women are relegated to the nonpublic, domestic sphere.

In terms of the Victorian nuclear family, The Palace in the Garden does not merely effect a simple reconciliation with the status quo to "enable the protagonists to integrate themselves into a prescribed social order," a reconciliation that "neither challenges a patriarchal order nor sharply departs from a pronounced moralism." On the contrary, this depiction of the family allows the older forms and images to contain new ideas, thereby preserving a sense of familiarity and security while negotiating new terms for family vitality. The fairy tale intertext thus becomes an especially appropriate medium for this kind of subversion, since the fairy tale's primary concern has frequently been to find a mode of transformation that can accommodate and reconcile new realities. And so, though the family seems to look like it always did, it has retained its integrity and stability by being transformed. A careful reading of Molesworth's book reveals that our current assumptions about the Victorian family are probably too narrow and formulaic to describe the vitality with which individuals adjusted the family structure to meet the changing needs of everyday life. It is scarcely surprising, then, to find that her novels—ostensibly straightforward, charming stories, with everyday plots and characters, written by and for children—should actually contain a different, subversive message beneath the tranquil surface of conventionality.


  1. See, however, Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992), in which Knoepflmacher and Nina Auerbach make the case that Molesworth's writing may be more subversive than Knoepflmacher allows here. In "The Brown Bull of Norrowa," a Scottish tale rewritten by Molesworth and inserted into her novel, The Tapestry Room, they argue that the heroine challenges "the conservative ideologies of gender that often seem embedded in the very form of fairy tales" (17).

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina, and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. Forbidden Journies: Fairytales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Higonnet, Anne. "Images—Appearances, Leisure, and Subsistence." A History of Women in the West. Vol. 4. Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War. Ed. Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot. Cambridge, MA: Belknap P of Harvard U, 1993: 246-305.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. "Of Babylands and Babylons: E. Nesbit and the Reclamation of the Fairy Tale." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6.2 (Fall 1987): 299-325.

Levine, Philippa. Feminist Lives in Victorian England: Private Roles and Public Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Basil Rockwell, 1990.

Molesworth, Mary Louisa. The Palace in the Garden. Illus. Harriet M. Bennett. London: Hatchards, Picadilly, 1887.

Rendall, Jane. Women in an Industrializing Society: England 1750-1880. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Reynolds, Kimberly, and Nicola Humble. Victorian Heroines: Representations of Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Art. New York: New York UP, 1993.

Robertson, A. F. Beyond the Family: The Social Organization of Reproduction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Stubbs, Patricia. Women and Fiction: Feminism and the Novel, 1880-1920. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

Zipes, Jack, ed. Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Mary Sebag-Montefiore (essay date September 2002)

SOURCE: Sebag-Montefiore, Mary. "Nice Girls Don't (But Want To): Work Ethic Conflicts and Conundrums in Mrs. Molesworth's Books for Girls." Lion and the Unicorn 26, no. 3 (September 2002): 374-94.

[In the following essay, Sebag-Montefiore demonstrates how Molesworth's children's fiction exemplifies the Victorian female work ethic and argues that Molesworth's "stories tackle her recognition of a woman's need to work, and the corollary—the need to reconcile work with womanliness."]

Constructs and Conflicts

A profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill all my faculties, I have long felt essential to me, I have always longed for. But why, oh my God, cannot I be satisfied with the life which satisfies so many people? Why am I starving, desperate, diseased on it?

Florence Nightingale, private note (c. 1851)

There is a restless desire to "do good," which leads many to look abroad into the wide field of misery, and to overlook the opportunities of usefulness which lie at their own threshold … Lavish upon your home affection, attention, unselfishness, and banish from it every morbid feeling, all craving for excitement, remembering always that

The trivial round, the common task
Will furnish all we want to ask:
Room to deny ourselves a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
The Girl's Home Companion (1891)

Mrs. Molesworth embodies all the conundrums of the Victorian work ethic. By the time she died in 1921, she had written over one hundred books and had been acclaimed as the most popular and successful children's writer of her day.1 She wrote partly because she was an instinctive storyteller, and partly because writing was an escape from an unhappy marriage. But principally she wrote to earn money. Separated from her husband, Mrs. Molesworth was the sole breadwinner for herself and their five children. She liked to live well, and managed to have a fashionable social life, and to house, clothe and launch her family in style by working furiously. Throughout her career, from 1870 until 1911, she published several books every year, as well as countless articles and poems; she wrote long after she said she was too old or too ill to write. She wanted to "sell well, even after I am dead"; anything, anything to earn more money.

Yet her books spell out a work message of caution and restraint. Even though her heroines, like their creator, long for work, she never lets them emulate her own success and independence in the workplace. These heroines, unmarried and in their twenties, live under the parental roof. They know their ambition ought to be confined to the domestic sphere, but their longing for a different kind of fulfillment becomes a struggle between convention and new goals for women. Mrs. Molesworth's life and books are a useful springboard from which to examine the female work ethic, first because of the contrast between her experience and her message, and second because the books themselves sympathetically unpack the anomalous Victorian attitude towards women's work. The books highlight the paradoxes implicit in middle-class Victorian values. Mrs. Molesworth analyzes each conflicting norm in the plight of late nineteenth-century middle-class girls—the appeal of work, the dangers of lack of occupation, the statistical "surplus" of girls that made earning a necessity,2 the need to keep caste and the duty to honor the feminine code. This essay intends to show how the Victorian female work ethic is a maze of contradiction and confusion in which noblesse oblige, ambition and penury are equally significant.

Throughout this article I shall refer to Mary Louisa Stewart Molesworth as Mrs. Molesworth, a polite, though academically archaic, form of address. I believe that individuals from another age can only be judged fairly, not by our own experiences, but by our efforts in understanding the codes and the tenets of their time. This usage underlines and pays tribute to Mrs. Molesworth's respect for convention. In this she typified her class and age. She was firmly middle-class, every inch a lady, and wrote about respectable middle-class families. She believed in social progress, in which talent could break through humble beginnings, but she was also a stickler for tradition and etiquette as the safeguards of advancement. In another conundrum, the Victorians believed in social change, while simultaneously passionately upholding rules of class. To refer to a woman by her surname was not done, unless she was a criminal, tart, lunatic or servant, as in Arnold's acid instance: "Wragg is in custody." It negated her sex and respectability. Mrs. Molesworth, in searching for a path through her labyrinth of orthodox and radical beliefs, was in the end guided by behavior. The sobriquet "Molesworth" would have been, to her, outrageous.

Mrs. Molesworth's double standards of work and womanliness were an echo of Queen Victoria's position. The highest figure in the land was a symbol of all the inconsistencies of the age to which she gave her name. She combined might and femininity, strength and submission, prepotency and dependence. She was both ordinary and extraordinary. On one hand, she was a subservient wife with an attitude that made Lord Salisbury say, "When I knew what the Queen thought, I knew pretty well what views her subjects would take, especially the middle class of her subjects" (Longford 567). On the other hand, she was Empress of the most powerful nineteenth-century empire. A Diamond Jubilee song proclaimed:

Let ev'ry English maiden make this her frequent prayer
That she the same high purpose with her sovereign share.
(St. Aubyn 605)

Yet, although her female subjects were urged to admire and emulate their ruler, Her Majesty whole-heartedly condemned women's rights as a subject "which makes the Queen so furious she can hardly contain herself" (St. Aubyn 219). Her example of contradiction gave middle-class female ambition an irreconcilable base.

The angst attached to female work was confined to the middle classes. The middle class knew God had expressly divided rich from poor. As the hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander, a clergyman's wife, proclaimed in 1848:

God made them, high or lowly
And ordered their estate.

The middle class understood working-class women to be different. The author of My Secret Life found a prostitute "clad not warmly enough for well-to-do people, but well enough for her class who don't feel the cold as we do" (Gathorne-Hardy 103). Shaftsbury's reports found working-class women "strangely bold in looks and manner" (1862). The middle-class mind assumed that since working-class girls were physically tough, they did not mind working. Work for middle-class men was idealized in a creed of duty, usefulness, prestige, self-fulfillment, and means of betterment. Samuel Smiles's popular Self-Help sang the praises of hard work and its reward of advancement and riches. Aristocratic idleness, said Carlyle, meant "perpetual despair" (Houghton 254). The Victorian middle-class conscience demanded a religious dedication to work, a vocation. "Everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, man and woman, has a work, a mission" (Houghton 244). But what was the middle-class girl's mission? Her identity and role sprang from a convention of ideological construction; women, as everyone knew, were nurturing, virtuous, pure, and self-denying. Ruskin had created the definitive label of femininity in "Of Queen's Gardens"; women were "wise and faithful counsellors" (104), whose mission was to guard the shrine of home. Thus impecunious middle-class girls, forced to earn, found their femininity and need in conflict. Well-to-do girls who wanted to work questioned the domestic ideology. Poovey traces the Victorian argument for female domesticity:

Morality is bred and nurtured in the home as an effect of maternal instinct … if lower-class women were to emulate middle-class women in their deference, thrift and discipline, the homes of rich and poor alike would become what they ought to be—havens from the debilitating competition of the market.


Although in the eighteenth century, middle-class women worked as plumbers, butchers, saddlers—jobs that the nineteenth century dubbed lower-class—by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the rules had changed. Perceptions of femininity limited careers to dressmaking, teaching, millinery and office work. An expansion in the economy increased the extent, but not the range, of middle-class female employment. Women remained, as Hughes points out, "precisely into the type of servicing or caring roles which had for so long been part of their domestic duties" (191). Even within this boundary, girls' work wove a tortuous path between the rules of class, gender, economics and need—both pecuniary and personal.

Mrs. Molesworth loathed idleness and approved of hard work. She encouraged her daughter to be a nurse at a time when it was still unusual to be a middle-class working girl, and eagerly sought work for other girls. A letter to Mr. Craik, her friend and publisher at Macmillan, shows her views.

I am anxious to find a post for a girl of 24. The ideal wd. be that of private secretary, for which she is very well qualified—she has been four years at Newnham where she did very well. She is a good French and German scholar, understands shorthand, and she is a lady belonging to a family of excellent position and she is not obliged to work, but has nothing to do at her own home in the country and wishes to put her education to good use and to increase her allowance so as to be able to live in London.

(8 Mar. 1908)

She mistrusted the frivolity of the season, the ritual coming-of-age passage for girls, telling readers in a magazine article:

Even if more "play" is forced upon you than you would choose, think of it as such; never forget that somewhere and in some way God has work preparing for you to do, that you are a woman, not a butterfly.

(Studies and Stories 10)

Though she was, her cousin Gwen Molesworth said, "very methodical and exact, budgeting carefully all her expenses" (Lancelyn-Green 47), the need to provide was a constant strain.

It is quite settled for Bevis [her son] to begin in the City at Christmas. I have done my utmost to get this chance for him; when he is older, he will understand that it is not easy.

(Letter to Mr. Craik, 22 Feb. 1888)

She wrote to Mr. Macmillan on the death of her son, Lionel, aged 43: "[he] met death bravely and resignedly. It cannot but add to my own responsibilities and cares as I cannot but wish to do all I can for my daughter-in-law and children (27 Jan. 1917).

Behind her strong work ethic, however, lay an equally strong devotion to the conventional middle-class code of discretion. Under its protection, irregularities were hidden, appearances were upheld, and personal questions were impolite—every middle-class child was brought up on the adage: "curiosity killed the cat." The Wide, Wide World spells out the rules:

It is very dishonorable to try to find out that about other people which does not concern you, and which they wish to keep from you. Even in talking with people, if you discern in them any unwillingness to speak upon a subject, avoid it immediately. That is true politeness and true kindness; and not to do so, I assure you, Ellen, proves one wanting in true honor.

(Wetherell 44)

In preserving her own secrets, Mrs. Molesworth was an archetypal middle-class Victorian. For, though she appeared to all an invincible pillar of respectability, she herself concealed facts about her life. Furthermore, her parents concealed facts from her that would, if known, have irredeemably damaged her status as a lady. She was separated from her husband, but presented herself falsely as a widow in order to prevent scandal harming herself or her children. Separation, though not as damning as divorce, was still an unacceptable state. She was proud of her exemplary, middle-class ancestry, though she knew there was a mystery about her father. She did not know, however, that he was illegitimate; her parents always kept the truth from her. What the world knew of Mrs. Molesworth was thus a riddle of disguise. The Victorians considered keeping family secrets not dishonest, not hypocritical, but wholly necessary to support an edifice of respectability. As Magnus points out:

The nineteenth-century social code made allowance for frailty in high places by licensing fusion between husband, wife and lover, on condition that no confusion was permitted to occur … all who possessed the freedom of Vanity Fair were required to behave with the utmost decorum in order to prevent the numerous irregular liaisons from becoming publicly known. Any indiscretion which impaired Society's prestige invited a sentence of social death, which was ruthlessly executed.


It was a code of contradictions in the meaning of frankness—an ambiguity that was crystal-clear to its adherents.

Mrs. Molesworth's own character was contradictory. While her friends universally admired her feminine charm, she was also tough and businesslike. In a further inconsistency, although her heroines could be equally tough and charming, she was unable to pass on to them her own achievements. In her combination of personal professionalism and recommended restraint, she should be compared to other female Victorian writers. George Eliot in Middlemarch trounces Dorothea's yearning for meaningful work, through an unsuccessful marriage to Casubon, and by marriage to the second-rate Ladislaw. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Jane Austen's and Mrs. Gaskell's heroines are fulfilled through marriage rather than through work. Why were these intelligent, brave, progressive-thinking and talented women unable to translate their own success to their heroines? The answer lies first in the female myth, sustained by construction, deception and fiction. The Victorian female identity was stifled by codes of upbringing that required self-abnegation, just as the Victorian female shape was hidden and misrepresented by crinoline and bustle. Second, although fiction like Jane Eyre investigated depths of emotion, the reality of social rules of behavior found public representation of female emotion abhorrent. As Millar points out, Elizabeth Rigby, reviewing Jane Eyre in the Quarterly Review of 1848, believed it was written by a woman who "has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex." "The implication was that the author was a fallen woman who, through sexual indiscretion, had caused herself to be ostracised by respectable ladies" (Millar 19). Mrs. Moles-worth hid her emotion on the failure of her marriage behind a stoical facade. A fusion of two inheritances, the traditional code of honor that emphasized valor, and the reverence for the concept and corollaries of femininity, resulted in an implicit, powerful means of social control. Mrs. Molesworth dissects her heroines' ambition, discontent, yearning and duty with equal sympathies, while the uncertainty of priority is exposed by her shifting viewpoint.

Forefronting Femininity:Home Sweet Home

I saw her upon nearer view,
A spirit, yet a woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin liberty.
(Wordsworth, She Was a Phantom of Delight)
"And even our women," lastly grumbles Ben,
"Leaving their natures, dress and talk like men!"
(Coventry Patmore, The Girl of all Periods)

Many of Mrs. Molesworth's books concentrate on specific points in the female work ethic. White Turrets (1895), a book about a girl's yearning for work, explores the tug-of-ethics in the context of female work. Duties to home and femininity are pitted against the need for personal fulfillment. The late-nineteenth-century Angel emerges from the house, rich, bold, fraught with ambition, and held fast by convention.

White Turrets is the story of three sisters in their twenties, who live in a large, beautiful country house. Winifred, the eldest and the heiress to the family fortune, is handsome, rather mannish, clever, and discontented. She is initially presented as a brusque, unappealing, unlovable woman. Her lack of charm is immediately apparent as the book opens on her first visit to London; she greets Lennox, who hopes to marry her:

"One question at a time, please, Lennox, if you have no objection," said Winifred coolly. "Not that any of yours strike me as very important; we came up yesterday, and we are both perfectly well, and as you saw everybody at home the day before, there is no special anxiety about their health that I can see."


Unsurprisingly, Lennox's matrimonial ambitions towards Winifred founder. Her sister, pretty, gentle, feminine, "flower-like" Celia, is a talented artist, and simple, domesticated Louise is happy at home finding fulfillment in love and marriage. But Winifred is desperate to escape: "I must get something to do. I feel it is in me to do something—not to be condemned to the terribly narrow life, which is all I have to look for unless I succeed" (75)—and resentful: "Why was I the eldest? Why can't I go away and make my way?" (205). She would rather do anything than remain ensnared at home. During her visit to London, she deceitfully represents herself as impecunious in order to procure herself a job and rooms. While necessity was a valid reason for a poor lady to seek work, a rich lady had to balance selfish urges with the duties owed to home. Briefly back home, Winifred has a bad encounter with the family ghost. The apparition is an ancient ancestress called the White Weeper, berated for not producing sons, and forced by her husband's cruelty to leave home, finally dying in a convent, amongst women. She laid a curse on the house if it ever passed out of the female line. This female victim, the accursed and powerful sorceress, portent equally of woe, power, stealth, resource and home, symbolizes the mixed, potent Victorian vision of womanhood. The curse is highly effective. Celia says:

It has come so true, over and over again. Papa, you know, has had heaps of trouble … the worst luck of all is to come if a woman of the family deserts her post. And once a rather flighty great-grand aunt of ours did—she couldn't live at home because she thought it was a dull part of the country, and she came up to London and travelled about to amuse herself. Her son turned out badly and was killed in a duel, and her daughter died, and in the end it came to our grandmother, whose husband took the name. But the family has never been well-off since.


The ghost makes herself understood convincingly but silently, as though Mrs. Molesworth feels that women's words infiltrate best by stealth. Similarly, Mrs. Molesworth, through the ghost, implies equally clearly by obliquity, that not only is female ascendancy synonymous with and limited to the home, but also that within this sphere, the female line is far more spiritually and financially powerful than the male. The White Weeper, on whom the crux of the plot devolves, both forefronts and curtails female autonomy.

Winifred is "saved" from her insurrectionary masculinity by the White Weeper. It haunts her into sub-mission:

I became icy cold, not cold in myself, but as if something coming to me, had made me cold. The shock seemed to paralyse me—I felt myself going … I don't think I had ever cried so violently.


She falls, hurts her foot, dashed to the ground in every sense. Her hopes of escape are impossible. Meanwhile, her London lodgings are burnt to a cinder. "The policeman said the lady should be thankful she had been prevented from returning. 'Ten to one if she could have been got out alive,' he said" (229). Fierce elemental forces are needed to restrain Winifred from her equally dangerous desires, while Mrs. Molesworth's summoning of the supernatural means not only that rational argument has failed, but that a woman's duty lies beyond reason, in spiritual, time-honored, immutable, unanswerable realms.

Now Winifred learns that Lennox, whom she has assumed is in love with her, actually prefers and marries her sister Louise. It seems Mrs. Molesworth is punishing Winifred for her masculinity. Finally, trapped, humbled, crushed, Winifred's character begins to change. She realizes she has done wrong; her wages are inappropriately earned, like stealing from a girl who might have really needed the job; her duty, as the eldest and heiress, is to her property. Now she courageously sacrifices her yearning to work away from home, and focuses all her intelligence and ambition into running the estate, with resounding success.

According to a contemporary review in The Scotsman, this story is "a capital antidote to the unrest that inspires young folk … while the great thing for them is at home" (qtd. in prefatory matter of Philippa 16). In fact, the sentiments of the text and subtext diverge. The story dictates the conventional view that a woman's best place is in the bosom of her family, as in this exchange between Winifred and her mentor, Hertha:

"Do you think that all girls that are not literally forced to earn their bread should stay at home and lead routine, humdrum lives—I mean those who have no great or special gifts? Have you no sympathy with all the feeling of the day about women?"

"The very greatest and deepest," said Hertha. "But… love of excitement and change and novelty should not be mistaken for real, deliberate desire to make the best and most of the powers we have. And it should never be forgotten that 'home' is the place we are born into—in a very special sense woman's own kingdom. Outside interests should radiate from and revolve round the home—that is the ideal. When home has to be given up, it should be done regretfully, as a sad necessity, where as the wish to escape from it is, I fear, the great motive nowadays."

"But girls are not to blame for that," said Winifred. "Think what some parents are: tyrannical and selfish."

"I know some are like that," said Hertha. "I think what makes home life so trying and unsatisfactory to so many unmarried women is the want of the sense of responsibility, which makes even a dull married life attractive. The wife feels herself somebody."

"But how it is all to be set right?" said Winifred. "There are so many girls who can't marry nowadays, they say."

"Well, they must bear it. Cheerful acceptance of evils is, after all, a very big part of our life's work."


The subtext, however, undercuts this simplistic view. Winifred may not work outside the home, though she is allowed to work from the home, running the estate. Home is the sphere of female omnipotence. Here is the true fount, the divine source of female power. Here Winifred may find a kind of freedom and independence. Although, like Christina Rosetti's A Royal Princess, she is the "eagle that must not soar," her yearning is recognized and understood, but also condemned. The solution is to feminize her dangerous masculinity. As her manly side is channeled into home, her cleverness is now not bizarrely out-of-place, but helpful to herself and her family. Celia says, "The queer thing is that though she has never been so useful in her life, she is so much less self-confident. She is, oh, so much softer and more sympathising" (277). The reader is finally allowed to warm to her. Had Mrs. Molesworth let mannish, independent Winifred succeed in her work outside the home, she would have struck a blow to Victorian femininity. Poovey shows how Victorian disapproval of woman's work was linked to a fear about the dissolution of sexual differences, which could only be alleviated by keeping women dependent. "As long as women remained the object of charity, and middle-class women's work remained the exception, not the rule, the 'natural' difference between the sexes would not be imperilled" (154). The momentum of differential between the sexes, she argues, was vitalized because femininity and domesticity promoted male identity in a capitalistic, imperialistic society, and acted as a social control in subsuming individuals of different classes into a representative Englishman.

In this way, Winifred conforms to prop up female ideology. But Mrs. Molesworth sends out a confused message. As an heiress, Winifred challenges female dependence with power and autonomy, though the same regal power holds her even more remorselessly in the home, a slave to her obligations. Winifred steps forward into a cul-de-sac.

The most important maxim in the female work ethic is to stay feminine or stay at home. Feminine Celia's painting is judged to be close to genius. Her path is clear. Her duty is to her art, her vocation. She leaves home, and shares a London flat with a female friend, a professional singer. Although Celia's escape appears radical because it opens the door to emancipation, in fact it carries safeguards. Art was considered a feminine occupation, because it carried an assumption of female attributes—creativity, imagination, intuition. Celia's character of resolution hidden within gentleness and charm represents Mrs. Molesworth's ideal woman. She is allowed to succeed in her ambition, and, more radically still, intends to combine work with marriage. A friend of Mrs. Molesworth's, Mrs. Adrian Hope (née Laura Troubridge), was an example of a similar kind of success. She was a professional artist from an aristocratic background; she had painted the children of the royal family, illustrated one of Mrs. Molesworth's books, and enjoyed a busy and fashionable married life. Celia's version of the nineteenth-century work ethic illustrates the double image of advancement and restraint.

Caste and Cost

It is not possible, we fear, for you to earn by crocheting d'oyleys a sum that would appreciably lessen the expense of your nephew's education.

Girl's Own Paper 1896

I cannot well resign at "Lord's",
And you, dear Flo, of course,
Must go to balls and make your calls
With decent brougham and horse.
Eliza Cook, Three Hundred Pounds a Year

In the volatile economic climate of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, families prospered and collapsed. Middle-class stability was itself a conundrum, relied upon, but unreliable. While a crash had far-reaching social and economic implications for a middle-class family, the first practical difficulty was the search for an income.

Girls found it hard to earn even a pittance. The Girl's Own Paper (1880-1908) regularly guided anxious readers towards possible careers, but the low quotient combination of education, qualification, propriety and remuneration meant that much of its advice was negative. Teaching, nursing and writing were considered the only possible occupations, but many Girl's Own correspondents, desperate for money, found themselves hampered by a paucity of outlets for their skills. "The nursing profession is overstocked." "We are afraid you will hardly be able to obtain orders. Hand work of this kind is bought by the retail drapers, but it is miserably paid for." "It is quite impossible for us to give you the address of a firm with which you could 'open a trade in Indian condiments and nut galls'" (Girl's Own Paper 1896). There were no easy answers. If working outside the home was complicated, working from the home was equally difficult. As the same magazine replied to a "troubled and anxious enquirer," "We regret that it is impossible to encourage anyone to hope for home employment; it is so difficult to get. Copying is impossible; but we hear of a few ladies who earn a little by knitting. Personal endeavour and application are always useful" (1896). A deluge of similarly frantic reaches after forlorn hopes suggests that a sudden need for girls' employment was a common occurrence.

Mrs. Molesworth's Blanche (1893) is such a story of a family of suddenly impoverished gentlefolk. It analyzes the middle-class attitude to work, money and status, in which conundrums flourish. Thus, the family may earn, but must not appear to be in need; they must pull rank, but must not be seen to strive; the girls must remain quietly ladylike, and must not vulgarly seize opportunities; they must appear gentle and feminine, while desperation gnaws. The work must be suitable; femininity and caste must not be contaminated by the marketplace, the acknowledged source of immoral, brutish masculinity. The female world of home and the male world outside it were at opposite ends of the spectrum. The middle-class male world of ambition, commerce and advancement was fraught with moral pitfalls. Martin Tupper called it "the home of Discontent" that led "down, down to that central vault, the bolted doors of hell" (47). In order to succeed in it, Thackeray ironically advised, "if your neighbour's foot obstructs you, stamp on it" (Houghton 192). But home restored probity. It was "a female domain … a power house of moral virtue, the chief virtue of which was to absolve the capitalist world beyond the front door from the sins of greed, envy and lust" (Hughes 13). Blanche introduces the dangers of commerce into the home. It shows that within infinite, intricate ramifications, work, femininity and gentility can combine.

In Blanche, well-bred Mrs. Derwent, her little boy and her daughters, Blanche and Stasy, come to live in Blissmore, Mrs. Derwent's childhood village, where everyone she once knew is now dead. Blissmore, once idyllic, tiny, feudal, has grown into a town with villas, breweries, high schools; a new middle class has been grafted on to its roots. The Derwents are shunned because they know no one, and thus are unable to achieve any introductions to their own class. Equally, they shun overtures from the class below them. Mrs. Derwent politely refuses to let sixteen-year-old Stasy make any friends at school, because they are all beneath her. "Not that anything could make her common, but it would be bad for her to feel herself superior" (113). "It is one's duty," says Blanche, "to live in one's own class unless it is clearly shown it is necessary to leave it"(118).

In another conundrum, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, class was both ossified and expanding, as the new money of the Industrial Revolution gave new importance to old conventions. The duty to adhere to social rules drew together the conflicting Victorian tenets of stability and progress. In the rising surge of the social tide, class dogma was converted into quasi-religious moral principles, in order to control ingress and bar the bounders. As Froude described in 1888: "To push on, to climb vigorously on the slippery slopes of the social ladder, to raise ourselves out of the rank of life into which we were born, is now converted into a duty" (Houghton 187). Self-improvement, he meant, improved society. "The English," said Mill, "more than any other people, not only act, but feel according to rule" (St. George xi). Caste reigned supreme. To fall in rank was seen as a transgression. As Davidoff points out, "those who ignored the system, or even worse, took a stand against it, were seen as potentially hostile … The sanctions which could be invoked by Society in terms of ostracism, ridicule and exclusion were extremely powerful" (39). In Blanche, the pernicious barbs of snobbery, the underside of the slippery ladder, are exposed in all their cruelty.

The Derwents lead a miserably lonely life, but try to live by the creed they feel their class imposes, a creed enforcing a beautiful, forgiving, calm, proud dignity. On losing all their money, they are forced to leave their pretty house, and find employment. Possibilities are limited. Finally, they set up shop as milliners in the town. Stasy is highly talented in sewing and has exquisite taste; Blanche's impeccable bearing helps her to cope with difficult customers; their mother efficiently deals with the bookkeeping. Nevertheless they know social ruin must inevitably follow financial ruin, and all their hopes of acceptance must be dashed. Mrs. Molesworth depicts a realistically downward spiral: a lack of education inhibits the search for meaningful work, the necessity of finding "feminine" work limits the field, the paucity of income threatens a drop in rank and heralds a barren future, since the possibility of meeting an eligible husband is unlikely.

Blanche has acquired a gentleman admirer, however, whom, since she does not love him, she now refuses. Despite his ability to restore her social standing and his promise to help her family, she knows she cannot keep her self-respect if she accepts him for these reasons only. She is a lady to her fingertips, and would rather work than compromise her integrity. Mrs. Molesworth radically imbues work with more principle than the status of marriage.

Wonderful party invitations from all classes, from the aristocracy down to the tradespeople, now suddenly pour in. For the Derwents' plunge into millinery has made them newsworthy. The jaded, fossilized society of Blissmore is ripe for diversion and novelty, and the Derwents, in its view, have been transformed into romantic heroines, showing such pluck, such beautiful behavior, such perfect good taste, that "taking up the Derwents was … the fashion" (300). But Blanche is a paean not to success in work, but to rules of behavior according to the ideology of class. Mrs. Molesworth shows ladylike behavior overcomes all the hazards faced by the Derwents: the pitfalls of poverty, the moral dangers of the marketplace, the terrors of an uncertain future. Outward show she discards as irrelevant; a lady is known by her manners. Mrs. Molesworth had found Hans Christian Andersen's The Real Princess "a clever little story with a very delicate and true undermeaning" (Studies and Stories 29). The moral of rank shining with innate good behavior through vicissitudes, as surely as the princess felt a tiny pea under a mountain of mattresses, appealed to Mrs. Molesworth as exponent of middle-class values. Her emphasis on behavior, in preference to work, is proved by the return of a long-lost rich relation, Sir Adam, who adopts the Derwents as his heirs, and restores them to a position even better than before. The lesson is rammed home when Blanche, now rich and leisured, finds after all that she loves her admirer, and finally accepts his proposal. She is rewarded for her dignity with a happy ending.

Blanche has a confused attitude to work. Male and female reactions differ. Sir Adam, Blanche's fiancé, and even the little brother are frankly discomfited by the millinery shop. But Blanche and Stasy are proud of their achievement, and are reluctant to stop the moment Sir Adam rescues them. Blanche says, "It seems to me more dignified not to give up what we are doing so hurriedly, as if we were at all ashamed of it" (332). Artistic Stasy loves twisting velvet ribbons and silk flowers into saleable works of art, even though she finds being at the beck and call of demanding customers is often wearisome. Blanche finds "having more to do makes life more interesting"(284), though she is contrasting work with her once barren social life. There is no question of work in the entrancing life that awaits Blanche and Stasy as rich Sir Adam's heiresses, and Mrs. Molesworth makes it clear that this is the "right" life for people of their class.

Nevertheless, Blanche opens a door into the possibility of work, laced with laws of behavior and suitability. Not only was the Derwents' stitchery-at-home a passport to femininity, but their millinery itself had both a class and a feminine emphasis, since hats fabricated for ladies differed from all other hats, and were designed to enhance delicacy and decorum. Mrs. Molesworth shows work may be a cause for pride, and a repository of virtue. Risk and enterprise may be rewarding. At the same time, her closure shows she is also anxious to shut the door upon such gambles in order to secure a girlhood nirvana of ease and rank. Her vision, as always, is twofold and contradictory.

While Blanche discusses good behavior and acceptable labor, Philippa (1897) shows the dangerous consequences of forbidden behavior and unsuitable work. Headstrong Philippa pretends to be a lady's maid to support her ineffectual sister Evelyn, when Evelyn pays a vital visit to her husband's rich relations. Evelyn cannot afford to employ a lady's maid. If Evelyn makes a good impression, she and her husband will inherit a fortune, and the sisters know that possessing a lady's maid would help. Philippa's instinct to disguise reality with appearance echoes the middle-class coda of opportune discretion. But menial work is outside a lady's orbit. Philippa commits a serious class crime in crossing the gulf between lady and servant, even though it is only temporary, and enacted from the highest of motives. Conventional Evelyn laments: "You, my beautiful Phil, sitting at table with a crew of servants—common servants." "They were not all common. Some were very uncommon" (190).

Philippa thinks servants are people, who, though lower-class, might be as interesting or unusual as people in her own class. Evelyn thinks servants are not people at all, but objects, since their sole function is to serve their "betters."

Servants were an indicator of rank. The employment of servants divided the middle from the working class; retinues of retainers denoted nouveaux riches or aristocracy. The 1871 census noted, "wives and daughters at home do now less domestic work than their predecessors: hence the excessive demand for female servants" (qtd. in Horn 26). Social definition constructed work boundaries. A lady was defined by her avoidance of menial toil. Raverat, for example, cites a libel case in which her governess sued a man who claimed she had once been a parlor maid. The governess lost her case, but the risk she took in bringing it shows, even under the umbrella of employment, the import of the servant/lady divide (67).

Philippa's radical approach has a dim reception from her mother when she finds out. "I only pray that no terribly disastrous consequences may follow on what you have done" (132). She is right; unorthodox views are perilous. Months after Philippa has returned to her normal self, her deception is discovered. Unsavory rumors fly, damaging her status as a lady, throwing her into an acute depression, and jeopardizing her chances of a good marriage. The plot becomes convoluted. Philippa refuses a reluctant proposal from a pompous, rich, eligible man who knows of her unseemly escapade but cannot understand it. She finally accepts a gentleman of honor and discernment, but small financial and social status.

The interest of this story lies not in the machinations of the plot, but in the implications of its psychological energy. The text legitimizes forbidden ground; Mrs. Molesworth explores what it is like to be a servant. Philippa, in creating her disguise, changes her clothes, vocabulary, accent and name, only to find, to her horror, that her very identity disappears. She is ignored by her own class, and cannot respond, as she wants, to an attractive man. Most terrifying of all, when a vindictive servant threatens to blow her cover, after she has returned to her real self, she sees how she has put herself outside a lady's untouchable sphere. Illicit territory is dangerous, and Philippa is suitably punished. The book is a conundrum of taboo and exploration, wrapped up in convention. It suggests a radical way of regarding servants as human beings, highlighting by contrast the importance of being a lady. In Mrs. Molesworth's double vision, orthodoxy and radicalism are equally valid.

Money Matters and Moralities

Money I despise it;
Many people prize it;
W. S. Gilbert, Patience

Never treat money affairs with levity. Money is character.

Sir E. L. Bulwer-Lytton

It is not always safe to carry money in one's glove. You do not know who has handled it last, and it is safer not to carry it next to one's skin.

Girl's Own Paper, 1896

Money, throughout the nineteenth century, aroused conflicting opinions. Mrs. Molesworth is nowhere more representative of the late nineteenth century than in her multisided views about money. Her books send characteristically inconsistent messages, consistent only in confusion.

Money propped up the Victorian staple conundrums of stability and advancement, display and philanthropy. It created class distinctions; it divided attitudes. Puritanism fought with the ethos of the Industrial Revolution. Tom Brown, as Houghton notes, found at Oxford that "the worship of the golden calf was verily and indeed rampant … side by side with much that was noble, but tainting the whole life of the place" (184). Samuel Smiles took money to be a vehicle of principle. "Some of the finest qualities of human nature are intimately related to the right use of money; such as generosity, honesty, justice, and self-sacrifice" (Self-Help 177). Carlyle in Past and Present found the "Hell" of the modern English soul to be the terror of "Not Succeeding" (Houghton 191). The duty to move ever onwards and upwards attracted universally conflicting moral judgments.

Mrs. Molesworth gives a progressive view in a children's story, Little Mother Bunch (1890). Blanche and Tina, poor cousins of rich little Lady Patty, have just moved, with their twin brothers, to a cottage on Patty's father's estate. Tina, aged ten, is precociously aware of social form, ashamed of their comparative poverty and full of anxious pretensions. Blanche, the teenage heroine, hates artifice. Patty, a straightforward, unanalytical child aristocrat, is appalled to hear that the boys will attend the Grammar School, and mix with the sons of shopkeepers and lawyers. Blanche says:

"If we can't afford to send the boys to a grand school we must do the best we can …"

Tina had grown red.

"I don't think Papa can know what Patty says about the sort of boy; and you don't give a fair idea of papa. As if he would ever consider money when the good of any of us was concerned!"

Patty glanced at her admiringly.

"That's just like dad," she said.

But Blanche's face did not change.

"Papa would do anything for us. But if he hasn't got the money to do more than he can … there's no good pretending we're richer than we are."

"I don't like talking about money; it's very bad taste," said Tina.

Patty gave a little smile of sympathy.


Blanche's honesty finally wins over their sophisticated sophistry. But other books tell a different story. Mrs. Molesworth's "poor gentry" families always employ servants. Their money is unquestioningly spent on maintaining rank. Since poverty was a disgrace, they are always trying to make money, in a genteel way. The Victorian duty to rise meant that snobbery was rife. Mrs. Molesworth deplored snobbery. In her view, to despise lesser rank was wrong, but to classify rank was right—a narrow, often contradictory distinction.

Such corkscrew concepts of the morality of wealth and work were the province of the middle classes. A Charge Fulfilled (1886) explores a number of confusions in the lower-class girl's work ethic. Unusually, for a nineteenth-century girl's novel, a children's nurse is the chief protagonist. In this book, Avice, a prosperous farmer's daughter who does not need to work, accepts an offer to become "half-maid, half nursery-governess" (7) to Sibella and Juliet, widowed Mrs. Redmond's little girls. She had been working at home as a dairymaid. The milk association establishes her as a feminine, nurturing, figure, while her labor, because it is unpaid, untainted by the dangers of commerce and the marketplace, supports her virtues. Avice feels she has a special calling; she tells her mother, "I've such a strange sort of feeling about that child. I have a kind of fancy I'm meant to take care of her—to stand between her and harm" (23). Little Juliet becomes an heiress when her mother and sister die, and is sent to her guardian, who abuses her. He wants to inherit her money. Avice steals Juliet back, restores her to health, and hides her, terrified that her guardian will legitimately claim her. Juliet becomes Avice's child, until she is grown up, when Avice returns her to her rightful place in upper-class society.

All aspects of Victorian class breed complications, and Avice, true to form, is a conundrum. She is lower class, but since she does not need to work, Mrs. Molesworth implies she has a middle-class outlook. Sayer points out a nostalgic artistic and literary discourse that presented rural women as "goddesses of harvest and fecundity," who "worked to support the cultural hegemony of the ruling class through a mechanism which linked the rural poor to Englishness, the organic community and femininity, and made rural women the carriers of industry, thrift and domesticity" (43). In another conundrum, the middle classes would not look after their own children; they did not want them brought up by the brutish poor; their own class did not become servants. The ideal solution was a girl like Avice, who combined middle-class vision with the perceived morality and motherliness of rurality. Mrs. Molesworth shows how conflicting class messages were absorbed by middle-class children from earliest childhood.

The hospital nurse, as Poovey points out, carries opposing perspectives of Victorian femininity. On the one hand, she challenges male domination with female autonomy. On the other, she perpetuates female support and subordination to the male. The children's nurse is equally contradictory. Ruskin described the ideal home as "a temple of the hearth watched over by household gods" (117). Within the temple, the nurse, as nurturer of children, is a central, sacred figure. She is the ruler, though she is economically dependent. She has duties but no rights. She is the virgin-mother-queen, powerful but subordinate. In short, the nurse is an exaggerated form of the way Victorian women were regarded, in which the "angel" image was reconfirmed and perpetuated, based on loving intimacy and conceptual inferiority. Avice represents the consecratory, maternal and self-sacrificial construct of Victorian womanhood. But her actions belie this definition. She is tender, intuitive, self-sacrificing and maternal, but she is also bold, risk-taking and fearless. The conflict persists. Lowerclass—and feminine—subservience keep Avice in her place as a self-denying inferior when she moves aside to allow Juliet, established now as an upper-class heiress, to succeed her as the heroine of the plot. Equally, Juliet's position is only achieved through Avice's power.

Mrs. Molesworth emphasizes throughout the story Avice's sense of vocation. Avice finds Juliet, lost, ill and abused, as the result of a revelation in a dream. All along she has had a "feeling" that Juliet will need her. Her mission is like a supernatural call. Initially Avice accepts her job, not out of need, but out of fondness for Mrs. Redmond and the children. Her solvent rurality disconnects her from the middle-class perception of the coarseness of lower-class need. For the greater part of her career, she earns nothing. Her motive is love of Juliet, whom she sees as a sacred charge. Thus, although she triumphs in her work, she rises, like an angel, far above money and its dubious connotations. She succeeds because she comes from a pure, not a profane, base.

Here lies the greatest conundrum of all. Mrs. Molesworth divorces her most successful example of the female work ethic from money. A Charge Fulfilled turns work into a sanctification, removing it from both the conflict of money-making and its author's own experience. Mrs. Molesworth's fiction that making money is immaterial is a different story from her own reality where money mattered greatly. The Victorian attitude to female earning was an unresolved enigma. A Charge Fulfilled shows the impossibility of a straightforward resolution.


Mrs. Molesworth led three lives: a working life dedicated to toil, a literary life with writer friends, and an upper-class social life. Her successful combination of work, independence and society shows that nineteenth-century shibboleths did not preclude such a feat. But her books, in defining the code of middle- and upper-class work, reflect the way in which she cloaked her success. Her vast and continuous literary output is proof of her role as a hardworking woman. But if she saw herself as such, she never let it obtrude upon her upper-class persona; work and society were separated. Her need to earn was known only to her publishers. Her independence was disguised by her adherence to convention. She told her readers of the dangers of venturing into the workplace, risking the precious and precarious hold on class and femininity, and never exemplified her success.

Her stories tackle her recognition of a woman's need to work, and the corollary—the need to reconcile work with womanliness. They reveal liberality within a straitjacket. Provided work lay within a feminine, ladylike sphere, it was allowable. Mrs. Molesworth's resolution revolves around the home. Her own work was conducted from the home; indeed, she often wrote in her drawing room with people all around her, an example of Victorian domesticity, discipline, industry and culture. Home, to her, was the fons et origo of self-development and creativity, and the only justifiable reason to labor for cash. Winifred's story shows her view—to leave home and work for yourself is selfish and against nature, while the rules change for the development of talent.

"The day will come," wrote Mrs. Molesworth in an article on girlhood, "when our descendents will look on us with mingled envy and contempt, and wonder how we lived our nineteenth-century lives" (Studies and Stories 220). She was well aware of the inconsistencies of her stance and her period. Her peculiar position as energetic participator and chronicler of her time, and fervent upholder and critic of the tenets of her class, turns her into a highly polished mirror of the devices and desires of girls who dreamed of work.

  1. Swinburne wrote in 1884, "It seems to me not at all easier to draw a life-like child than to draw a life-like man or woman … Since the death of George Eliot, there is none left whose touch is so masterly … as Mrs. Molesworth (Lancelyn-Green 44).

    Edward Salmon wrote in 1887, "Mrs. Molesworth is, in my opinion, the best story-teller for children England has yet known … Her great charm is her realism—realism, that is, in the purest and highest sense" (Lancelyn-Green 53).

    "Though now children's books come yearly in hundreds, Mrs. Molesworth's books have not been superseded, and very likely never will be" (The Times 22 Jul. 1921).

  2. The censuses of 1851 and 1861 estimated that there were 750,000 "surplus" women.
Works Cited

Davidoff, Leonore. The Best Circles. London: Croom Helm, 1973.

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1972.

Horn, Pamela. The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant. London: Alan Sutton, 1986.

Houghton, Walter. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985.

Hughes, Kathryn. The Victorian Governess. London: The Hambledon P, 1993.

Lancelyn-Green, Roger. Mrs. Molesworth. London: The Bodley Head, 1961.

Longford, Elizabeth. Victoria R.I. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964.

Magnus, Philip. King Edward the Seventh. London: John Murray, 1964.

Millar, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.

Molesworth, Louisa. Letter to Mr. Crail. 22 Feb.1888. British Library Folio 1 54930.

——. Letter to Mr. Crail. 8 Mar. 1908. British Library Folio 1 54930.

——. Letter to Mr. MacMillan. 27 Jan. 1917. British Library Folio 1 54930.

——. A Charge Fulfilled. London: S.P.C.K., 1886.

——. Blanche, A Story for Girls. London: Chambers, 1893.

——. Little Mother Bunch. London: Cassell, 1890.

——. Philippa. London: Chambers, 1897.

——. Studies and Stories. London: A. D. Innes, 1893.

——. White Turrets. London: Chambers, 1895.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

Raverat, Gwen. Period Piece. London: Faber & Faber, 1952.

Rosetti, Christina. The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rosetti. London: Macmillan, 1911.

Ruskin, John. Sesame and Lilies. London: Milner & Co., 1864.

Sayer, Karen. Women of the Fields. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

St. Aubyn, Giles. Queen Victoria. London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1991.

St. George, Andrew. The Descent of Manners: Etiquette, Rules and the Victorians. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.

Smiles, Samuel. Self-Help. 1866. London: IEA Health & Welfare Unit, 1996.

Tupper, Martin. Proverbial Philosophy. London: Hatchard, 1849.

Wetherell, Elizabeth. The Wide, Wide World. 1850. London: Bell and Daldry, 1870.



Lynne M. Rosenthal (essay date winter 1986)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, Lynne M. "Writing Her Own Story: The Integration of the Self in the Fourth Dimension of Mrs. Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 10, no. 4 (winter 1986): 187-92.

[In the following essay, Rosenthal examines the concept of imagination and wholeness in the psyche of a child as portrayed in Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock.]

In his "A Note on Story," James Hillman observes that from his perspective of depth psychologist, "those who have a connection with story are in better shape and have a better prognosis than those to whom story must be introduced." Stories, especially those learned early in life, give "a perspective to life" and serve as "containers for organizing events into meaningful experiences." Story is a means of "telling oneself into events that might not otherwise make psychological sense at all," and can help to combat a deadly literalism produced by a rationalist and associationist theory of mind (9).

That writers of children's literature have understood the power of story in giving children a "perspective on life" from the inception of the genre is amply demonstrated by the didactic literature which predominated in England throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. In this literature, both the framing tales and the copious stories within stories they encompass contrast the obedient, pious, productive, rational child with the rebellious, undisciplined, impulsive one, in order to teach child-readers that it is only by cleaving to the former values that they may enter a meaningful adulthood or even survive their childhood. In fashioning their picture of childhood, didactic writers for children varied in their adaptations of Puritan, Lockean and Rousseauesque concepts of human nature and development; but there was general agreement that a child should and could gradually learn to focus only on images of socially approved behavior and goals.

On the whole, didactic children's literature of all types reflected the "deadly literalism" which Hillman hopes to exclude from the realm of story. Thus, when Mr. Fairchild, in Mary Sherwood's evangelical The Fairchild Family (1818-1847) wishes to each his children the ultimate consequences of squabbling, he takes them to see the decaying body of a murderer, which is described in exquisite detail. In a decaying garden

stood a gibbet, on which the body of a man hung in chains: the body had not yet fallen to pieces, although it had hung there some years. It had on a blue coat, a silk handkerchief round the neck, with shoes and stockings, and every other part of the dress still entire; but the face of the corpse was so shocking, that the children could not look upon it.

Although the children are spared the details of the corpse's face, it is likely that many nineteenth-century children reading this passage would (unless they skipped over it altogether, as many did the hymns and sermons in the book), follow Mrs. Sherwood's direction and try to imagine the ultimate horror.

The tight reins on a child's imagination began to loosen in the 1840s with the appearance of Holiday House (1839) in which Catherine Sinclair, lamenting that "the minds of young people are now manufactured like webs of linen, all alike," for they are told "what to say, and what to think, and how to look and how to feel," created a story in which children were permitted to revel in images of Harry and Lucy's unrestrained, unpunished behavior (when Harry burns down the nursery in the chapter entitled "The Terrible Fire," he is described as "like a culprit with the rope about his neck; but he shall not be executed"). At the end of the book, however, Harry and Lucy are abruptly forced to focus on different images and make a swift transition to adult seriousness when the picture of their pious elder brother Frank's sudden illness and death confronts them: All was changed within and around them; sorrow had filled their hearts; and, no longer merry, thoughtless young creatures, believing the world one scene of frolicsome enjoyment and careless ease, they had now witnessed its realities.

The tension between freedom and restraint, imagination and reason, persisted in children's books throughout the sixties. Henry Cole's Felix Summerly books, which, beginning in 1841, compiled stories from chapbooks to counteract Samuel Goodrich's informational Peter Parley books, Charles Kingsley's use of fairy-tale to reinforce scientific and moral learning, and Lewis Carroll's complex vision of Wonderland in Alice in 1865 represent important steps toward increased imaginative freedom for children.

When Maria Molesworth began writing for children in 1875, however, the awakening to the Golden Age of children's books initiated by Alice was but ten years old. As Roger Lancelyn Green points out, fairy tales "built on traditional models and felt a new breath of imaginative vitality" in the best of MacDonald's short stories, and in Mrs. Ewing's Old Fashioned Fairy-Tales, which were appearing in "Aunt Judy's Magazine." But many writers still felt they needed the "excuse of utilitarian or pious moral in writing fantasy" (51). Neither the invented fairy tale, concerned as it was with shaping the child's social character in a moral and utilitarian direction, nor Alice, with its fragmented images which sometimes threaten to widen the gulf between sense and nonsense and permanently undercut the world of rational story, enabled the child-reader to transcend the strict coordinates of the literal world, in order to experience an equally authentic dimension in which imagination, feeling and a sense of the continuity between past, present and future may be reconciled with order, reason and discipline in an integrated self-structure.

It is in this "fourth" dimension, I will suggest, that children (or adults) whose capacity to fantasize has not been atrophied beyond repair, can begin to develop a fuller sense of their own selves, a sense which can return them to the three-dimensional world of fact and utility, in Hillman's words, "in better shape," and with a "better prognosis" for achieving a fully integrated life's story. In The Cuckoo Clock (1877), Mrs. Molesworth seems to intuit the needs of a child whose ability to picture her past, present and future—to imagine her own story—has been badly damaged by the painful strictures of her life. Through a therapeutic journey into the fourth dimension, the young protagonist is gradually helped to perceive an experience the counters of her life and reconcile them into a "means of telling herself" into events that "might not otherwise make psychological sense at all" in the third dimensional world, and, in so doing, to truly experience her own "story."

Described in her own day by Swinburne as a writer with an "exquisite and masterly touch" who belonged in the category of George Eliot, for "any chapter of The Cuckoo Clock or the enchanting Adventures of Herr Baby is worth a shoal of the very best novels dealing with the characters and fortunes of mere adults," and more recently by Roger Lancelyn Green as an "emotional, intuitive writer" who was a "superb psychologist without any conscious intentions"(51), Maria Louisa Stewart Molesworth's own "story" may be seen as a painful one: her lonely childhood in the Calvinist surroundings of Manchester (lightened by her friendship with Elizabeth Gaskell's family and the company of her favorite "dolls," a set of wooden reels from her mother's sewing basket to whom she told endless stories), her troubled marriage to the demented Major Molesworth—his violent temper (the result of a head wound sustained in the Crimean War) and the deaths of her two children. But as Green observes, if Mrs. Molesworth is "one of the most autobiographical writers," it is her ability to draw, not on the facts of her own history, but on the vivid recollections of images and feelings she experienced as a child, an extraordinary ability to "recapture the precise sensations of childhood and make contact with a "deep reality, both without and within" (11) which accounts for the world-wide popularity of her books during her own time, and their enduring appeal in this century (The Cuckoo Clock was one of the first four books printed by Puffin Story Books in 1941).

Green has aptly observed that "although George MacDonald may have led the way out of the well-known house through the unexpected doorway into the fourth dimension, Mrs. Molesworth brought this new kingdom far nearer to the average child" (61). Indeed, The Cuckoo Clock opens with a description of one of those dark ancient houses, from which, as Robert Pattison notes, Mrs. Molesworth's children often "escape into a world of fantasy" (141):

Once upon a time in an old town, in an old street, there stood a very old house, such a house as you could hardly find nowadays, however you searched, for it belonged to a gone-by-time, a time now quite passed away … Time indeed seemed to stand still in and all about the old house.

While this house is firmly rooted in the past, it provides, from the onset of the story, a setting in which there is the potential for all dimensions to co-exist.

At the beginning of the story, Griselda, an orphan living with her two elderly aunts in the ancient house, is burdened by feelings of depression, isolation and willessness. Unable to focus on her lessons, obey her aunts' instructions or even amuse herself, she throws a book at the ancient cuckoo clock in a gesture of frustration which belies her name and the patient acceptance of her life's story it implies. The clock, which was crafted by her great-grandfather, has never broken down before, and her aunts, who are unaware of the source of the trouble, but instinctively believe that the clock belongs to the world of "fairie," that it is, in some not understood way, linked to the continuity of past, present and future, assert that it cannot be fixed, and that the breakdown represents the loss of all good fortune.

Despite her isolation and depression, Griselda is "not afraid of anything," and believes that the clock can somehow be restored. Her deep wish for restitution reaches the Cuckoo within the clock and he speaks to her, telling her that while her impulsive action has not destroyed him, his "feelings" have been hurt, and that she has "a great deal to learn." With this hint that the process of education that she must undergo touches on the realm of feelings, he orders her to grab the chain of the great clock and climb up. Bound as she is by her inability to imagine possibilities (or impossibilities), and by her feelings of guilt, Griselda argues that she is too big to climb the clock and that her aunts have, in any case, forbidden her to touch it. However, in the first of a series of apparently contradictory reversals which are to characterize the dimension to which she is to be introduced, the Cuckoo both labels the aunts' instructions as "stuff," and informs her that obedience is required by the world of fairie as well as that of mortals. As he asserts that "everything could fit into a walnut or five minutes" and you'd "never know the difference," Griselda, "how she managed it, she never knew," finds herself in the world of the clock.

The first step in Griselda's therapeutic journey has been accomplished with the puzzlement she experiences at her unexpected and unaccountable transcendence of the laws of the literal world. In his useful working definition in The Fantastic in Literature, Eric Rabkin asserts that "a true Fantasy … continues to reverse its ground rules time and time again"; the "very nature of ground rules, how we know things, on what bases we make assumptions, in short, the problem of human knowing infects Fantasies at all levels" (37). As Anados remarks in MacDonald's Phantastes, "it is no use trying to account for things in Fairy-Land, and one who travels there soon learns to forget the very idea of doing so, and takes everything as it comes, like a child, who, being in a chronic condition of wonder, is surprised at nothing." This "chronic condition of wonder" is, as George Landow observes, "entirely in keeping with the main drive of fantasy, which is to deny the primacy of our everyday laws of cause-and-effect" and, in so doing, suggest that other laws, including those of the human heart and spirit are major pathways to knowledge as well (Landow 27).

Mrs. Molesworth's story, I suggest, operates within the mode of such a fantasy; at its heart is a fundamental concern with modes of knowing. With the Cuckoo's oft-repeated refrain, "you have a lot to learn," Griselda is again and again challenged to enter a "chronic condition of wonder" in which a knowledge of the self and the universe which transcends the three-dimensional for the first time becomes a possibility. At the initial stages of her relationship with the Cuckoo, Griselda is confined by her traditional concepts of obedience and by her rebelliousness ("I hate 'musting'" she tells the Cuckoo), by her literalism, her self-centered isolation, her passivity (which expresses itself in part in her demand to be amused), by her paralyzed imagination, disappointed expectations and fear of being suffocated by contact with others or with her own past. As at each stage of her therapeutic journey, Griselda is confronted with images which provide less and less amusement and more and more sources of puzzlement and astonishment, the gridlocked counters of her existence gradually begin to dissolve into a new constellation of inner forms.

That Griselda's problem can be interpreted as a paucity of inner life, an inability to fantasize pictures which would connect her to her past, present and future, is suggested by the first place that the Cuckoo takes her, the Palace of the Nodding Mandarins. Here, her deadened imagination is surprised by exotic images of ancient oriental potentates, whose unexpected kindliness and invitation that she join them at a ball jolt her into unaccustomed activity with parental surrogates who offer unconditional acceptance. That the goal of this journey has been to help Griselda merge the worlds of fantasy and daily reality is suggested by the fact that when she awakens in her own bed following this brief episode, her aunts find her clutching a tiny pair of oriental slippers. When Griselda insists that she has been dancing in them, her elderly aunts express astonishment, but do not contradict her, except to observe that there are many things beyond understanding. Griselda must learn something that her ancient aunts instinctively sense, that it is reductive to relegate the world of fantasy to another realm. Griselda has only begun her quest for the subtle pathways between reality and fantasy, between the oppositions of her own life, which lead closer and closer to the true fairy-land of an integrated imagination and self.

When the Cuckoo calls to her next, it is to present her with images from her own severed past. Singing her to sleep, he shows her pictures of a grandfather and his beautiful daughter. The old man, who is her own great-grandfather, is lovingly sculpting a handsome clock. This, he tells Griselda's grandmother, is for you, and will always live, for it represents eternity. As she watches, Griselda realizes that the images she sees are "real," that the Cuckoo is real because he has been created with love, and that he links her to her past, present and future, as well as to the world of daily time to which she is soon returned. Now, for the first time, when her aunts lovingly tell her that she reminds them of her grandmother, who had something "of the world of fairie" about her, Griselda does not protest that she feels "no connection" with the grandparent she has never met.

Far from separating her from reality, Griselda's forays into the world of fantasy have a direct and immediate impact on her daily life; her two worlds begin to interlock as in "real" life she begins to obey her aunts' instructions and do her lessons despite her distaste for "musting." It is, however, at those moments when Griselda is most rebellious and reverts to feelings of isolation and resistance to growth that the Cuckoo calls to her. At one low point of dissatisfaction during mid-winter, when, as the author observes, too angry to take care of herself, "she would not look into herself," she wishes for the Cuckoo to appear, "even if he were to scold her," for "she felt it would be better than sitting there alone." Hiding under the bedcovers for warmth from inner and outer cold and emptiness, she hears the rooks outside the window and wonders if they are dying. Just as she is about to open the window for one bird shivering on the ledge, she realizes it is the Cuckoo, who mysteriously enters the room and mockingly says, "you wouldn't have opened the window for me, eh?" There is something in his intoned "eh?" which puzzles Griselda into thought and response, albeit a defensive one: "You wouldn't have needed my help; you're not like a real bird." Here, although Griselda has been moved by compassion, even in her depression, for the freezing birds outside, she insists on holding to the reductiveness which would place the Cuckoo and the challenge he represents outside the realm of "reality." In rejecting his reality and potential needs, she places him in a role comparable to that of the totally objective "therapist" who is seen as existing only to reflect the patient's needs, rather than as one whose fundamental goal is to help achieve an integration which incorporates all aspects of life (including the therapist, with all the limitations of reality) as "real." In so doing, Griselda more fundamentally rejects her own needs, for it is really her self to which she refuses to open the window.

Overwhelmed with regressive impulses, Griselda longs to stay under the covers, or to be a butterfly, an identification which would allow her to escape the struggles of growth, but achieve transformation through the moratorium of the chrysalis. However, the Cuckoo/Therapist will not permit her to remain in this cocoon, insisting that she take an active role in her own development: "There are other ways to get warm," he advises, specifically, through movement. Recognizing that she is not yet strong enough to take full responsibility for action, however, he is willing to help. Asking her to trust him, he brushes her eyes with fairie dust, and, agreeing, based on her past experience with him, to trust, she opens her eyes to a garden that is so extraordinary that the author comments that it is beyond description, for to describe it, "I cannot." The reader, like Griselda, is challenged to fill his empty imagination with a vision of butterflies which covers the entire field of sight.

As the imagination is challenged to a perception which, in Landow's words, renders "objects in more precise detail than that which they are normally perceived" it becomes possible for a "sensation of the fantastic" which both transforms "usual perception" and heightens awareness of reality to take over (11). This potentially integrative process is momentarily endangered, however, as, despite the feast of forms which greets her, and her wish to go to "Butterfly-land," Griselda's negative imagination threatens to dominate and she expresses disappointment because the scene before her is not "fairyland." In order to heal this afflicted imagination which would substitute an abstract "fairyland" for a present fantasy, the Cuckoo directs her to watch carefully. As she obeys (for the fairies as well as mortals require obedience), she begins to perceive the multitudes of colors in minute details, and to notice that the butterflies are painting the flowers.

As Griselda's mood changed, the butterflies offer to dress her, and Mrs. Molesworth's consummate skill in awakening her readers' sense of astonishment is exemplified in the question she asks of them—"How do you think they dressed her?" and the answer—"with themselves," creates in readers a sense of surprise and wonder equal to Griselda's, as their fantasy-making powers must work overtime to fill the mind's eye with the unexpected image of the incredible living dress. More astonishment is to follow, as other senses are awakened. The King and Queen of the Butterflies eat by sniffing petals. Readers are challenged to accept this "scent feast" without responding as Griselda does, "that's not eating." And when the butterflies hold an "air dance," twisting "in and out of each other in the most wonderful way, like ribbons of every hue plaiting themselves and in an instant unplaiting," readers must hear the silent music.

But what would a reader's reaction be to the last moment in the garden, when the butterflies swoop down from the air to surround and kiss Griselda? Griselda's reaction is to shriek in terror, "they'll suffocate me," as she feels the "vast feathery cloud of butterflies, fluttering, rushing down upon her (one cannot help but wonder if Madeleine L'Engle had this episode in mind when writing the scene in A Wrinkle in Time in which Maggie fears succumbing to the furry arms of the loving Aunt Beasts). Griselda's guide has given her the regressive fantasy she wished for, and has allowed her, despite her negativism, to be fully embraced by it. But, like a good therapist, he understands just how much fantasy and contact with her wishes she can tolerate. At the moment it threatens to become unbearable, the Cuckoo instructs her to clap her hands, and with her action, the fantasy disappears and she is back in her bed.

Although, unlike Maggie in A Wrinkle in Time, Griselda has not been able to give herself altogether up to the nurturing fantasy, she has gotten enough strength from it to return to her lessons with new vigor. As the psychologist Masud Khan observes in his essay "Secret as Potential Space," one "major capacity of the psychic structure is the capacity to cut off, to suspend an experience, while it is still going on … to shut off the awareness of it in order to recreate it, in one's own way, later on" (Grolnick and Baskin 262). That Griselda has begun to integrate her experience in Butterflyland is suggested by her observation, in one of those reversals which constantly surprise readers and loosen the boundaries between fantasy and reality, that the butterflies work "too hard to envy," and that she prefers her own studies. Her attitude markedly more positive, Griselda notices and accepts the passing of the seasons and appreciates the scent of the flowers. Now the Cuckoo remains only in his "official capacity" of time-teller, while she grows more and more into "reality." Now Griselda amuses herself, doing "the best she could for herself." Her capacity to imagine awakened, she pictures the garden path as the one Little Red Riding Hood trod, or the road to fairy-land. She fancies "wood-elves chattering under their breath" and hears "enchanted bells round the necks of the fairy kine."

Once, when she believes she hears the Cuckoo in the bushes, a small boy appears instead. "Griselda stared at him for a moment without speaking. She was so astonished." Although her first impulse is to reject him for intruding on her "private grounds," her growing sense of wonder and empathy permit her to ask him his "story." She learns that Phil has known the Cuckoo in a dream, and has followed him into the garden, hoping to find fairy-land. Phil's mother is away, his father is dead, and his nurse neglects him. Repeating the Cuckoo's lines, Griselda tells him, "there's a great deal to learn," and offers to teach the boy what she knows—that things are not as clear as one might hope, that there is much to be astonished at, that, as the Cuckoo says, "we must all find the way to fairy-land ourselves." But when her aunt forbids her to play in the garden with "a boy," Griselda becomes depressed and worried that Phil will feel rejected when she does not keep their appointment. It is at this point, after his lengthy absence, that the Cuckoo appears to her in the dark of her room. "Do you feel me here" he asks? This time, Griselda has no hesitation in placing her arms around her neck, defying conventional laws. Nevertheless, her sense of astonishment takes over as the Cuckoo expands to the size of a Shetland pony so that she can lie down on his neck. "That's right," the Pegasus/bird guide says, "You're not afraid of falling off … for you couldn't if you tried." As they float up the chimney of the house into the sky, Griselda, "confused and bewildered" about their relative size, exclaims "You have put all my thinking into a muddle … are you big or me small?" "I told you long ago it was all a matter of fancy," the Cuckoo replies.

If her earlier trips have taken her to the past (the land of the Nodding Mandarins and the vision of her great-grandfather, grandmother and the crafting of the cuckoo clock), to the present (the almost unbearably vivid world of Butterflyland with its threat of suffocation, her final journey with the Cuckoo is to the land of the uncreated future. As they travel through the heavens, Griselda observes the stars at their unceasing rounds, and learns that though they may be tired, they never rest, for they too are "obeying orders," the law of universal necessity without which there would be no movement, seasons, past, present or future.

That Griselda has progressed to the point where she may be ready to accept the uncertainty accompanying the recognition that there are no absolutes, that even her wise guide may be limited on knowledge, and that she herself may now be stronger than even he suspects, is suggested when, for the first time, the Cuckoo's own negative imagination threatens to take over. As they advance, the Cuckoo hesitates. Warning her that if they travel further, she will no longer be herself when she returns, he describes frightening images of a place beyond the moon to which he himself has never journeyed and only rumors tell. Despite the alarming fantasies he spins of a place where children, it is said, must carry huge black dogs on their backs, or unfinished forms reside in chaos, fantasies which suggest the threat that Griselda may be overwhelmed by her own impulses or disintegrate into formlessness, despite the warning that "there are many things you're not supposed to know," Griselda presses her guide to continue and he takes her "where you wished to be."

What this ultimate space of uncreated forms looks like presents the final challenge to a reader's imagination. As before, the author claims to be unable to describe an ultimate vision: "What did she see? Something that I can only give you a faint idea of, children; something so strange and unlike what she had ever seen before, that only in a dream could you see it as Griselda saw it. And yet why it seemed so strange and unnatural I cannot well explain; if I could, my words would be as good as pictures." This suggestion that words may be inadequate to tell the full story, that images and feelings are often truer, is reinforced by the sense of peace and awe that Griselda experiences as she contemplates the eerie, inexplicable vision of a "silent sea" in which all aspects of the human heart, imagination and action exist in potentiality. When she is able to speak, Griselda, remembering her astronomy lesson that morning, seeks refuge in the world of three-dimensional reality, asking whether fifty years have passed in travel and how large the sea might be. To this, the Cuckoo responds, "it's silly to have ideas about far and near, big and little, long and short, after all I've taught you and all you've seen." That Griselda has learned to accept her own bewilderment and need to question as she confronts the image of the unknown future, even while recognizing that there are no clear answers, is suggested by her thoughtful response, "I can't help it. I suppose I'm made so," and the Cuckoo's own meditative reply—"perhaps."

Griselda's ventures into the past, present and future with the Cuckoo as her guide have helped her learn about self-acceptance, mutuality, compassion, continuity, uncertainty, fantasy, and a true discipline and order in which everything in the internal and external, real and imagined universe has its necessary place. The internal balance she has achieved allows her to turn her attention to her lessons with a new perspective, to accept the instructions of her aunts (who have themselves been amazingly supportive of Griselda's need to grow at her own pace, suggesting that perhaps they too have at some time been tutored by the family Cuckoo), and to be a true friend to Phil, who is, as the Cuckoo has promised, "alright." Leading Griselda to "a little green nest lost in the woods," Phil informs her that this is his fairy-land. Even though Griselda now knows that it is not truly fairy-land, that "the way to fairy-land is hard to find, and we must each find it for ourselves," this recognition does not prevent her from working with Phil to build a small three-dimensional house in the secluded glade. As Phil's mother, who has returned from her long absence at last, and has offered to be a mother to Griselda, observes, though fairy-land is hard to find, "we can help each other."

According to legend, the Cuckoo, a careless parent, plants its eggs in alien nests. At the beginning of Mrs. Molesworth's story, Griselda has felt herself to be an orphan in the alien nest of her internal and external worlds. The Cuckoo, however, has proven himself to be a true parent-therapist, leading her to be at home with herself and with her true name, "Patience." This patience stems from inner peace, a peace, which the psychologist Susan Deri writes in her essay "Vicissitudes of Symbolization and Creativity," "comes from the inner space that is the base for the symbolic function that bridges over the gaps of time and space, thus uniting what has been separated" (Grolnick and Baskin 41).

Now the Cuckoo departs, but with the therapy at an end, leaves Griselda "in good hands." "Griselda, you have friends now who will understand you—friends who will help you to work and to play. Better friends than the Mandarins, or butterflies or even than your faithful old Cuckoo." As the last "cuckoo" terminates into "goodbye," Griselda awakens in the morning feeling both happy and sad. Having achieved this balance of opposites and the ability to imagine the forms of her own life in an integrated self, Griselda has truly written her own "story," and, in the words with which Mrs. Molesworth ends the book, "thus many stories end."

If, in Roger Lancelyn Green's words, Mrs. Molesworth was a "superb psychologist without any conscious intentions," she was one whose intuitive understanding of, and ability to image forth, the dimensions through which the child's psyche must journey on its way to wholeness have ensured her place as a story-teller for all times.


Green, Roger Lancelyn. Mrs. Molesworth. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1961.

Grolnick, Simon, and Baskin, Leonard, ed. Between Reality and Fantasy: Transitional Objects and Phenomena. New York: Jason Aronson, 1978.

Hillman, James. "A Note on Story." Children's Literature 3 (1974): 9-11.

Landow, George. "And the World Became Strange: Realms of Literary Fantasy." The Georgia Review, 33 (Spring 1979): 7-42.

MacDonald, George. Phantastes. London: Ballantine, 1971.

Molesworth, Maria Louisa Stewart. The Cuckoo Clock. London: MacMillan, 1877.

Pattison, Robert. The Child Figure in English Literature. Athens: Georgia University Press, 1978.

Rabkin, Eric. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Sherwood, Mary Butt. The Works of Mrs. Sherwood. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Bros., 1858. Vol. 2.

Sinclair, Catherine. Holiday House: A Book for the Young. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972.

Paula Fox (essay date September-October 1987)

SOURCE: Fox, Paula. "A Second Look: The Cuckoo Clock." Horn Book Magazine 63, no. 5 (September-October 1987): 592-93.

[In the following essay, Fox offers a critical reappraisal of The Cuckoo Clock, noting that "[t]he writing is firm, lively, and has none of the sentimental condescension so often attributed to Victorian writers of children's literature."]

It has long seemed to me that the tales we remember most are those that have temperament—a voice—just as unique individuals have. That temperament can exert a singular charm over the reader that lies beyond the interest of action and character. In fact, it is the mysterious element that makes a story come to life, and it is dramatically evident when the same series of events is related by different voices as, for example, in the Gospels.

The Cuckoo Clock by M. L. Molesworth exerted such a charm over me when I first read it some fifty years ago. When I read it recently, I found the book's voice as compelling as ever, a warm, confiding voice, touched with melancholy here and there, yet often carefree, even jaunty, and very, very patient, willing to spend time on every element in its beguiling and intricate story. Everything is alive, the magic cuckoo tells Griselda, the heroine, and the teller of the tale does not rush carelessly to conclusions; she gives every object and person its due, from the Chinese cabinet, "made in the shape of a temple, or a palace," to Phil, who becomes lonely Griselda's playmate, a little boy with, "a rosy, round face, with shaggy, fair hair falling over the eager blue eyes, and a general look of breathlessness and overheatedness and determination."

Like all good stories, The Cuckoo Clock is not only a series of magical events occurring in a particular setting. There is first the story of a little girl whose mother has died and who is brought to live with two elderly aunts in an old house, a child who learns to be patient and hard-working with the help of a supernatural bird. This extraordinary cuckoo teaches her something about relativity, takes her to the other side of the moon, shows her a thing or two about butterflies and flying, trust and self-reliance, and even encourages in her an effort toward self-knowledge.

There is a deeper theme in the story, that of loss and loneliness, and the gradual recovery from loss. The reader can guess at just how lonely Griselda is from a few lines which describe her reaction when, late in the night as she lies awake, she hears the cuckoo telling the hours: "And, with a pleasant feeling of companionship, a sense that she was not the only living creature awake in this dark world, Griselda lay listening, contentedly enough, for the sweet, fresh notes of the cuckoo's friendly greeting."

The cuckoo encourages her curiosity and awakens her interest in things outside of herself. She discovers that playing is more vital than just "being amused," as she once thought. But most important, perhaps, the cuckoo suggests that she has control over her own actions, and therefore over her own life. That is an immensely comforting thought to Griselda, separated from her family, taken away from all that is familiar to her. It is a growing-up thought; it holds a measure of freedom.

The Cuckoo Clock is full of allusions. It appears to take for granted that children want to learn, that they are capable of looking up words unfamiliar to them. The writing is firm, lively, and has none of the sentimental condescension so often attributed to Victorian writers of children's literature.

Some years ago, I spent a desultory moment with a woman at a social occasion. We tried to find a subject to talk about. Somehow, we got onto children's books. We discovered we had both loved The Cuckoo Clock passionately when we were children. Now, I recall that dull event because of the delicious conversation I had with that woman. It sent me on a hunt for the book. I had, long ago, lost my own copy of it. I finally tracked it down—I think it was at least two years later—in a basement secondhand bookshop in Camden, Maine. It is lovely to realize that with Dell reissuing the book, it will no longer be hard to find, and many children will have the pleasure of reading it.

Sanjay Sircar (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Sircar, Sanjay. "The Victorian Auntly Narrative Voice and Mrs. Molesworth's Cuckoo Clock." Children's Literature 17 (1989): 1-24.

[In the following essay, Sircar explores the variety and intricacy of Molesworth's narrative strategy in The Cuckoo Clock.]

Much Victorian work for children addresses its audience in a special way, "talking down" to it. Paradoxically, what strikes the modern reader as a dated rhetoric may explain the power of works that for more than half a century were ranked as classics. The intricately interwoven features of what I term the "auntly" (or avuncular) voice establish a special relationship to the audience in works that were once widely read, ranging from Mrs. Molesworth's Cuckoo Clock (1877) to Charles Kingsley's Water Babies (1863) and W. M. Thackeray's Rose and the Ring (1855). As any one of these texts can show, children's literature employs a broad array of rhetorical strategies to ensure the readers' or listeners' sense of relaxation, equality, and creative—even conspiratorial—involvement.

Mrs. Molesworth (1839-1921), "the last great writer of fantasy in the nineteenth century" (Ellis 121), was a prodigiously prolific author whose name "dominated children's books for some thirty years, at the end of the last century and the beginning of this" (Avery, "Introduction" 9). As late as 1938 a popular novel could assume that its audience would agree that her first work of juvenile fantasy, The Cuckoo Clock (1877), was "a classic" (Spring 147). It tells the tale of a lonely little girl called Griselda, who lives with her two great-aunts in an old house and is taken on a series of four dream-adventures by one of the "household gods," a wooden cuckoo out of a European clock. The cuckoo becomes her mentor, teaching her such virtues as obedience and good temper. At the end, Griselda acquires new friends: a little boy, Phil, and his understanding mother.

Today, despite Roger Lancelyn Green's chapters in Tellers of Tales and Mrs. Molesworth and her secure place in literary histories, Mrs. Molesworth is not much discussed. My aim here, besides drawing attention to an author whose "books and reputation have suffered an unjust eclipse" (Salway 520), is to explore the variety and intricacy of Victorian narrative strategy, using The Cuckoo Clock as my prime example. It remains in print in a number of editions (the most recent, a 1987 Dell reprint), at least nine artists have illustrated it, and all the standard histories of English children's literature mention it.1 In short, it is still alive. Even more to the point, The Cuckoo Clock offers rich examples of the rhetorical innovations that characterize Victorian fiction for children.

The Theory of Narrative Voice

In my analysis of this juvenile novel, I shall draw on theories of narrative that describe the way the voice of a text shapes its relationship to the audience. In doing so, I follow up a hint by G. W. Turner, one of the few stylisticians who has taken children's literature seriously: "Such special forms of writing as technical books or children's literature remind us that an author may choose an audience. He may also create one" (173). I also hope to counteract Frederick C. Crews's Pooh Perplex, whose joking about "Milnean voices" and "Christophorean ears" seems to suggest that children's literature is not susceptible to literary analysis of the kind applied to mainstream adult work.

One of the first to attempt to classify the structures of narrative relationships was Wayne Booth, whose discussion of the "implied author" and "implied reader" in The Rhetoric of Fiction has influenced all subsequent theorists. As Booth pointed out, the implied author whom we deduce from all the components of the text (and whose moral norms may differ from those of the real author) should be distinguished from the "speaker" of the text, who is part of the fiction itself (71-77). This is easy to do when the speaker is a developed character with a name, the kind of explicit "narrative persona" to whom Robert Elliott devoted his book. An anonymous narrator may be more difficult to define, but every text, however minimally narrated, implies one person who speaks or writes the text and another (the "narratee") who receives it (Rimmon-Kenan, 103-05). Where the anonymous narrator has a relatively obtrusive style, as in The Cuckoo Clock, we get a strong sense of an unseen personality, stance, and set of attitudes—a personality that may even be sustained through a number of texts by the same author.

Narrative voice describes our sense of a textual speaker who has verbal specificity and yet does not acquire the full-bodied presence of a narrative persona. Recognizably similar narrative voices may recur not only in an oeuvre but in texts by various authors and help define period style. Narrative voice is created by the selection of words, syntax, register, tone, and attitude toward the story and the audience. The metaphor of a voice is particularly apt for texts that simulate orality. In this regard, my use of narrative voice differs from Gérard Genette's voice, a metaphor taken from grammar rather than real-life oral communication. Voice in this essay is close to what linguists call register, the adaptation of words and phrases in accordance with the constraints of the circumstances of communication, such as a particular sort of hearer (Turner 165-202). When discussing the fictive speaker as agent rather than the quality of the voice, I shall continue to use the term narrator.

A hallmark of much children's literature, simulated orality figures prominently in Victorian literature, since adults still read aloud then even to older children, and readings within a family circle continued. This ostensibly oral voice can have a theatrical quality, not only because such readings were performative occasions but because reading aloud assimilates a disjunction between reading as an adult and telling a story to a child or children.

Booth has attuned us not only to the layers of narrative production but to questions of audience. Aside from the historical audience, whether contemporaneous with the original publication or subsequent, every text by its deployment of norms and conventions implies its own audience, which may or may not correspond to the real one. Gerald Prince has proposed that we distinguish the "virtual" reader, who an author hopes will respond adequately to the moral norms of the work, from the "ideal" reader, who can grasp completely nuances of which even the real author was unaware. Such readers must also be distinguished from the "narratee," the fictive reader or listener implied more or less overtly in the text (Tompkins 9).

In a text for children, the narratee may be a listener or a reader, single or in a group, child or adult, and often a text wavers among these possibilities. The more oral the text seems, the more likely it is that some narratee will be directly addressed. The complexities of the actual reception of children's literature lead to a complex representation or inscription of the text's narratee or audience. Often, of course, there will be a gap in age between the narrator and narratee in a children's book; if the narratee mediates between author and reader, as Prince reminds us, further rhetorical strategies may be in order to mediate between adult and child. The intricate situation of reception, then, demands complex strategies from the narrator and may explain what appear to be tensions among the "rhetorics" we shall observe in The Cuckoo Clock.

Rhetoric is the term I use for a particular group of verbal devices by which the narrative voice establishes a particular relation with its narratee. My use of rhetoric is thus more classical, more explicitly verbal, than that of Booth, who sets aside "the merely verbal" level of style (74). Within the text, these rhetorics seek to persuade and seduce a fictive audience; at the same time, of course, they work upon the real audience in ways that have clearly changed over the last century. Topos is a term I have reserved to describe the concerns that characterize a narrative voice.

Mrs. Molesworth's Auntly Narrative Voice

Mrs. Molesworth was "in opposition to the modern theory that it is inartistic to write down to a child's level."2 Her narrators are adults who are not always specifically embodied but whose imposing voices consciously "talk down" to children. She created this tone of voice through a set of verbal mannerisms or characteristics that, to begin with, were the mannerisms of a particular narrative persona. In her first book for children, Tell Me a Story (1875), a woman with a daughter named Sybil announces that she will tell the short stories that follow to her nieces and nephews. In Mrs. Molesworth's second book, the full-length novel Carrots (1876), there is no explicit narrative persona until Carrots and his sister go to visit their aunt, who tells them a story interpolated into the main narrative. This aunt also has a daughter called Sybil. (Although Marghanita Laski assumes that "Auntie" is Mrs. Molesworth herself (63),3 it is more accurate to see "Auntie" as an explicit narrative persona within a fiction narrated by a voice.)

By the time of her third book for children, The Cuckoo Clock, "Auntie" has dissolved into the narrative itself, leaving only the voice of a disembodied "I" without name, gender, or other personal traits. Yet the tone and mannerisms, so similar to those of "Auntie," justify calling this voice "auntly." After The Cuckoo Clock Mrs. Molesworth never again attached the auntly narrative voice to a specific narrative persona within a book, though aunts or auntly figures (fairy godmothers or ordinary godmothers) often tell interpolated stories.4 She created a number of other narrative personae at varying degrees of distance from the events they recount, but these all differ in tone and mannerisms from the auntly voice itself.5

In The Cuckoo Clock, Mrs. Molesworth's auntly narrative voice directly addresses its narratees as "children" (45, 92, 110), thus establishing a group undifferentiated as to gender. The address also betrays the older age and attitude of the narrative voice, which claims superior wisdom; indeed, only an adult would address children as "children." Mrs. Molesworth hardly ever uses the vocative "readers" in her writing for children and never alludes directly to writing. Instead, she uses such words as "speak" or "say" that imply not readers but a group of listeners whose responses she seeks to control. As the auntly voice of Mrs. Molesworth's Enchanted Garden (1892) remarks, "I have noticed that children rather enjoy a book story retold by voice" (4).6

The auntly narrative voice of The Cuckoo Clock, the speaking voice, may well stem from Mrs. Molesworth's own experiences of storytelling. As a child she told stories to her siblings (["How I Write My Children's Stories" ] 16-17, "Story-Writing" 160). When she became a writer she tried out her stories on her children by concealing the manuscripts in a book and reading them aloud (Bella Woolf 675). She advised aspiring writers for children to read their stories to real children (["On the Art of Writing Fiction for Children" ] 344, "Story-Reading and Story-Writing" 775) or to read aloud to family or friends (Bainton 94). To be sure, many people who have told stories to children have not become popular children's writers, but there is probably a direct correlation between the auntly and avuncular voices in such classic Victorian texts as those of Carroll, Kingsley, and MacDonald (and later Kenneth Grahame and A. A. Milne) and the oral storytelling relationships between adult and child in which these texts originated. Likewise, the auntly narrative voices of texts by Beatrix Potter and later Hugh Lofting stemmed from real, informal epistolary storytelling. What is noteworthy is the art by which Mrs. Molesworth and these other writers could re-create the illusion of an informal speaking voice in print.

Rhetorical Devices

In her 1886 essay on Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth remarked that children's books "should be written in such a style and in such language that the full attention and interest of the young readers should be at once enlisted and maintained to the end without any demand for mental straining or undue intellectual effort" (["Juliana Horatia Ewing" ] 505). Later she was to stress that an author should not refrain from using long words because they would be explained by the context (Bainton 93-94; "On the Art" 343; "Story-Writing" 164; Bella Woolf 675-76). But the early Cuckoo Clock avoids long words or brackets them, inviting an audience response. "Gingerly" is put in quotation marks (120), and the narrative voice draws out the listeners: "'flabbergasted,' if you know what that means" (150). Not only are "hard" words signaled by quotation marks, but "easy" and childish nonce words bridge the gap between narrator and fictive listeners. The auntly voice establishes an "equal" or familiar relationship with the listeners by using colloquial mannerisms and locutions in what may be called the rhetoric of equality.

This rhetoric imitates the verbal innovations of a constructed, "childish" conversation or perspective. The narrative voice plays with suffixes to make up nouns, like "old-fashionedness" (11), but more often adjectives and adverbs: "cuckoo-y" (35), "chilblainy"(52), "fruzzley" (62), "mandariny-looking" (65), "lazy-easy" (95), "mixty-maxty," a Scots dialect word (112), "charminger" (150), "rushy" (162, 164). The narrative voice also affects "nursery" adjectives which reflect a childish viewpoint: a lamp is thus described as "dear" (52). With the emphasis on food typical of children's fiction, it is not surprising that a palace, a garden, and a flight can all be described as "delicious" (12, 109, 162). In so far as this childish vocabulary is an adult invention, the narrative voice seems not only to talk in the hypothetical manner of the fictive listeners but to talk down to them. "Dear" or "delicious" are never found in communication between adults.

At the same time the narrative voice takes up and mirrors the child-protagonist's manner of speech. Griselda too uses made-up words: "'I hate must-ing to do anything,'" she says (97). Such special words, when used by the narrative voice, remind us of the way in which a certain kind of adult responds to a child by imitating a child's speech. These special words have nothing in common with the sophisticated, puzzling nonsense words of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, although they may superficially resemble them. Mrs. Molesworth's neologisms serve only to guarantee a sympathetic alignment of the narrative voice, the child protagonist, and the narratees.

Just as the narrative voice echoes the kind of childish words Griselda uses, it imitates her childish intensity and zest. Griselda tends to talk with great emphasis, indicated by italics: "'I'd far rather have the fairy carpet'" (41) or "'What a lovely cloak!'" (52). Similarly, the narratorial italics echo the rhythm of oral emphasis: Griselda's shoes are beautiful, "only they were rather a stumpy shape" (66); Sybilla's grandfather "did not look poor" (81); Griselda and Phil were "very hot and very tired and rather dirty" (189). Between Griselda and the narrative voice, almost every page of the book has at least one italicized word. These italics reproduce the cadences of conversation as well as creating an intimacy that binds the narratees with the narrative voice and protagonist.

Griselda's enthusiasms are further mirrored in the narratorial penchant for hyperbole. Griselda wears "the most magnificent dress you ever saw" (65), her shoes are "the dearest, sweetest little pair" (66), Sybilla is the "dearest little girl you ever saw, and so funnily dressed!" (81). Many of these superabundant superlatives are tautologous: to feel slightly ill is "very extremely" nasty (193), the butterfly garden is "the loveliest, loveliest garden" (109), Griselda's head is "crammed full, perfectly full, of fairy lore"(133).

Sometimes the narrative voice, growing almost incoherent, resorts to the rhetorical figure of occupatio; it protests that words are insufficient to describe the food in Mandarin Land, Sybilla's grandfather's workshop, the butterfly garden, the butterfly dress, Griselda's enjoyment of the spring, Griselda's flight on the cuckoo's back. When Griselda sees the sea on the moon, the voice remarks that it "is something that I can only give you a faint idea of, children … if I could [describe it adequately] my words would be as good as pictures, which I know they are not" (173).

The speaking voice re-creates with specific childish words, locutions, and heavy emphases a conversational dynamic and establishes intimacy with the fictive listeners. This is not the voice of one child speaking to another but of an adult indicating sympathy for children by addressing them in what is ostensibly their own manner. The adult comes down to the level of the child as part of the compact between teller and listener. In turn, by echoing the voice of the protagonist, the narrative voice invites the child narratees' sympathy with the child protagonist.

The rhetoric of equality establishes familiarity with the fictive audience, a familiarity enhanced by a group of devices that together make up the rhetoric of participation. To a certain extent, the narrative voice already invites the implied listeners to participate in the story by addressing them directly as "you." A common temporal ground with the listeners is implied by such phrases as "you will see" (133), "you must have seen" (93), "the dearest … you ever saw" (81), and "I can assure you" (189). These phrases create an illusion of shared knowledge and of direct interplay between the narrative voice and the fictive listener, as in an oral storytelling situation.

This interplay is furthered by rhetorical questions ("Had ever a little girl such a flight before?" [167]). When Griselda feels like crying out before her aunts and Lady Lavander, the narrative voice asks, "What would the three old ladies have thought if she had called it out?" (23). Here the narrative voice invites the listeners to acknowledge the horrified reactions of the ladies, assuming the listeners share its own experiences and attitudes. More important, when the narrative voice interrupts itself with such questions as "What did she see?" (109), "And how do you think they dressed her?" (118), or "Where was she?" (173), it evokes and directs the response of the narratees, thus asking for their participation in the story.

Most striking are moments when the narrative voice suggests that the narratees can collaborate in making the story. Using author's metalepsis the narrator transgresses the boundary between the world of telling and that about which is told.7 The first such passage is one of the opening flourishes of The Cuckoo Clock. Like the familiar opening of George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859), it serves to assert both the fictionality of the text and the power of the fictionmaker. George Eliot's voice calls attention to the written aspect of her text and to the magical power of the written word to evoke pictures and images in order to draw the reader into the fictional world. Mrs. Molesworth's narrative voice instead provides an almost cinematic descriptive movement from a broad view outside the house to a narrower view inside while asking the narratees' permission. It is here that the characteristic feature of the auntly narrative voice is seen: Whereas George Eliot's narrative voice tells the narratee what it will attempt ("This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen I will show you the roomy workshop …" [Bede 49]), Mrs. Molesworth's narrative voice, much less overtly authoritarian, more playfully collaborative, seeks the narratees' consent. "A gentleman lifted [Griselda] out of the carriage and disappeared with her into the house…. That was all that the rooks saw…. Shall we go inside to seemore?" (3). Here is another passage calling for collaboration or assent in making the story: "And Mr.—I can't remember the little old gentleman's name. Suppose we call him Mr. Kneebreeches—Mr. Knee-breeches … conscientiously put her back to the very beginning" (18).

The playful atmosphere of the rhetoric of participation reinforces the group of devices which together make up the rhetoric of relaxed narration. These indicate that storytelling is an informal activity that does not demand a rigorously attentive response. The narrative voice conveys this impression by using emphatic dilation and by reproducing childish babble, a vocabulary that by definition is not "serious." Here the patterns of conversation become important: the digression, which disrupts the ordered sequence of events, the dislocated sentence, and interjected comments on the story from a distance.

Without compunction, the narrative voice rambles about, interrupting regularly to comment on a word or image. For example, after Miss Grizzel hopes that Griselda's cold will get better, the narrator comments:

Griselda's cold was much better by "to-morrow morning." In fact, I might almost say it was quite well.

But Griselda herself did not feel quite well, and saying this reminds me that it is hardly sense to speak of a cold being better or well—for a cold's being "well" means that it is not there at all, out of existence, in short, and if a thing is out of existence how can we say anything about it? Children … give me your opinion. In the meantime, I will go on about Griselda.


This passage is obviously derived from a portion of Alice which runs: "And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing." This is glossed by one annotator, referring to Goethe, Freud, and Descartes, as "a puzzle about existence" (Heath 19). Similarly digressive is the narrative description of spring's arrival (Cuckoo Clock 149).

Invariably humorous, the digressions may amplify the narrative with myths and folklore that are obviously intended to create a bond between teller and listener. The sea on the moon evokes a topsy-turvey comparison to a familiar earthly sea: "King Canute might have sat 'from then till now' by this still, lifeless ocean with the chance of reading his silly attendants a lesson—if indeed, there were such silly people, which I very much doubt" (174). In one instance, the narrative voice digresses in mid-sentence, in the guise of simile that swells into an anecdote: "'If it was summer now, or spring,' [Griselda] repeated to herself, just as if she had not been asleep at all—like the man who fell into a trance of a hundred years just as he was saying 'it is bitt—,' and when he woke up again he finished the sentence as if nothing had happened '—erly cold.' 'If only it was spring,' thought Griselda" (6). These digressions are in keeping with the simulation of oral narrative as well as with the affected naiveté of the narrative voice. Both examples refer to other stories as if teller and listener alike would recognize them, so that narrative voice and narratees are drawn into a community of equals who respond to shared cultural artifacts. But the examples here serve primarily to indicate the playfulness of the narrative voice and to foster the relaxed enjoyment of the listeners.

The process of narration and of finding the right words comes to the fore through these humorous digressions and interruptions. To describe Griselda's trials at the hands of her tutor requires a halt and turn as the voice searches for the most expressive term: "It was dreadful, really. He came twice a week, and the days he didn't come were as bad as those he did, for he left her a whole row I was going to say, but you couldn't call Mr. Kneebreeches' addition sums 'rows,' they were far too fat and wide across to be so spoken of!—whole slatefuls of these terrible mountains of figures to climb wearily to the top of" (18-19). A conversational effect of immediacy, of thought in process is achieved by such dislocations. In addition, the voice slips toward Griselda's view of the sums by the affected naiveté, the emphases, the humor, and the breathlessness of the sentence with its subordinate clauses and parenthetical remarks.

This broken, interruptive style has been criticized as typical of Mrs. Molesworth's faults. Marghanita Laski, who believes the long passage in which the butterflies dress Griselda is "probably the most dearly remembered passage in any children's book," nonetheless complains: "Read this passage as a critical adult and a multitude of faults glare out at you. The syntax is shaky, the sentence structure clumsy—both very usual faults in Mrs. Molesworth's children's books. The choice of words is limited and unimaginative…."Yet Laski would create a separate set of critical voices for children's literature, arguing that "her whole passage was written for a child and is properly susceptible only to children's criticism" (66-67).

In fact, these stylistic "faults" are absent from Mrs. Molesworth's "stories for girls," which move at a conventional, sedate pace without childish mannerisms. Mrs. Molesworth could write "correctly" when she chose. What Laski calls faults, I call narrative art. Without resorting to the ambiguities of "children's criticism," we may suggest that Mrs. Molesworth deliberately resorts to clumsy syntax to reproduce the warm and chatty voice of a storytelling adult and to create intimacy with young narratees.

There are suggestive similarities between the digressions of the auntly narrative voice and the associative monologues of Miss Bates in Austen's Emma or Mrs. Lirriper in Dickens's "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings"(1863). Even more than these characters, the digressive narrator in humorous fiction in the wake of Sterne foreshadows the stream-of-consciousness techniques of the new century. The rhetorical devices of the rambling auntly voice combine features we normally separate as conscious and unconscious, outer and inner voice, disturbing our sense of linear order to reduce the reader's distance from the character who speaks.8

Occasionally, the auntly voice does appear to be distanced temporally or otherwise. For instance, the narrator may deny knowing a particular fact, paradoxically enhancing the verisimilitude of the story by insisting on the putative previous transmission of the story. How did the rooks react to Griselda's arrival? "I never heard if they slept well that night; after such unusual excitement it was hardly to be expected they would" (5). In a strategy of collaboration, the narrator conjectures about causes indispensable to understanding the plot. The verbs "suppose" and "think" (2, 45, 130) avow ignorance. Indeed, pretended ignorance may even convey needed facts: "For some reason that I do not know enough about the habits of 'flesh-and-blood' cuckoos to explain, that bird was not known in the neighbourhood" (133). She thus ensures that young listeners will understand how unusual it was for Griselda to hear the live cuckoo in that garden in spring. At other times, the narrative voice catches itself in an omission and loquaciously explains in retrospect: "'What a lovely cloak!' said Griselda, wrapping it round her … as she watched the little lamp in the roof—I think I was forgetting to tell you that the cuckoo's boudoir was lighted by a dear little lamp set into the red velvet roof like a pearl on a ring—playing softly on the brilliant colors of the feather mantle" (52-53).9 Inconsistencies seem almost deliberate occasions for self-interruption or tokens of enthusiastic haste: "The bowling green was certainly very delightful … but lovely as the roses were (I am speaking just now, of course, of later on in the summer, when they were all in bloom), Griselda could not enjoy them" (130). The narrative voice can even comment on itself: "The cuckoo smiled, I was going to say, but that would be a figure of speech only, would it not?" (110).

All these interventions testify to the spontaneous invention of Griselda's story. While the narrator claims to have heard the story, her rhetoric implies that she is making the story up as she goes along and must cover the tracks of her art. These signs that the storytelling is a relaxed occupation for which the narrator has not prepared rigorously invite the narratees to respond in a corresponding manner.

The jocularity goes even further with the rhetoric of nonsubversive irony, an additional bond between adult and child since irony always depends on some shared understanding between two parties from which somebody else is at least potentially excluded. The irony may be directed against Griselda, as when her "weighty cares" are nothing more than brushing her hair (8), or when she talks "sagely" to Phil (144). Two passages illustrate this irony:

[Miss Grizzel:] "Respect to your elders, my dear, always remember that. The mandarins are many years older than you—older than I myself, in fact."

Griselda wondered, if this were so, how it was that Miss Grizzel took such liberties with them herself, but she said nothing.


[The cuckoo:] "Don't you know that if all the world and everything in it, counting yourself of course, was all made little enough to go into a walnut, you'd never find out the difference?"

"Wouldn't I?" said Griselda, feeling rather muddled; "but not counting myself, cuckoo, I would then, wouldn't I?"

"Nonsense," said the cuckoo hastily; "you've a great deal to learn, and one thing is, not to argue."


In both cases Griselda only half perceives what is perfectly obvious to the narrative voice and to the narratees: that adults are often not logically consistent. There is a great difference between subversive writing and subversive reading, and it would be advisable to resist salting these passages with our own dislike of authority. Here, because the narrative voice is an adult one, the irony is divested of any subversive intent: it becomes merely another instance of attempted sympathy between adult auntly narrator and a group of fictive child listeners. In the same way, after Griselda's final declaration of her good intentions, the maid Dorcas wonderingly hopes that "'the child's not going to be ill'" (185). Here, the narrator invites the narratees to laugh at the stereo-type of the ideal, perfect pious child not long for this world, thereby indicating that Griselda, who knows nothing of this, does not fit that stereotype.

The narrative voice also creates intimacy with the narratees in an act of self-mockery by affecting naiveté; for example, when describing Griselda's sums the voice asserts "I can't explain it—it is far beyond my poor powers" (19). Or again, a direct address to the narratees may be part of a shared jest: "Children, I feel quite in a hobble—I cannot get my mind straight about it—please think it over and give me your opinion" (92-93). The exaggerated, self-deprecating pose (as also in forgetting Mr. Kneebreeches' name) is an ironic rhetorical device. In making fun of itself, the narrative voice requests the tolerance of the listeners.


With the groups of devices used to establish equality, participation, relaxation, and shared irony, I have so far been dealing mainly with the relation set up between the auntly voice and its audience. I now turn to two aspects of the relation between the narrative voice and its content, that is, to why and how the kinds of rhetoric are applied. Primarily, Mrs. Molesworth establishes a relation between her auntly narrative voice and its narratees for a didactic purpose. The narrator conveys an impression of casualness, relaxation, even disorder only to conceal the seriousness of purpose and commitment to moral order which are the raison d'être of the work. Here is a case in which ars est celare artem: the art consists in concealing the art. Since the narrator is so obtrusive, commenting about so many things, the didactic comments it makes are passed along with the others. These didactic comments constitute what might be called the topoi of instruction.

The narrative voice makes its point about courage through one of its many rhetorical questions: Griselda "was afraid of nothing. Or rather perhaps I should say she had never learnt that there was anything to be afraid of! And is there?" (31). It condemns Griselda's ill-tempered and lazy self-pity with a similar ironical rhetorical question: "Upstairs Griselda was hurry-scurrying into bed. There was a lovely fire in the room—fancy that! Was she not a poor neglected little creature?" (99).

Protected by the sympathy and intimacy it projects, the narrator can even make flatly didactic generalizations. For instance, when Griselda sulks after she is told that her lessons will resume with her tutor, the narrator combines description with comment: "She was 'so tired,' she said; and she certainly looked so, for ill-humor and idleness are excellent 'tirers,' and will soon take the roses out of a child's cheeks, and the brightness out of her eyes" (99). Again, after describing Griselda's anxiety in asking permission to play with Phil, an anxiety that makes her take "a sort of spiteful pleasure in injuring her own cause," the narrator comments, "How foolish ill-temper makes us!" (149). In both these cases the narrative voice shifts from the particular to the universal, making general points about conduct and human nature.

Moral prescription wears the mask of a novel of education: "And Griselda became gradually more and more convinced that the only way as yet discovered of getting through hard tasks is to set to work and do them; also, that grumbling, as things are at present arranged in this world, does not always, nor may I say often, do good; furthermore, that an ill-tempered child is not, on the whole, likely to be as much loved as a good-tempered one; lastly, that if you wait long enough, winter will go and spring will come" (129). Here, Mrs. Molesworth blurs the focus and preaches rather than displays the moral. Yet her art remains much the same. Though the rhythm is slower, she uses those long, rambling, interrupted sentences that elsewhere contribute to the impression of childish zest; the italics imply a spoken stress. The meiosis in "not always, nor … often" appeals to a compact between narrator and narratees; both understand that the words mean "never." With the obtrusive "may I say" the narrator turns from Griselda's learning her lesson about grumbling toward the narratees who must learn the lesson, too. Whereas the voice and plot show Griselda's awareness of the inevitability of hard work and the use of patience, nowhere in the book does she really learn that "an ill-tempered child is not … likely to be as much loved as a good-tempered one," a point addressed instead to the narratees. Suggestively, Griselda learns not that "if she waited long enough, winter would go," but that "if you waited long enough"—Griselda's personal education has been transformed into a set of universally valid moral generalizations. This passage is immediately followed by the light digression on winter and spring. Hence, the narrative manner—egalitarian, interactive, relaxed, and gently ironic—works to a didactic end. Like the fantasy adventures themselves, the warmly inviting auntly voice provides the sugar-coating for the moral pill.

The very situation of the voice's audience, a group of children, conveys a potential lesson. Their condition does not mirror that of the child protagonist, who is not surrounded by other children, has few books to read (77), and has no one to tell her stories to. Perhaps this difference is created in order to indicate subliminally that the children who read the book or have it read to them should be grateful for the advantages that they enjoy in contrast to Griselda. (The name itself suggests long-suffering and patience.) Here Mrs. Molesworth refines the Evangelical attitude of "there but for the grace of God go you," which is obvious in many nineteenth-century stories of "street arabs."

While overt didacticism today seems out of fashion, far more serious stumbling blocks for modern readers are the topoi of prettification and pathos. These appeals to emotion constitute one of the temptations of works which deploy the auntly narrative voice, temptations to which Mrs. Molesworth succumbs at certain points in the work.

Legitimate pathos in the novel centers on Griselda's loneliness, as when she stands in the dark room apologizing to the unresponsive clock (34) or when she weeps to Dorcas because she has been forbidden to meet Phil the next day and fears he will think she has deserted him (155). Pathos is inherent in the figure of the deprived, lonely child. The moments of pathos centering on Griselda are conveyed through dialogue and description, not comment. In the presentation of Phil, however, "loaded" descriptions turn pathos into unwarranted sentimentality. In a hyperbolic and stereotyped contrast we are told Phil is "a very sturdy, very merry, very ragged little boy" (135). When Griselda attempts to send him away, the description stresses emotions perceived and felt. "His voice sounded almost as if he were going to cry, and his pretty, hot, flushed face puckered up. Griselda's heart smote her …" (137). Evidently the hearts not only of fictive listeners but of real readers should be smitten, too. Again, on the night when Griselda visits Phil with the cuckoo, the narrator waxes eloquent, using such emotive adjectival phrases as "lovely sleeping child," "shaggy curls," "rosy mouth," and the marker word "little"—"little hand," "little basket," "like a baby almost" (163-64). This appeal to the sentimentality about babies that lurks in the heart of the most hardened person seems to us tear-jerking self-indulgence, since it is unrelated to Phil's lonely condition. The epithets are there seemingly for their own sake.10

Promises and Pitfalls of the Victorian Auntly Voice

The auntly voice in its strengths and weaknesses was common to other Victorian writers for children. It cuts across considerations of genre—it is used in fantasy novels or short stories, Kunstmärchen, and nonfantasy works alike. The most striking instance of an explicitly auntly narrative voice among other Victorian writers for children is in Christina Rossetti's Speaking Likenesses (1874). This long dramatic monologue gradually reveals that the speaker is indeed an aunt; the text inscribes the nature, number, and responses of her listeners, as well as her own character and relationships with them. Of course, not only in children's books but in works for adults, such as Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth (1853), Victorian narrative voices convey similar qualities of responsibility, sympathy, intimacy, relaxation, wisdom, and playfulness.

Most novels do not betray the gender of the narrative voice. If we project our knowledge about the author, we may call the intimate narrative voice in children's books either auntly or avuncular. The latter might be more appropriate for a male author such as Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies (1863), or Lewis Carroll in Alice (1865). When Virginia Woolf comments on the "perpetual admonitions" of the "eternal pedagogue" and the "too conscientious governess," she describes "that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronising, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them" (75). In this negative context the avuncular voice speaks down to women and children, teaching, moralizing, admonishing, with less than kindly condescension. The situation, tone, and verbal mannerisms of this kind of voice, whatever the gender, remain remarkably similar from author to author.

The adjective "auntly" is a metaphor intended to convey the relation between the narrative voice and narratee in a given Victorian children's book: to evoke the adult, superior in authority, but potentially receptive and willing to entertain and play with children—like the quintessential storytelling aunt evoked in Tell Me a Story and Carrots. By contrast, the metaphor "uncle" should evoke someone like the kind, eccentric uncle in Hugh Walpole's later Jeremy books. And kinship words like "maternal" or "paternal" evoke yet a different set of nineteenth-century images or notions. The mother stereotype, as exemplified in Miss Yonge's work, is largely that of a childbearing figure, loving but relatively effaced or absent, not primarily playful. Victorian fathers—like the father in Carrots —inherit a shadow from the stern Georgian father in Mrs. Sherwood's Fairchild Family (1818), who explicitly and proudly took the responsibility of standing in the position of a Calvinist, judgmental God in relation to his children. It may even be hazarded that the line between Georgian and Victorian children's literature is drawn by a shift from hortatory parental narrative stances and voices to playful auntly or avuncular ones.11

In Victorian children's fiction, the narrative voice often establishes the nature of its narratee by using vocatives. Sometimes the narratee may be an individual, even of a particular sex: Kingsley's narrator addresses "my little man" in The Water Babies. The narratee may in other cases be a group: Thackeray's narrator talks to "dear friends" or to "every little boy or girl" in The Rose and the Ring (1855). Some texts, The Water Babies and George MacDonald's Princessand the Goblin (1872), for instance, go so far as to include dialogue between the narrative voice and the narratee. Others exploit the fact that the real audience of Victorian children's books was often a simultaneous double one of children and mediating adults.12 Thackeray's narrative voice at one point tells its boys and girls to fancy what they would like to eat but then adds a footnote, presumably addressed to an adult, to the effect that at this point in the narrative the children might play a game along the lines indicated. In Mrs. Gatty's The Fairy Godmothers (1851), not a page after addressing "dear little readers," the narrative voice suddenly addresses a comment to the scornful young lady who is reading the story aloud. (This shift of narratorial address from one kind of narratee to another often gives the real reader a jolt.) Finally, as the example from Mrs. Gatty shows, the narrative voice may show an awareness that it is using the medium of written communication, that its narratee is a reader or group of readers. This is even more visible in Lewis Carroll's "An Easter Greeting," which begins, "Dear Child, Please to fancy, if you can, that you are reading a real letter.

…" There is considerable variation, then, in the degree of particularity which the auntly narrative voice can give to its narratee(s).

The auntly narrative voice is usually arch, sometimes excessively so. Mrs. Molesworth, secure in the jest shared with her implied listeners, is playfully saucy, but the archness of her contemporaries may become an exaggerated, often forced or artificial playfulness. In many the narrative voice fails to share an ironical jest or to laugh at itself or the protagonist. Moral admonitions, for instance, are not enlivened by the curious digression or odd simile. What we are left with then is no more than a collection of auntly mannerisms. Even such a master as Lewis Carroll allowed his auntly/avuncular narrative voice to degenerate into self-parody in The Nursery "Alice," which is peppered with the four mannerisms (one could almost call them stylistic tics) that are easiest to adopt: the nursery adjective, the use of italics to represent exaggerated emphasis, the rhetorical question, and the rambling sentence:

"Oh dear, oh dear!" said the Rabbit. "I shall be too late! What would it be too late for, I wonder? Well, you see, it had to go and visit the Duchess, (you'll see a picture of the Duchess soon, sitting in her kitchen): and the Duchess was a very cross old lady: and the Rabbit knew she'd be very angry indeed if he kept her waiting. So the poor thing was as frightened as frightened could be (Don't you see how he's trembling? Just shake the book a little, from side to side, and you'll soon see him tremble), because he thought the Duchess would have his head cut off, for a punishment. That was what the Queen of Hearts used to do, when she was angry with people (you'll see a picture of her soon): at least she used to order their heads to be cut off, and she always thought it was done, though they never really did it….

And so that was the beginning of Alice's curious dream. And, next time you see a White Rabbit, try and fancy you're going to have a curious dream, just like dear little Alice.

[2-3, 4]

It is no wonder that this nursery version of Alice was practically stillborn.

The worst excesses of this sort of narrative voice have been accurately parodied by A. A. Milne:

Once upon a time there was a little girl called—well, you will never guess what her name was, not if you had three hundred million guesses, and your Daddy and Mummy and your Nanny all guessed too, and you read the Englishdictionary (isn't that a long word?) right through from beginning to end, including all the twiddly-widdly bits. Because she had a special name of her very-very-very-own, which nobody had ever been called before, and it wasn't Mary, and it wasn't Jane, and it wasn't Anne, and you'll never believe it but it wasn't even Flibberty-gibbet. What could it have been? Can't you guess? …

It is not unfair to take this as a representative sample of the children's story manner.


In view of Milne's own awareness of and dislike for the characteristics of the "bad" auntly narrative voice, it is somewhat ironic that his own variation of it in The House at Pooh Corner (1928) should have been cruelly parodied in one of the most famous book reviews of children's literature, Dorothy Parker's "Far from Well." Having quoted the "cadenced whimsy" of one of Pooh's "hums" and a bit of prose, the reviewer, Constant Reader, continues, "Oh darn—there I've gone and given away the plot. Oh, I could bite my tongue out." More quotation ends,

"Well, you'll see, Piglet, when you listen. Because this is how it begins. The more it snows, tiddely-pom—"

"Tiddely what?" said Piglet. (He took as you might say, the very words out of your correspondent's mouth.)

"Pom," said Pooh. "I put that in to make it more hummy."

And it is that word "hummy," my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up.


This cuts close to the bone in its cunning use of pompous phrases combined with an exaggeration of auntly narrative voice features—exclamations, childish phrases, address to a putative set of child narratees, paedokakography (written baby talk), and the like—not that Milne was guilty of all these sins in his book.

Placing the analysis of Mrs. Molesworth's rhetoric beside the passage from Carroll and the sharp parodies by and of Milne, we are struck by the devices common to all these authors. It may be fairly claimed that all narrative voices which we recognize as auntly or avuncular select their rhetorical devices from a certain register, though of course not every writer uses all the devices together, in the same proportion, or to the same effect as Mrs. Molesworth. The case of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Nursery "Alice" would seem to indicate that the younger the intended audience, the more auntly or avuncular the voice.

"Writing down" to children is not always successful; it may convey adult condescension rather than the gracious sharing of a game. The Nursery "Alice" and the parodies by Milne and Parker also seem to imply that the auntly or avuncular voice has the sole purpose of padding out or otherwise trivializing and debasing content. But this is not inevitable. In The Cuckoo Clock the groups of devices are in control. No one device becomes predominant or annoyingly obtrusive; they are balanced and tactfully proportioned to accommodate the moral of the novel, which is conveyed both directly by the commentary and indirectly by the plot.

All auntly narrative voices create and address a fictive audience of children—and this acts as a generic marker that the work in question is children's literature. All attempt to establish a relation between a sympathetic, intimate, relaxed, wise, and above all playful adult and a child, though in some cases archness degenerates into forced playfulness. The balance is delicate. Each rhetorical cluster simulates orality of a particular kind, that of an adult "talking down" to a child; but some of the features of the rhetoric of equality and the rhetoric of participation can at the same time undo the hierarchic relationship that normally governs relationships between adult and child, and between narrator and narratee as well. One might describe this effect as controlled subversion.

In the work of Mrs. Molesworth, the rhetoric of equality establishes that the adult speaks "as" a child. The rhetoric of participation invites the child to share in the game of storytelling with the adult. The rhetoric of relaxed narration indicates that neither adult nor child need take the act of narration too seriously. The rhetoric of nonsubversive irony marks a compact between the adult and child, whereby they laugh together at child characters, adult characters, and even the adult narrative voice without seriously interrogating the values of any of them. All the previous devices are then used to make the topoi of moral instruction acceptable under cover of playfulness—concealing the powder in the jam, to use a favorite Victorian metaphor. Finally, with the topoi of prettifi-cation and pathos, the adult narrator invests a child character with features designed to appeal to the child—features which some modern sensibilities find unappealing, but in which the Victorians, both young and old, delighted.

These rhetorics are not peculiar to children's literature. Thackeray, who wrote for "great" as well as "small" children, addresses his readers in the last lines of Vanity Fair as "children," an extension of his puppetry metaphor. Joyce drops into a childish language at the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Once upon a time moocow" assimilates the narrative voice to topos and forces adult narratees into a childlike role. Hyperbole, childish neologisms, diminutives, and the topos of prettification, by contrast, seem rare in works for adults; some of these features, like italics, have been mocked as markers of women's language. And adult literature, of course, is not likely to unleash the strange figure of nonsubversive irony.

The continued reprinting of The Cuckoo Clock indicates that the tone at which the auntly voice is pitched to its narratee and the use to which it is put satisfy real readers or listeners. In Mrs. Molesworth's hands, a moral vision anchors the rhetoric; the narrative voice thus rarely becomes pedestrian, irritating or portentous, badly "arch." There are of course sensibilities today to which an auntly narrative voice (or an unequivocal moral vision) automatically seems beyond the pale. I think her work answered that challenge before it was made. At its best, the auntly or avuncular voice sustains literary values that few would question today, such as the pleasurable metaphoric rupturing of narrative boundaries between story and frame. Above all this voice invites the active participation of the narratee, and therefore indirectly of all its listeners or readers.


Besides the assistance of Ruth Robertson, who is preparing a biography of Mrs. Molesworth, and who made available to me material she had collected, I wish to call attention to the thesis of Beth Humphries and an unpublished paper by Margaret Ann Paterson, "The Values and Limitations of Carrots as an Historical Source." See also the article by Jane Cooper, forthcoming in Signal (1988). A symposium volume on Mrs. Molesworth (edited by Sircar et al.) is in preparation.

  1. The Cuckoo Clock was one of the first children's books reprinted by Puffin; it has been translated into German. Its illustrators include Walter Crane (1877), Maria L. Kirk (1914), Florence White Williams (1927), F. Sherman Cooke (1930), C. E. Brock (1931), Edna Cooke (1939), E. H. Shepard (1954), and two anonymous American artists (1895, 1909).
  2. F. H. L. (probably Frances H. Low), "A Popular Writer for Children: Mrs. Molesworth," Westminster Budget, 20 Oct. 1883. Typescript supplied by Ruth Robertson. The British Museum holding of this was destroyed in the war, and no other known holdings exist.
  3. Ruth Robertson concludes that "Sybil" is probably drawn from Mrs. Molesworth's niece, Agnes Venetia Goring (later Hohler), daughter of Agnes and Sir Charles Goring. There is also a "Sybilla" in The Cuckoo Clock—the heroine's grandmother seen as a little girl.
  4. See such works as Grandmother Dear (1878), The Tapestry Room (1879), Hoodie (1882), An Enchanted Garden (1892), This and That (1899), and The February Boys (1909).
  5. They range from an old nurse in Nurse Heatherdale's Story (1891) to a boy protagonist in The Girls and I (1892), a young girl retelling the events of a few years before in My New Home (1894), and an old lady recalling her childhood in The Carved Lions (1895).
  6. Of course, the group of narratee-listeners in The Cuckoo Clock is not necessarily to be identified with the actual audience, contemporaneous or contemporary, of the book. The actual audience may be an adult reader, a child reader, a child being read to, a group of children being read to, or indeed an analytical scholar. George Bainton noted in The Art of Authorship: Personally Contributed by Leading Authors of the Day (New York, 1891) that Mrs. Molesworth's books "have just as great a charm to older readers as to those on whose behalf they were written"(93).
  7. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse 234-35. He gives many examples, and points out that the effect is always strange, whether comical or fantastic. Authorial metalepsis may appeal to the intervention of the narratee, as in Sterne, George Eliot, or Mrs. Molesworth, but need not do so.
  8. See Cohn (63, 95-97) on infantile babbling.
  9. Such flashbacks are called "completing analepses" by Genette (51-54).
  10. Gillian Avery points out that Mrs. Molesworth tended to be more indulgent with her boy characters than her girl characters (162). Perhaps this is the reason that Phil is viewed through a rosy haze, whereas Griselda is not, though of course he is a supernumerary and she the protagonist. Though the literary ancestor of Phil and his brethren is George MacDonald's Diamond in At the Back of the North Wind (1871), Ruth Robertson has discovered that apparently his original in real life was Mrs. Molesworth's son Lionel, a delicate child who was consequently a little "spoilt."

    A. P. Herbert in The Water Gypsies (1930) gives an excellent example of the continued use of "little" as a marker word. The novel is humorously describing a Communist Sunday school in England:

    Ernest said, 'Now which little Comrade will recite the text for the week?'

    A young chubby girl with long plaits stood up and said, 'If you please, Comrade, Comrade Slatter don't allow us to be called little because he says we're all Comrades same as others and there's no little about it.' And she sat down.


  11. A check of titles in any list of Victorian children's books, or a look at the British Library catalogue, will show more aunts than uncles, mothers, or fathers in works ranging from instruction to fairy tales.
  12. The double audience of children's literature is important not only as it involves a gap in age among real readers, posing questions of economics, censorship, morals, slang, and so on; but also as the two fictive groups of narratees shape the rhetoric of the text, one perhaps for the benefit of the inscribed, mediating adult readers (or readers-aloud), another perhaps "subversively" slipped past them. We know that Lewis Carroll's work was read by adults in real life from Rhoda Broughton's Nancy (1873; London, 1878, p. 362) and Anthony Trollope's Eustace Diamonds (1876; London, 1930,p. 251), which refer to adults reading the Alice books for themselves, not to children.
  13. Only eight years after The Nursery Alice and twenty after The Cuckoo Clock, Max Beerbohm parodied the auntly voice in an adult work of fiction, "The Happy Hypocrite" (1897):

    None, it is said, of all who revelled with the Regent was half so wicked as Lord George Hall. I will not trouble my little readers with a long recital of his great naughtiness. But it were well they should know he was greedy, destructive and disobedient. I am afraid there is no doubt that he often sat up at Carlton House long after bed-time, playing at games, and that he generally ate and drank far more than was good for him….


    Other parodies of the same sort include Peter Sellers's "Auntie Rotter" and Joyce Grenfell's "Writer of Children's Books" (88). Grenfell is obviously mocking Enid Blyton, whose use of the auntly narrative voice varies from book to book but is best seen in her work for a younger age group, for example, The Enchanted Wood (45, 165, 192).

Works Cited

Avery, Gillian. "Introduction." My New Home. London: Gollancz, 1968.

——. Nineteenth-Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories, 1780-1900. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965.

Bainton, George, ed. The Art of Authorship: Personally Contributed by Leading Authors of the Day. 1890. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1891.

Beerbohm, Max. "The Happy Hypocrite." 1897. In The Bodley Head Beerbohm, ed. Lord David Cecil. London: Bodley Head, 1970.

Blyton, Enid. The Enchanted Wood. London: George Newnes, 1939.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1961.

Carroll, Lewis [Charles L. Dodgson]. The Nursery "Alice." London: Macmillan, 1889.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Crews, Frederick C. The Pooh Perplex: A Freshman Casebook. New York: Dutton, 1963.

Eliot, George [Mary Ann Evans]. Adam Bede. 1859. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

Elliott, Robert C. The Literary Persona. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1982.

Ellis, Alec. How to Find out about Children's Literature. Oxford: Pergamon, 1973.

[F. H. L., probably Frances H. Low.] "A Popular Writer for Children: Mrs. Molesworth." Westminster Budget 20 October 1883.

Gaskell, Mrs. Elizabeth Cleghorn. Ruth. Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1853.

Gatty, Mrs. The Fairy Godmothers. London: Bell, 1851.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1979.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Mrs. Molesworth. London: Bodley Head, 1961.

——. Tellers of Tales. New York: Franklin Watts, 1975.

Grenfell, Joyce. "Writer of Children's Books," in George, Don't Do That…. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Heath, Peter, ed. The Philosopher's Alice. London: Academy Editions, 1974.

Herbert, A. P. The Water Gypsies. 1930. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

Humphries, Beth. "Fantasy and Morality in Children's Books: A Study of Mrs. Molesworth in the Context of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Writers for Children." M.A. Thesis. Sussex University, 1978.

Kingsley, Charles. The Water Babies; A Fairytale for a Land-Baby. London: Macmillan, 1863.

Laski, Marghanita. Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett. London: Arthur Barker, 1950.

MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1872.

Milne, A. A. "Children's Books." In By Way of Introduction. London: Methuen, 1929.

Molesworth, Mary Louisa Stewart. "Carrots": Just a Little Boy. London: Macmillan, 1876.

——. The Cuckoo Clock. 1877. London: Macmillan, 1933.

——. An Enchanted Garden: Fairy Stories. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892.

——. "How I Write My Children's Stories." Little Folks (July 1894): 16-17.

——. "Juliana Horatia Ewing." 1886. In A Peculiar Gift, ed. Lance Salway.

——. "On the Art of Writing Fiction for Children."1893. In A Peculiar Gift, ed. Lance Salway.

——. "Story-Reading and Story-Writing." Chambers's Journal 75 (5 November 1893): 775.

——. "Story Writing." Monthly Packet (4th series, August 1894): 160.

——. Tell Me a Story. 1875. London: Macmillan, 1891.

Morrissette, Bruce. "Narrative 'You' in Contemporary Literature." Comparative Literary Studies 2 (1965): 1-24.

Parker, Dorothy. Constant Reader. New York: Viking Press, 1970.

Prince, Gerald. A Grammar of Stories. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983.

Rossetti, Christina. Speaking Likenesses. London: Macmillan, 1874.

Salway, Lance, ed. A Peculiar Gift. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Sellers, Peter. "Auntie Rotter." The Best of Peter Sellers, Parlophone, n.d., side 2.

Sircar, Sanjay. "Victorian Children's Fantasy: Mrs. Molesworth." M.A. Thesis. Australian National University, Canberra, 1980.

Spring, Howard. My Son, My Son. New York: Viking, 1938.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Rose and the Ring; or, the History of Prince Giglio and Prince Bulbo; a Fire Side Pantomime for Great and Small Children, by M. A. Titmarsh. 1854. London: Smith, Elder, 1855.

Tompkins, Jane, ed. Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Turner, G. W. Stylistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Woolf, Bella Sydney. "Children's Classics: Mrs. Molesworth and Carrots." The Quiver (series 3) 41 (June 1906): 675.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. 1928. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Sanjay Sircar (essay date winter 1996-1997)

SOURCE: Sircar, Sanjay. "Locating a Classic: The Cuckoo Clock in Its Literary Context." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 21, no. 4 (winter 1996-1997): 170-76.

[In the following essay, Sircar surveys Molesworth's contribution to the English juvenile fantasy tradition and asserts that The Cuckoo Clock is the "first major full-length English juvenile fantasy that makes an explicit connection between the psychological needs of the protagonist and the compensatory and perhaps imaginary ('phantasy') nature of the fantasy adventure."]

The Cuckoo Clock, published in 1877, is Mary Louisa Molesworth's first and best-remembered fantasy novel for children. A little girl, Griselda, has come to live with two aged great-aunts in a mysterious old house. Her loneliness and boredom are relieved by a cuckoo from a clock made by her Swiss great-grandfather for her maternal grandmother, Sybilla. The cuckoo takes her on a series of four fantasy adventures that ends when she finds new friends in young Phil and his understanding mother. Apart from its literary merits, the novel is of historical importance for two reasons. First, the cuckoo is the first major appearance in the Victorian "Golden Age" of a figure with the "usual magic animal attributes—conceit, near-perfect knowledge of worldly affairs, long memory, good education and kindly concern for … his special friend" (Blount 114) and thus is an antecedent of a multitude of subsequent creatures in fantasy fiction. Second, the novel is almost certainly the first major full-length English juvenile fantasy that makes an explicit connection between the psychological needs of the protagonist and the compensatory and perhaps imaginary ("phantasy") nature of the fantasy adventure (Sircar, Victorian 63, 86; Rosenthal, "Writing," "Molesworth"). Although it is difficult to posit any direct sources, we know enough of Molesworth's reading to point to the affinities of The Cuckoo Clock with various texts that she certainly or very probably knew.1 In the course of her response to such texts, Molesworth reconstructs the figure of the child, fantasy creatures, fantasy journeys, and the psychological context, creating an influential work significantly different from its predecessors.

One of the most significant of the traditions within which Molesworth works is that of the deprived child. The pathetic child who lacks loving parents, friends, and physical necessities (or all three) is a stock Victorian figure. Charles Dickens's version is the classic portrayal: middle- or lower-class children who are defenseless, orphaned or virtually parentless, neglected, unloved, insecure, and without companionship or recreation. Characters such as Esther Summerson, Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, Paul and Florence Dombey, Arthur Clennam, Little Nell, and David Copperfield respond to their circumstances by dying, going to the bad, finding a protector, or managing to survive until they grow up (see Coveney 92-94).

Another type of deprived child appears in what were called "street Arab tales," usually produced by Evangelical writers. Molesworth was active in charity work for such children and wrote articles stressing the need for efforts on their behalf. "Once Kissed" is her attempt at this type of tale, in the vein of Mrs. O. F. Walton (Froggy's Little Brother, c. 1880) and Hesba Stretton (Little Meg's Children, 1868). Religious children's literature also includes family novels about deprived upper- and middle-class children and adolescents, and Molesworth enjoyed both Evangelical and High Church variants as a child. She remembered enthusiastically The Wide Wide World (1850), by Susan Warner ("Elizabeth Wetherell"), and the "delight of Miss Yonge's books" ("Story-Reading and Story-Writing" 773), including, no doubt, Yonge's popular chronicles of the May family. These writers' motherless (or virtually motherless) children, who also often lack sympathetic fathers, take refuge in faith and good works.

The Cuckoo Clock is not, however, a tale of Dicken-sian pathos, melodramatic illness and death, or suffering consoled by pious good works. Molesworth disapproved of children reading works that made them self-conscious or self-pitying and did not care for the depiction of neglectful or cruel adults ("Story-Reading" 774, ["On the Art of Writing Fiction for Children" ] 342-43). There are only three child deaths in her whole corpus and no parental deaths within the compass of a story (Green, "Age" 9). So, in comparison with the deprived child tales, The Cuckoo Clock is an emotionally restrained, secular, middle-class novel in which the heroine suffers no physical hardship and is cared for by loving adults throughout.

Nevertheless, Griselda is a psychologically deprived child. She is motherless and functionally orphaned because she is separated from her father and a "troop of noisy, merry brothers" overseas, a separation that has no foreseeable ending and that the narrator does not explain. An aura of bereavement pervades the novel from its inception, when Griselda enters the house in grey half-mourning; she soon learns that her father and grandmother Sybilla were likewise orphaned and also lived with her great-aunts. In addition, the cuckoo provides visions of Sybilla's father the clockmaker, who refers to his impending death, and of Sybilla's funeral; her husband, Griselda's grandfather, died of a broken heart soon after. Griselda is still suffering from the death of her own mother; when her new friend Phil, who is temporarily separated from his seriously ill mother, declares that he "won't never leave off having a mother, anyway," Griselda "sadly" tells him of her own bereavement (136), and her eyes fill with tears when she listens "to the cooings and caressings" of mother and son (193).

Although Molesworth draws on the Victorian cult of the mother as a primary source of love and moral restraint, she depends more upon the literary convention of the mother whose absence leaves the way clear for the growth of an independent character, in this case in response to loneliness and boredom. Griselda is cooped up indoors without recreation during the winter for the first two-thirds of the novel; "obliged to restrain herself and move demurely" (24); hedged about with restrictions by her great-aunts, who have "got out of children's ways" (36). In a key passage, when the old servant Dorcas calls her indoors from her play, Griselda indignantly exclaims, "Play! Do you call walking up and down the terrace 'play,' Dorcas? I mustn't loiter even to pick a flower, if there were any, for fear of catching cold, and I mustn't run for fear of overheating myself. I declare, Dorcas, if I don't have some play soon, or something to amuse me, I think I'll run away" (41-42). When Griselda finally meets Phil at the end of the novel, it is "months since she had spoken to a child, almost since she had seen one" (136). Phil, who has no playmates but flowers, is equally anxious to have Griselda as companion.

It is the cuckoo who helps these lonely, deprived children find one another, as he has helped grandmother Sybilla in the past; his is the role of deus ex machina. There were cuckoo clocks in Molesworth's experience from which the idea for the cuckoo may have sprung, but as a fictional creation, her succoring cuckoo combines and moves beyond his antecedents. Her cuckoo is variously a cranky schoolmaster, a benevolently stern protector, an actual bird, and a mechanical object. It is in the fusion of all these aspects that Molesworth's "magic animal" claims its important place in the tradition.

The fantasy creatures of the Alice books are no doubt a conscious source for many of the features of the cuckoo. Molesworth quoted twice from Through the Looking-Glass (1872) in epigraphs to Carrots (1876), and a quotation from Alice in Wonderland (1865) appears in her adult novel Hathercourt Rectory, published a year after The Cuckoo Clock. Unlike the magic animals and animated objects in folk tales, Carroll's hectoring, self-transmuting fantasy creatures (such as the Cheshire Cat) have strong individual personalities: they are unhelpful to Alice, rarely give her directions, ask her questions that she cannot answer, query her very identity, and call her names. Whether they are talking animals, fabulous beasts, or animated cards and chess pieces, they resemble both cantankerous adults and spoilt children. The marked hortatory personality of Griselda's size-changing wooden cuckoo owes much to them. Like Carroll's creatures, he is conceited and opinionated ("You have a great deal to learn" is his constant refrain), irritatingly pedantic, and patronizingly rude. Moreover, the cuckoo deliberately misunderstands Griselda in order to make her think and express herself clearly, dampens her emotional excesses, and discourages her affectionate gush.

But unlike Carroll's creatures, the cuckoo is also a kindly mentor who takes Griselda into new wonderlands through which he guides her and in which he never deserts her. Griselda does not speak to him of her bereavement, only of her lack of play. But he is clearly a surrogate for her lost mother in his role of comforter, suggester of games and adventures, provider of warmth and clothing, and moral instructor. As playmate and "friend" he replaces her absent brothers, even on her first night in the house when she hears the clock strike with "a pleasant feeling of companionship" (7). On the other hand, as an irritating adult teacher, the cuckoo reflects Griselda's perception of her moralizing great-aunt Miss Grizzel (whose words he echoes) and her old tutor, Mr. Kneebreeches. Thus Molesworth conceives the cuckoo as echoing actual influences on Griselda and as helping to supply what she lacks for happiness.

In one sense, then, the bird functions as a fairy godmother, counting in his literary ancestry the helpful bird of the Grimms' Cinderella, "Ashputtel," with which Molesworth was probably acquainted (she mentions both the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen in "Best Books for Children" ). More importantly, his benevolent cantankerousness is certainly a transmutation of the sternly kind anthropomorphic fairy godmothers in Victorian juvenile Kunstmärchen and fantasy novels. Some of these fairy godmothers appear good but are actually evil, most fearsomely Fairy Malice in Mark Lemon's The Enchanted Doll (1849) and the unnamed girl in the livre composé of Lucy Lane Clifford's Anyhow Stories: Moral and Otherwise (1882). On the other hand, some Kunstmärchen godmothers give apparently negative "gifts" but wish only good to their mortal protegées, as in F.E. Paget's The Hope of the Katzekopfs (1844) and W.M. Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring (1855). Thus Molesworth's cuckoo falls within an established tradition; indeed, she may have borrowed more than a little for his personality from Dinah Mulock Craik's The Little Lame Prince (1875), which she recommended in "The Best Books." In Craik's work, the godmother is benevolent as a human figure but shrewish, conceited, and sharp-tongued when she takes the form of a bird.

Before Craik wrote her story, ambivalent-seeming godmothers had already appeared in such juvenile fantasy novels as Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863) and George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind (1871), followed by The Princess and the Goblin (1872)—another of Molesworth's "Best Books"—and The Princess and Curdie (1882; see MacNeice 76-101). MacDonald's godmothers seem to have been the most potent influence. "Baby," Diamond's poem in At the Back of the North Wind, furnishes the epigraph for Molesworth's first novel for children, Carrots (1876); Diamond himself, "God's baby," is in part the literary model for Carrots, for Phil in The Cuckoo Clock, and for all of Molesworth's Carrots-like little boys. Just as the huge and tiny, tender and commanding, solemn but playful North Wind guides Diamond, and the old and young, awesome and approachable Grandmother looks after Princess Irene in the Princess books, the huge and tiny, commanding and tender, old and playful cuckoo looks after Griselda. In later fantasy novels, Molesworth would more directly echo MacDonald's North Wind, although her anthropomorphic fairy godmothers are less powerfully realized as literary figures.2

Molesworth's cuckoo is not only a supernatural godmother figure, but also by turns a real bird and a mechanical wooden one. Although anthropomorphic animals and animate objects can be traced back at least as far as the eighteenth century, there is no evidence that Molesworth was influenced by the works of the past. Much closer to Molesworth's day is Margaret Gatty's Parables from Nature (1855), which is filled with anthropomorphized natural objects. Molesworth admired Gatty, who, she wrote in 1886 in "Juliana Horatia Ewing," invests "the very commonest things" "with a vitality that might make better than a fairy tale out of" them (Salway 504).

Even closer to her heart, however, were the works of Andersen and E. T. A. Hoffmann. As a child, Molesworth tells us, she found Hoffmann's Nussknacker und Mausekoenig (possibly The Nutcracker of Nuremberg in the 1853 St. Simon translation) "unspeakably fascinating" ("Story-Reading" 773). Hoffmann's tale also features an innocent little girl who goes on night-journeys through various wonderlands and contains automata that confuse onlookers by seeming to be alive. Very similar is Griselda's initial confusion about the cuckoo, which she thinks at first must be a tame cuckoo in a cage. Hoffman's figures, however, are far more threatening than Molesworth's. Two of Molesworth's best Kunstmärchen, "The Magic Rose" (in An Enchanted Garden, 1892) and "The Unselfish Mermaid" (in The Magic Nuts, 1898), strongly recall Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," which she termed a pathetic and "exquisite Undine-like tale" ("Hans Christian Andersen" 141). But Andersen's anthropomorphism seems to have been the aspect of his work that most impressed the Victorians,3 and Molesworth also singled out this quality: "Truly to children [Andersen] may be said to have changed the face of the world, gilding the commonest objects with the brightness of his loving and delicate and humorous fancy, so that, as many could personally testify, a few shells or pebbles, a broken jug, or a fragment of china, become material enough to create stories" ("Andersen" 140). Nevertheless, Andersen's stories about such figures as the tin soldier reflect a pessimism about the cruel experiences that life inflicts on animate and inanimate alike that is foreign to Molesworth.

Like all good storytellers, then, Molesworth transmuted the raw material that fed her imagination into new forms into which she breathed a life of her own. Arguably, indeed, something similar happens to the cuckoo, who like Andersen's animated figures retains some of the qualities of his original material in coming alive. Throughout the book, however, there is a gradual progression away from his mechanical nature. At first, he interrupts a conversation to call out the hours (47, 56), and he eats nothing at the Wonderland feasts (70), but by the time of her last journey, Griselda can put her arm around his "nice, comfortable, feathery neck," "so soft" (159). Yet at the very end of the book, at the point of a farewell touched with pathos at the mutability of life (cf. Andersen's "The Snowman") his material nature is re-emphasized in the phrase "only a cuckoo in a clock" (196).

* * *

As we have seen, Griselda's deprivations are psychological rather than physical, and the story of her interactions with the cuckoo focuses not on the deprivations themselves but on the provision of psychological compensations for her loneliness.4 Molesworth establishes a situation that psychologically readies Griselda to have particular fantasy adventures with particular objects, building up a mystique about the clock and the mandarin figurines that derives from age, careful manufacture, associations with past owners, and loving maintenance, again bringing Andersen to mind. But when she suggests that the cuckoo lives only in the minds of its child observers, she moves beyond Andersen's playful literary animism. Much of "The Constant Tin Soldier," for example, depends on the reader noticing that the movements of the ornaments are a result not of their independent "life" but of external forces acting upon them; Andersen never indicates that his objects are animate only in the perceptions of his human characters. Molesworth's comment on Andersen suggests that Andersen had led the way for children to make stories out of things by and for themselves, but Griselda is a child who makes more than a "story"; she makes a complex character.5

Griselda's creation of a complex character for the cuckoo is reasonable within the context of the story. Culturally, "the Lares Domestici [pagan household gods] became cuckoo clocks and mantel statuettes" (Finney 45-47). Thus her aunts' household reveres the clock and the mandarins. Great-aunt Grizzel implies to Griselda that the cuckoo and mandarins are alive and have feelings (9, 12), and the superstitious old servant Dorcas tells her that "the good people" love the old house and that the clock is a "fairy clock" that was "like a part of" its first owner, Sybilla (4-5, 28, 43, 83). These remarks help to animate the inanimate for the imaginative child, who in any case believes in the supernatural and the objective reality of fairies and fairy-tale worlds: when Griselda wakes up on her first night in the house and hears the call of the mechanical bird, she wonders whether she is in fairyland. On her first conversation with the cuckoo, she tells him that Dorcas and her "own common sense" told her he was a fairy, and the cuckoo suggests that he is a "fairyfied cuckoo" (37). Phil, Griselda's double, also has "real" dreams about the cuckoo. He goes looking for him, tells Griselda that he believes that the cuckoo is a fairy, and wants to find the way to fairyland. Griselda's belief in the supernatural is associated with conscious phantasizing—she daydreams. After the cuckoo shows her pictures of her dead grandmother Sybilla, she sits "contentedly enough … trying to make more 'pictures' for herself in the fire" (87). In the garden "she used to sit there and fancy," consciously turning the sounds around her into the sounds of various fairy creatures (132), as Carroll's Alice does unconsciously.

But the final impetus for Griselda's fantasy adventures is guilt. One day, in a fit of temper with her lessons, Griselda throws her book at the clock, and her guilt about this action is detailed and heightened over a period of time because she cannot immediately see whether she has damaged the clock (23-29). In the evening, as she stands before it, she seems to hear a faint call. That night she has troubled dreams—"only fancy" (26)—of the cuckoo. The next day the clock is out of order, Miss Grizzel is discomposed, Miss Tabitha cries, and Dorcas talks gloomily about great trouble. Given Griselda's initial guilt, and the subsequent household furore, the impetus toward intense phantasy—dreaming—is psychologically in order. That very night Griselda begins to talk with the cuckoo.

At the time it was written, The Cuckoo Clock stood out for the care with which it assembled the credible psychological antecedents of its leap into fantasy proper. Only MacDonald in At the Back of the North Wind prepares for the leap in a roughly comparable way, and then with far less thoroughness than Molesworth displays. If we distinguish between fantasy as a literary work depicting impossible magical adventures and phantasy as a mental activity, we can clarify the relationship between Griselda's psychological needs and the fantasy adventures that reflect and fulfill them. Indeed, one of Molesworth's earliest short stories, "The Reel Fairies," a less accomplished and probably autobiographical sketch for The Cuckoo Clock, spells out the children's needs and fantasy/phantasy compensations and demonstrates that Molesworth was fully aware of what she was doing (see Sircar, "Fantasy"). Its heroine, Louisa, a lonely child, weaves stories around the reels in her mother's workbox. A little girl who comes to visit Louisa has pretty dolls and a beautiful "princess" dress and affects to pity Louisa for her paucity of toys. That night the reels come alive and take Louisa off to be their queen (cf. MacDonald's "The Shadows"). Louisa shrinks in size, the reels turn on her, she screams and wakes (cf. Alice). The next day she tells her mother about what, unlike Griselda, she realizes is a dream influenced by her longings and her guest's words. Thus "her mamma had a peep into that strange, fantastic, mysterious world, which we call a child's imagination. She had a glimpse of something else too. She saw that her little girl was in danger of getting to live too much alone, was in need of sympathy and companionship" (138). Her mother reassures Louisa of her love and resolves to provide more and better play.

In focusing on phantasy (here, ambiguous dream) compensation, The Cuckoo Clock suggests rather than states its psychological mechanisms. Whereas Alice transmutes the sounds of the world around her as she sleeps in the afternoon, Griselda transmutes, when drowsy, the experiences of the day before—in Freud's terms, the "day residue." And when a need is fulfilled in Griselda's daily life, she no longer must have the fantasy adventure that supplies it. Thus when winter ends and Griselda moves out into the garden, the cuckoo does not take her to any more gardens such as Butterfly Land or sing her songs about spring gardens; he now takes her to the moon to meet with Phil, or at least with a vision of him. With her self-assured, upper-class courtesy, then, Griselda is simply one of many post-Alice Victorian children who have fantasy adventures. But in presenting her as psychologically deprived, Molesworth, unlike Carroll, gives the heroine a detailed diurnal life and provides an implied psychological rationale for a fluid sequence of fantasy adventures.

Drawing on a long literary tradition, Carroll uses the dream-frame that encloses Alice's adventures as a literary and technical device rather than as an exploration of a character's mind, her psychological needs, and their dream-phantasy compensations. Alice in Wonderland makes only a general connection between Alice's waking environment and her dream when the musings of her sister at the end of the story reveal that the sounds absorbed by the sleeping Alice became the characters in her dream-Wonderland. It overstates the case to say, with Edmund Wilson, that "the creatures she meets, the whole dream, are Alice's personality and her waking life" (543). For Carroll baldly states the physiological/psychological mechanism of dream-phantasy, the refraction of external auditory stimuli, with only a hint of its functions, in this case the alleviation of Alice's boredom.6

In choosing to explore fantasy adventures that may be mental phantasy, and that in any case compensate for real deprivations, Molesworth has echoed not Carroll, but Andersen and Dickens. For example, Andersen depicts a compensatory fantasy/phantasy experience in "The Little Match Girl." This character has visions involving her grandmother, who gives her all the love and comfort she lacks until these imaginary substitutes can no longer suffice, and she dies. Some of Dickens's deprived children also have compensatory, conventionally religiose dreams; for example, Dick in Oliver Twist, orphaned and dying, dreams of Heaven and angels and the kind faces he never sees when he is awake. Nevertheless these pathetic figures are not central to the novels or described in detail, and their physical situation is far from Griselda's. Dickens's interest in conscious compensatory phantasy is most clearly evinced in his Holiday Romance (1868), where the children write stories for each other that demonstrate what they want psychologically and how they provide those wants through story-telling. On the other hand, these children are not deprived and do not dream.

Hoffmann in Nutcracker and MacDonald in North Wind, among others, also motivate dream-framed adventures with festive excitement or illness or both. But their work does not invoke long-standing emotional deprivation and stress as the motivation for dream-fantasy adventures, nor does it fully conceptualize these adventures as compensatory phantasy. Molesworth thus develops compensatory phantasy more fully and more explicitly than either her predecessors or her immediate successors and engenders an ambiguity about the status of Griselda's adventures as dream-phantasy—an ambiguity absent in Carroll (Sircar, "Art"), but one that exists in other fantasy fictions. Hoffmann's Nutcracker, for example, presents its heroine's adventures as possible dream-phantasies, and at the end of the tale, there is a phantasmagorical blurring of the diurnal, nocturnal, and fantasy worlds, when the heroine enters Prince Nutcracker's kingdom forever (dies?). Somewhat similarly, Andersen presents the Little Match Girl's fantasy experiences in a way that suggests but does not state the phantasy delirium prior to death, a convention also employed in the final episodes of At the Back of the North Wind. In The Princess and the Goblin (1872), Nurse Lootie and Curdie refuse to accept the existence of Irene's grandmother (whom she herself sees only at night) until forced to do so. Thus for a time, the private mystery of this motherless child's experience of fantasy events in another old, mysterious building is maintained, as is the question of whether her night-journeys and comforting grandmother exist only in her sleeping mind. Molesworth's deliberate ambiguity as to the status of Griselda's experiences, then, is part of a tradition.

* * *

Up to this point I have largely stressed Molesworth's debt to Dickens and to a tradition of fantasy fiction. Nevertheless, a contemporaneous American reviewer of The Cuckoo Clock, who was reminded of Alice by Griselda's size-changing journeys to the Country of Nodding Mandarins, to Butterfly Land, and to the moon, judged Griselda's story to have "real originality" (Review). Given that so many of its elements are inherited, in what does Molesworth's originality consist?

More explicitly than in most comparable fantasy fictions, there is a pervasive sense of pleasure in The Cuckoo Clock. The cuckoo provides "food, fun and fresh air" and more (see Molesworth, ["For the Little Ones—'Food, Fun, and Fresh Air.'" ]). Griselda has longed for a magic carpet (41), and the cuckoo carries her to strange new places, "floating, darting, gliding, sailing" in a feather cloak to wonderlands that provide a vent for her pent-up energy in dances, songs, feasts, and colorful clothes. Marghanita Laski calls the passage in which the butterflies dress Griselda perhaps "the most dearly remembered passage in any children's book" (66). In contrast, Alice rarely, if ever, has a good time in Wonderland.

Molesworth also anticipates the more protective aspects of some of this century's writing for children in her rule that a "quicksand to be avoided is the introduction … of any frightening element" ("Story-Reading" 774). For example, she disapproved of Andersen's "The Travelling Companion" on the ground that "the wholesale cutting off of heads … reminds one of Alice in Wonderland!" and argued in favor of bowdlerizing Andersen's work, perhaps because of its frightening elements ("Andersen" 148, 138, 141). So The Cuckoo Clock has a feeling of security about it, emphasizing several times that Griselda is a courageous child and feels no fear on her nocturnal adventures and omitting the anxiety and impending violence of the Alice books. Griselda reaches the Butterfly Garden without any trouble by trusting the cuckoo, to find a realm of order and fruitful industry, while Alice's solitary journey is full of disappointments and hazards. While Alice's changes of size are a source of constant anxiety to her, Griselda, who cannot decide whether she has shrunk or other things have grown on her journeys, is not disturbed, only puzzled, and learns an important lesson about the relativity of size. Alice screams in fear at the onset of the angry cards, while Griselda screams at the onset of a swarm of butterflies, but they are rushing down to kiss her as the cuckoo protectively throws his cloak around her (127).

Moreover, although Griselda is often bored by her lessons and must learn to obey her tutor's orders in order to profit from them, Molesworth does not engage in the satirical critique of academic learning found in Andersen and Carroll. Rather she substitutes for Carroll's spoofs of geography, science, and history the wonder and mystery of Griselda's moon-journey. The description of the waveless, mysterious moon-sea, much admired in our own century by Eleanor Farjeon (19), reflects the contemporary interest in science fiction. Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip Round It had been translated into English four years previously, and the cuckoo informs Griselda about the moon's diameter and circumference and the possibility of life there. Most moon-journeys within the Alice tradition, such as J.G. Austin's Moonfolk (1874), S. Ashton's The Green Cat (c. 1901), and G. E. Farrow's The Wallypug in the Moon (1905), are mere excuses for whimsical transportations to Wonderland, and only the lyrical moon-journey in At the Back of the North Wind can compare with that in The Cuckoo Clock. Here again, it seems likely that Molesworth's combination of gratification with lyricism, as well as her positive view of science, has been her most influential legacy to twentieth-century fantasy fiction. Likewise, perhaps the most original of her journeys is the one in which Griselda sees rather than experiences, making a journey in time as well as space (Robertson correspondence 1979). It provides a revelation of origins—a vision of her grandmother Sybilla, whom Griselda resembles, during the making of the cuckoo clock. This brief episode is unlike anything in MacDonald, and in its explicit family content becomes an influence on twentieth-century time-travel stories, especially where it is the protagonist's forebears who are visited.

Most interestingly, The Cuckoo Clock inverts child-adult power relations, a motif already used for comic purposes in Dickens's Holiday Romance and in W.B. Rands's book of poems Lilliput Levee (1863).7 The porcelain mandarins and butterflies, of an inferior order of creation, make Griselda the center of importance. They make up for her powerless position as youngest member of her diurnal household, where even the servant, Dorcas, has a certain power over her. Griselda must learn obedience, but as a transitional figure, while the cuckoo has ultimate authority, he also allows Griselda great choice in the direction of their journeys. Moreover, when they arrive at their fantasy worlds, royalty, "the gravest and grandest personage[s] she had ever seen" (57), entertain Griselda and dance with her. While Alice violently struggles for control over cards and chess pieces and does not get it, Griselda is vouchsafed complete control over—and respect from—the creatures of her new wonderlands. Once Griselda has learned self-control and obedience, she finds a younger child, Phil, who will obey her, and the cuckoo can say farewell.

Molesworth reconfigures the dream journeys of her predecessors, particularly Andersen, Carroll, and MacDonald, into the depiction of the experience of a well-to-do female child in conformity with the reality of her adult expectations. Unlike poor Diamond who dies of goodness, she must learn to be reasonably good in the real world. And unlike Andersen's match girl and Dickens's deprived children, she exists in a world of reasonable physical comfort. To operate effectively in that world she must recognize, unlike Alice, the necessity of education and of obedience to those with greater power than her own until she reaches a position in which servants and children must obey her. Thus whereas Carroll eschews both preachiness and explicit psychological motivation, Griselda's dream-journeys teach her industry, obedience, and patience while simultaneously providing both refreshment and psychological growth.

In spite of Molesworth's departures from her predecessors, it took a long time for the original features of The Cuckoo Clock to gain full recognition. For example, Edward Salmon commented in 1887 that her "fairy stories do not give Mrs. Molesworth an opportunity for the display of her particular genius, and she runs into grooves more or less well-worn" (59-60). Recognition by imitators was also relatively slow in coming. The one work almost indubitably influenced by The Cuckoo Clock relatively close to its own time is Ashton's Cuckoo (c. 1901), in which many important elements seem to be derived directly from Molesworth: little May's wooden cuckoo in a clock, lessons about the propagation of flowers on wonderland journeys, a feather cloak, and crude attempts to suggest dream/reality ambiguity. But there is no connection made between May's psychological needs and her fantasy adventures, and Ashton's novel demonstrates only what poor stuff a lesser hand comes up with using similar elements.

Whether Molesworth influenced E. Nesbit's fantasy creatures is a matter of debate, and Molesworth is more likely to have been an unconscious influence on such contemporary writers of psychological fantasy fiction as Catherine Storr and Joan Robinson, who have joyfully admitted to reading Molesworth as children (Storr, Robinson correspondence).8 But Molesworth did make a general and lasting contribution to the English juvenile fantasy tradition, initiating a particular type of fantasy fiction that Penelope Farmer calls "introvert fantasy," fiction that explores the way in which a supernatural, magical, or impossible action "can go on in people's heads" (23-37). It might be added that Farmer's own contributions to "introvert fantasy" writing seem to owe more than a little to the Molesworth model, most obviously perhaps in the early The Magic Stone (1964). In fact, Molesworth's insistence on preserving the reader's uncertainty as to the precise reality of the magic adventure in tandem with a correlation between psychological needs and fantasy/phantasy adventures makes her work an important forerunner of a group of important texts, including Nesbit's The Wonderful Garden (1911), John Masefield's The Midnight Folk (1927), Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden (1958), Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and William Mayne's A Game of Dark (1971). And her substantial modification of Victorian didactic conventions in favor of unashamed sensuous delight and psychologically gratifying fantasy experiences forms part of the context for the most widely read of all twentieth-century juvenile fantasies: the early works of Enid Blyton.9

  1. Molesworth's essays that discuss what she read as a child do not stress literary influence as a factor in her writing, but they point us to the context of The Cuckoo Clock. Of the writing that she mentions, only those works by Grimm, Andersen, and the Evangelical and High Church writers could have come from her own childhood. The other works I discuss belong to the 1860s and 1870s. The late Ruth Robertson's biographical material, now being assembled and augmented by Jane Cooper, may clarify whether Molesworth's reading of these books to her children when she was in her thirties was a conscious impetus for her own writing.
  2. The fairy of Molesworth's "Too Bad" (in the 1875 volume Tell Me a Story) turns up again, owing something to MacDonald's "The Light Princess," in a Curdie-like epiphany in The Ruby Ring (1904); in her second appearance she is both young and old, like MacDonald's Grandmother, who appeared in the interim. Molesworth also splits up North Wind into four beings in Four Winds Farm (1887) and uses similar figures in The Magic Nuts (1898) and the fairy godmother of The Children of the Castle (1890), whose bright eyes are perhaps influenced by Kingsley's anima figure in The Water Babies.
  3. For example, in Clara Bradford's Ethel's Adventures in the Doll Country (1886), Florry asks, "Have you read Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales?" and continues, "We have. They are charming. He gives everything a proper human being life during the night; toys, furniture, thimbles, needles and all, and some of the tales make you feel as if you must cry. I never tire of the book" (164).
  4. The cuckoo's ambiguous nature may cause readers to wonder about the extent to which Griselda has created the sentient cuckoo out of her own need as psychological compensation for her loneliness; Marghanita Laski, indeed, seems to assimilate Griselda with her author (66, 68). Molesworth's child psychology has been much praised, usually in regard to her nonfantasy novels (see, for example, Whalley, Cooper; see also Sircar, "Fantasy" 189-90). Roger Lancelyn Green was the first to praise this aspect of her fantasy fiction ("Molesworth" 374; Molesworth 53, 61, 67), arguably pointing to a more important aspect of her work than more recent characterizations such as "Victorian Visionary" (Moss) or "Powerful Lever for Good" (Cashdan). More recently, Lynne Rosenthal has explored the "psychotherapeutic" dimension of the cuckoo's relationship with Griselda ("Writing").
  5. There seems to be only one other contemporary fantasy fiction, published in the same year as Molesworth's, that draws upon the life-giving powers of craft, love, tradition, and imaginative play: Charles Leland's Johnnykin and the Goblins, an Alice imitation.
  6. Some Alice imitators do the same: in Maggie Browne's Wanted—A King (1890), for example, Merle, who is feverish, goes to sleep watching a screen painted with nursery-rhyme characters and then dreams of interacting with them. In Charles E. Carryl's Davy and the Goblin (1884) Davy dreams of transmutations of familiar things at a time of festive excitement. Most often in Victorian juvenile fantasy fiction, however, the dream-frame is a superficial convention to "explain away" a formless sequence of fantasy adventures.
  7. Another work of Rands's, Lilliput Revels: Innocence Island (c. 1871), incorrectly cited as A Lilliput Revel, provides a chapter epigraph for The Cuckoo Clock.
  8. Robertson has pointed out that Nesbit was born in 1858 and would have been seventeen when The Cuckoo Clock was published, so that it could not have been part of her childhood reading. While Nesbit peppers her books with literary references and pays graceful compliments to such writers as Juliana Ewing and F. Anstey, she never mentions Molesworth (correspondence). Doris Langley Moore, on the other hand, claimed that Nesbit was influenced by Molesworth, but added that her proofs for this observation were in shorthand notes in the attic, to which she had no intention of going back to provide verification (Moore 175 and correspondence). The same claim of influence is made by Baker, and Anita Moss asserts that Molesworth "contributed significantly to the molding and making of the traditions of British children's literature, influencing subsequent writers from E. Nesbit to C. S. Lewis" (105): disembodied traditions are less likely to affect writers than are individual works. In our own day, Storr and Robinson have declared themselves "much impressed" and "fascinated" by the possibility that they were influenced by The Cuckoo Clock, and even more by other Molesworth tales, such as "The Reel Fairies," Four Winds Farm, The Children of the Castle, and The Tapestry Room, which have many of the same features (Sircar, "Fantasy Fiction").
  9. An argument for Christmas-Tree Land as the prototype for the Faraway Tree series is forthcoming from Hugh Crago, to whom I am indebted for assistance with this article.
Works Cited

Baker, M. J. "Mary Louisa Molesworth." Junior Bookshelf 12 (March 1948): 19-26.

Blount, Margaret. Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction. London: Hutchinson, 1974.

Bradford, Clara. Ethel's Adventures in the Doll Country. 1886. London: John F. Shaw, n.d.

Cashdan, Liz. "Powerful Levers: Margaret Gatty, Juliana Horatia Ewing, and Mary Louisa Molesworth." Children's Literature in Education 20.4 (December 1989): 215-26.

Cooper, Jane. "'Just Really What They Do': or, Re-Reading Mrs. Molesworth." Signal 57 (1988): 181-96.

Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society, A Study of the Theme in English Literature. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Farjeon, Eleanor. Magic Casements. London: Allen and Unwin, 1941.

Farmer, Penelope. "'Jorinda and Jorindel' and Other Stories." Children's Literature in Education 7 (March 1972): 23-37.

Finney, C. J. The Circus of Dr. Lao. 1935. New York: Viking, 1961.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. "The Golden Age of Children's Books." 1962. Rpt. Only Connect: Readings in Children's Literature. Ed. Sheila Egoff et al. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1969. 1-16.

——. Mrs. Molesworth. London: Bodley Head, 1961.

——. "Mrs Molesworth and Her Books." Library World (November 1951): 369-76.

Laski, Marghanita. Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett. London: Barker, 1950.

MacNeice, Louis. Varieties of Parable. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1965.

Molesworth, Mrs. [Mary Louisa]. "The Best Books for Children—II." Pall Mall Gazette (29 October 1887).

——. The Cuckoo Clock. 1877. London: Macmillan, 1933.

——. "For the Little Ones—'Food, Fun, and Fresh Air.'" Woman's Mission: A Series of Congress Papers on the Philanthropic Work of Women. Ed. Baroness Burdett-Coutts. London: Sampson, Low, 1893. 13-34.

——. "Hans Christian Andersen." 1893. Rpt. Salway. 137-45.

——. "Juliana Horatia Ewing." 1896. Rpt. Salway. 503-16.

——. "On the Art of Writing Fiction for Children."1893. Rpt. Salway. 340-46.

——. "Story-Reading and Story Writing." Chambers's Journal 75 (5 November 1898): 772-75.

——. "Once Kissed." Studies and Stories. London: Innes, 1893. 130-45.

——. "The Reel Fairies." Tell Me a Story. 1875. London: Macmillan, 1891. 7-38.

Moore, Doris Langley. Correspondence with Sanjay Sircar, 1978.

——. E. Nesbit: A Biography. 1935. London: Benn, 1967.

Moss, Anita. "Mrs. Molesworth: Victorian Visionary." The Lion and the Unicorn 12.1 (1988): 105-10.

Review of Children's Books, including The Cuckoo Clock. Nation (U.S.A.) 25 (6 December 1877): 353.

Robertson, Ruth. Correspondence with Sanjay Sircar, 1978-1986.

Robinson, Joan G. Correspondence with Sanjay Sircar, 3 July 1978.

Rosenthal, Lynne M. "Writing Her Own Story: The Integration of the Self in the Fourth Dimension of Mrs. Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 10.4 (Winter 1986): 187-92.

——. "Mary Louisa Stewart Molesworth 1839-1921." Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors since the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Jane M. Bingham. New York: Scribner's, 1988. 407-13.

Salmon, Edward. "Literature for the Little Ones." 1887, 1888. Rpt. Salway. 46-61.

Salway, Lance, ed. A Peculiar Gift: Nineteenth-Century Writings on Books for Children. Harmondsworth: Kestrel, 1976.

Sircar, Sanjay. "The Art of Ambiguity in The Cuckoo Clock." Papers 3.1 (April 1992): 3-17.

——. "The Fantasy Fiction of Mrs. Molesworth: Family Resemblances." Orana 28.3 (August 1992): 186-202.

——. "Victorian Children's Fantasy." Diss. Australian National University, 1980.

Storr, Catherine. Correspondence with Sanjay Sircar, 21 June 1978.

Whalley, Joyce. "Mrs. Molesworth." Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick.1978. London: Macmillan, 1989. 1108-9.

Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light. 1952. New York: Noonday, 1967.

Sanjay Sircar (essay date April 1997)

SOURCE: Sircar, Sanjay. "Classic Fantasy Novel as Didactic Victorian Bildungsroman: The Cuckoo Clock." Lion and the Unicorn 21, no. 2 (April 1997): 163-92.

[In the following essay, Sircar details the psychological development and moral education of the principal character Griselda in The Cuckoo Clock.]

Novels for children often partake of general trends in the mainstream, and The Cuckoo Clock (1877), the first and best-known classic fantasy novel for children by the prolific Mary Louisa Molesworth (1839-1921), may fruitfully be read as a nineteenth-century Bildungsroman. It tells the story of a little girl, Griselda, who comes to live with her two great-aunts. For one crucial year she is befriended by a wooden cuckoo from an old clock who takes her on fantasy journeys to nodding mandarin dolls, to butterflies, to the past as an onlooker and to the moon.

Like similar work for adults, that portion of children's literature which is "popular literature" often presents "timeless" child characters who remain the same age and do similar things over many volumes as the depicted world changes around them (e.g., Frank Richards' Billy Bunter, Richmal Crompton's William, Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine Five), but novels about growing up counterpoint them and constitute a juvenile Bildungsroman tradition. The Bildungsroman, the novel of youth and moral education, conceives of youth as a process of movement to maturity, and of education as a gradual realisation of the lessons of experience (Buckley viii). The Cuckoo Clock has the same characteristic structure and motifs as the great adult Bildungsromane: "childhood, the conflict of generations, provinciality, the larger society, self-education, alienation, ordeal by love, the search for a vocation, and a working philosophy" (Buckley 18). But it deploys a skill different in scale, as it transposes and diminishes the normative pattern (movement from infancy to childhood and then more importantly through adolescence to adulthood) to one stage of naive childhood through suffering to another, more mature one. It also uses its Bildungsroman structure and motifs to overtly didactic ends, as a chatty narrator presents a hierarchical benignly just social and moral order in which an exemplary child displays and learns such virtues as submission, patience, love, restraint of temper, obedience, industriousness, mental self-discipline, and spiritual awareness.

This article does not look for subversive liberating undercurrents to recoup a didactic Victorian text (e.g., Moss, "Mrs. Molesworth," "Mothers"), but examines how the Bildungsroman features of The Cuckoo Clock go in tandem with its didactic intentions and are intertextually grounded in inherited culturally potent material ("Patient Griselda" and "Cupid and Psyche"). Because The Cuckoo Clock depicts the growth of an exemplary fictive child for didactic purposes, it has the characteristic Bildungsroman tension between character as a set of given, fixed, and exemplary qualities, influenced by the medieval allegory and exemplum (see Buckley 36, 13), and character as formed by a process of development, partly the result of the Romantic image of childhood as Wordsworth's "fair seed time of the soul," involving specific experiences which mould or determine an adult personality. The Cuckoo Clock reconciles the two aspects of Griselda as both a virtuous figure and a developing character by presenting her not as the perfect ideal child (who by definition cannot develop), but as the model child who learns moral lessons which enhance virtues already inherent during her Bildungsroman Lehrjahre.

The Social World of this Bildungsroman

All Bildungsroman protagonists rebel against and accommodate themselves to the social world of their elders in authority. Because much Victorian and Edwardian imaginative literature "reflected the fears and prejudices of the essentially middle-class audience literate and leisured—for which it was written," "the sympathies of the reader are [often] enlisted absolutely on the side of a traditional, pastoral world whose establishment is aristocratic, benign, and supernaturally supported" (Zanger 161; see also Attebery 6, 14). Hence such conservative, past-oriented classic non-realist fictions as George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin (1872), H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) written at time of "unrest, apprehension and of guilt" when forces such as industrial riots and unemployment were threatening social stability, "appeared to offer to the imaginative reader alternatives to the solid Victorian pieties." The innocent surfaces of these fictions can be interpreted as concealing "the private nightmares of an England beset from without and within by the forces of social breakdown" (Zanger 154) as they present child-characters or child-symbols moving among representations of the workers as low, brutish, uncivilised, forces of evil which seek to break down the stable order.

After MacDonald and before Grahame, Mrs. Molesworth's narrative world, too, is pastoral, past-oriented, aristocratic, benign, conservative, supernaturally supported, and all its members know and accept their own social, generational, and moral degree—features that go with and reinforce each other. A good child goes through a process of moral learning and growth in this pastoral world, in a house in a town which "is not a like a town house," where the mistresses keep cows and hens (1, 28), in a garden, a farm, and a wood. Griselda is probably not contemporaneous with her readers of 1877, and her story is set in a non-specific earlier nineteenth-century past of minutes, mazurkas, and Chinoiserie which had disappeared by 1870. Even for Griselda herself, the milieu she enters evokes a time that had "quite passed away" when she enters it. It is pervaded by an unchanging antiquity, humorously but sympathetically presented: "Time indeed seemed to stand still in and all around the old house, as if it and the people who inhabited it had got so old that they could not get any older, and had outlived the possibility of change" (2). Unchanging antiquity goes beyond the house, the things in it, its old mistresses, Griselda's great-aunts Misses Grizzel and Tabitha, their even older patroness Lady Lavander, and their servants and horses, to the city itself and to nature—for even the rooks in the garden "were always the same—ever and always the same"(2).

This establishment is aristocratic and benign, and outward class indices are important. In Griselda's vision of the grandfather of her grandmother Sybilla, his coat is threadbare, "yet he did not look poor"(81). Phil, the little boy whom Griselda befriends, speaks in a "lordly" way to his nurse, who emphasises that he only looks like "Master Phil" dressed up in his blue velvet (139, 192). Lady Lavander knows all that goes on with her tenant farmers, and, richer, grander, older than the great-aunts, she is greatly respected by them, and asked to be Griselda's godmother (23, 76, 153). As the great-aunts submit to Lady Lavander's benign rule, just so Griselda submits to theirs; and they are kind to her and worry about her (15, 24, 26, 45, 76, 93, 94, 99, 152, 186).

So too, the servants submit to their betters. Dorcas, the old maidservant, whose contentment with her position as long-standing family servant is explicitly praised by Miss Grizzel, calls Griselda "missie" and Griselda talks "indignantly," "saucily," and "sharply" (though never rudely) to her (42, 147, 154), not to her great-aunts. Class takes precedence over age, but age modifies class position, so the relative positions of servant and upper-class child are those of an odd sort of equality. Dorcas believes in fairies like Griselda and unlike Miss Grizzel, so she is at once Griselda's class inferior, generational superior and intellectual equal. Sometimes "when Griselda was in a particularly good humour she would beg Dorcas to sit down and have a cup of tea with her a liberty the old servant was far too dignified and respectful to have thought of taking unless specially requested to do so" (146). Griselda talks freely with Dorcas about her troubles (45), emphatically asserts the ambiguous markers of the materiality of her dream-adventures (75, 127), and Dorcas in turn acts as Griselda's "skilful ambassadress" to Miss Grizzel (152-55, 185).

This narrative world is supernaturally supported by the "fairyfied cuckoo" of the clock. The prestige of high social standing and old age extend to the sphere of fantasy (the realm of the supernatural) within it. Miss Grizzel tells Griselda that the mandarin dolls (the grand nobility to whom the cuckoo takes Griselda) are even older than herself, and always to remember respect for elders (12). Age and class together take precedence over a child's humanity, but not over an adult's, for Miss Grizzel can take liberties with the dolls herself.

This pastoral, benignly aristocratic, old, stable, overtly hierarchical world is the gentle equivalent in children's literature of Cranford, with an aristocratic old woman at its head, a little girl at its nadir, though the imparters of formal education are male (Griselda's old tutor Mr. Kneebreeches and the old cuckoo) and in it little girls need more protection than their brothers (Griselda's brothers do not return to England to the care of their great-aunts). However, unlike the pastoral, aristocratic, hierarchical, and overtly patriarchal narrative worlds of The Princess and the Goblin and The Wind in the Willows,The Cuckoo Clock 's gentle, stable, contentedly hierarchical female world does not admit to the existence of any external disruptive element (as even Cranford does). When potential tension or contradiction within its stable order seems about to surface at a purely personal level (the child's rebellious tendencies), it is dissipated—it is funny, trivial, explicable, only apparent, temporary, corrigible. The child must learn to overcome any impulse to rebel during her moral education; she must know and learn her place and her duty within it.

Bildungsroman Childhood and "Patient Griselda"

The "growing child, as he appears in [Bildungsromane], more often than not will be orphaned" (Buckley 19). Griselda is a virtual orphan, whose mother is dead, who is separated from her father and brothers, and who experiences alienation in the old, slow, over-solicitous constriction of life with her great-aunts. As model child-figure, Griselda's response to her Bildungsroman orphaning and alienation is the exercise of her two primary inherent virtues. Her main inherent personal virtue is patience/fortitude, i.e., submission to hard circumstances; her main inherent social virtue is love, i.e., submission to others, both higher and lower placed.

When chapter 2 is headed "Impatient Griselda," The Cuckoo Clock consciously and explicitly bears out the lineal connection of the Bildungsroman with the medieval exemplum when it foregrounds a connection with "Patient Griselda" (Folktale Type 887, based on Motif H461: Test of Wife's Patience and more loosely on H1553: Test of Patience: see Aarne and Thompson 1961). Mrs. Molesworth must have known it either directly from Chaucer or via a chap-book version. A characteristic gentle irony seems to underline the difference between this Griselda and her medieval namesake, for here, Griselda reacts with impatient unrestraint to her lessons by violently throwing her lesson-book at the clock, which strikes just as her great-aunt admonishes her. However, the superficial irony actually signals the child Griselda's deeper similarity to the original Patient Griselda.

One of the most interesting conclusions of modern medievalist scholarship on "Patient Griselda" (Bettridge 1966), is the conclusion that "a great many women are called 'Griselda types' who are not in fact. The essence of Griselda is not that she is calumniated against (many female characters fall into this category)," but that she must suffer because of a taboo which she does not violate—and "this may have some bearing on Mrs. Molesworth's little girl" (Bettridge 1978). Medieval Patient Griselda's undeserved suffering, her test by deprivation of all important human relationships precisely because of her virtue which her husband Marquis Walter takes as a challenge, her endless submission, patience, and love do indeed have some bearing (intentional or otherwise) on the new Griselda. Marquis Walter, in relation to whom Patient Griselda defines herself, arranges circumstances so that it seems that he turns away from her. He keeps her confined, and deprives her of her children. Through all her vicissitudes, Patient Griselda's inherent virtue of wifely love expresses itself in submission to all the demands of her husband, her superior in degree, in authority over her. Her climactic test is his unjust rejection and her complete isolation when he apparently decides to marry again. Her patience and wifely love are then rewarded in his renewed love and companionship.

The Cuckoo Clock modifies the protagonist's age and the details of her testing. Little Griselda's test is not imposed by a cruel human agency like Marquis Walter; no-one is responsible for the circumstances of her life. But Griselda's circumstances deprive her of all the important human relationships, with her mother's death, the absence of her father and merry brothers overseas, and the lonely boring constriction of her new life with the great-aunts. Like Patient Griselda, the new Griselda suffers not because she is impatient or naughty, but precisely because she is patient and loving in her vicissitudes. She wishes for the end of winter which confines her in the house (6), mutters to herself (19, 96), mentions her troubles to Dorcas, the cuckoo, and Phil (41-42, 74, 98, 131, 138, 193) all of whom are relatively powerless, and does sometimes violate minor adult taboos in temporary bouts of laziness and bad temper. But on the whole, she does not make much of her undeserved hard circumstances, and she never complains outright to her great-aunts nor appeals to her father about her boredom, loneliness, and constriction. If she had, it is certain that the events of The Cuckoo Clock would not follow the pattern they do, nor point the same moral lessons. Griselda's climactic test, is her complete isolation after the great-aunts' unjust interdiction of meeting a playmate. Her endurance (with bad grace) of the interdiction and her general patience and childish love are finally rewarded in the companionship of a surrogate brother, Phil, and the love of his mother.

Through all her vicissitudes, the new Griselda's inherent virtue of childish love expresses itself in submission to the needs of her guardians and elders, her superiors in age, in authority over her. Her patient loving submission is closely related to her willingness to accommodate herself to the benign hierarchy of her world, and subsumes many virtues. Griselda exemplifies gratitude, as she does not take the pleasures she is given for granted (76); mannerly politeness, as she never forgets to greet, thank, and bid farewell to her superiors (10, 36, 38, 47, 73, 87, 110, 127, 132, 161, 167, 183, 196); moderation, as she is not greedy and concerned that the cuckoo does not eat anything at the mandarins' (69, 124); total trust of benign authority, as she obediently follows the cuckoo into the garden even though she thinks it will be too cold (107-9, she finds that it is not); bravery, for she has never learnt that there is anything to be frightened of (31); willingness to accommodate oneself to alien ways, as she dresses neatly, moves slowly and "meekly" bears the hated slow drives to please her great-aunts (8, 23, 24); responsibility, as she worries that her aunts will be anxious if he does not return from a journey in time to strike the next hour and is uneasy when Phil and she are late (58, 190, 192, 194); kindness to those beneath her, (i.e., animals) as she lets a lost bird at the window (which turns out to be the cuckoo) and worries that she will crush the butterflies who adorn her dress (102, 120); and total candour with those above her.

Submission, patience, love, and a host of consequent intermingling virtues in a contentedly just hierarchical world do nothing to modify our stereotypes of the boring pasteboard morality of Victorian didactic fiction. But though Griselda responds to her Bildungsroman orphaning and alienation with her two inherent Patient Griselda virtues of submissive patience and submissive love, "Patient Griselda" is not the whole of The Cuckoo Clock. Patient Griselda, in a folktale exemplum with allegorical overtones, demonstrates and exemplifies perfect patience and love; she learns nothing, and has no fleshly self. But the new Griselda, in a novel, is not perfect, and her exuberantly affectionate demonstrativeness (161, 167), her squirming embarrassed awkwardness when reminded of her misconduct (111, 169), and her endearingly healthy appetite as the novel delights in food (9, 24, 26, 45, 88, 93, 146, 149, 193) signal her corporeal nature. She demonstrates and exemplifies patience and love which her narrative keeps in tandem with her psychologically realistic lapses from virtue into bad temper and laziness, during her faltering secular Pilgrim's Progress to moral maturity. The progress in moral education of a fictive good but fallible child who grows into a better one solves the technical problem of "realistically" presenting a good child without making her a priggish wooden layfigure, and strikes a balance between creating sympathy for her while unequivocally delineating her faults as faults.

The Bildungsroman Protagonist's Lapses

Various narratorial strategies pave the way for a sense of psychological realism, including Mrs. Molesworth's control of narratorial "distance" which ensures readerly involvement with Griselda. Wayne Booth's pioneering discussion of narrative devices helps to clarify these. In Emma, says Booth, "the solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was primarily to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, though in third person, reporting on her own experience," along with the use of a sympathetic and sustained "inside view" which "leads the reader to hope for good fortune for the character with whom he travels, quite independently of the qualities revealed" (Booth 245-46). Similarly, most of The Cuckoo Clock takes Griselda's own perspective, to ensure that we travel, sympathise, and empathise with her, rather than stand against or above her.

Griselda is the sole narrating focus of the novel. Though she, Phil, the ornaments, the clock, and the garden are described, there is remarkably little background description, no places named, either no first names or no surnames, no name at all for Phil's mother, no ages given, no details of Griselda's mother's death or father's profession. Travelling with Griselda is made even more effective by the very limited number of supporting characters and their functional shorthand typenames: old (grizzled) Miss Grizzel, Miss Tabitha who looks "wonderfully like an old [tabby] cat" (151), who are voice and echo; serving-maid Dorcas, whose name bears appropriate rustic pastoral associations (e.g., The Winter's Tale); Mr. Kneebreeches, so-called because he is oldfashioned enough to wear these garments (18); Lady Lavander, who is invested with the preservative fragrance of an aristocratic thirteenth-century Norman name; and Phil, the loving little boy whose name evokes philia ('brotherly love', the root of the name Philip). Readerly sympathy "can be heightened by withholding inside views of others as well as granting them of" the protagonist (Booth 249), and the reader is very rarely privileged to see any other character without Griselda. When the aunts go with Griselda to Lady Lavander, the reader is privileged to follow (23), when they go without her, the narration remains with Griselda till they return (77).

The Cuckoo Clock is entirely focussed upon Griselda and for the most part adopts her perspective. However, sometimes, just as with Emma, this protagonist and "her author are far apart, and the author's direct guidance aids the reader in his own break with" her (Booth 257). Cool, distanced, narratorial analysis dissociates itself from Griselda's perspective, extends it, and derives generalisations from her experience. Narratorial irony thus controls readerly empathy as it firmly indicates that Griselda is in the wrong, while its pleasant gentleness indicates a sense of reasonable proportion. If the kind but hectoring cuckoo who shows Griselda that she must resist laziness and bad temper and "obey orders" is one authorial extension (Avery, "Introduction" 9), the narrator who gently analyses and condemns these faults for the narratee is another.

Different immediate causes spark off each of Griselda's three lapses into laziness or bad temper or both.

It is emphasised that Griselda rarely got into tempers at home (36), is always ready to repent (20-21, 29, 34, 104, 115, 184) and to renew her industriousness (127, 133, 185), and three transient and trivial lapses are also remarkably few in a whole year—fitting the novel's miniature scale. Each of Griselda's lapses is more intense and more public than the last, and each is accompanied by an increase in ironic narratorial comment. The first two lapses are primarily related to restraint of temper focussed on Griselda's attitude to working at her lessons (submissive obedient industriousness in her own duty), while the third moves to focus primarily on the self's relation to others, to Griselda's need for restrained good temper and manners in all circumstances (submission to elders' authority).

The first occasion gives a convincing account of how minor pressures can momentarily overcome a child's low emotional resistance and lead to rash acts. Here, the psychological factors are a combination of loneliness, subordination, tiredness, being preached at, and mocked. Griselda's having to work "alone was not lively, and her teachers were very strict" (18); her arithmetic is hard and she is tired (19); and Miss Grizzel is admonishingly sententious (20). When the cuckoo calls the time, the feeling that he is mocking her is the last straw, so she throws the book at the clock "in a passion" (20), though she did not feel naughty, the mood passed quickly, and she seemed to be partly jesting as well (35). There is a long account of her guilt after this outburst, but little direct narratorial commentary.

On the second occasion, Griselda has had a cold, and has been unable to work. She resents it when Miss Grizzel is determined to make her return to her lessons with Mr. Kneebreeches. This time the psychological realism lies in the account of passive discontent in anticipation of work. Miss Grizzel's announcement seems "like a sudden downpour of cold water, or a rush of east wind," Griselda knows that her lessons will be hard, her head will ache, her tutor will be cross, the "dull cold day" outside does nothing to help (95-96, 97), the clock striking seems to mock her again (95-97). She finds even present pleasant things boring, grumbles to herself and engages in the very amusing emotional blackmail of holding "up her face to be kissed in a meekly reproachful way," while Miss Grizzel who has bump of 'common sense'" (an idiom from phrenology), is aware of the dangers of spoiling and the value of discipline (95), recognises that "Mr. Kneebreeches had not been recalled any too soon" (93-98). The long three-page account (98-100) is interspersed with narratorial commentary on loneliness, evasion of duty, and evasion of examining one's conscience:

In her secret heart I fancy she was half in hopes that the cuckoo would come out again, and talk things over with her. Even if he were to scold her, she felt it would be better than sitting there alone with nobody to speak to, which was very dull work indeed. At the bottom of her conscience there lurked the knowledge that what she should be doing was to be looking over her last lessons… but alas! knowing one's duty is by no means the same thing as doing it, and Griselda sat on by the window doing nothing but grumble and work herself up into the belief that she was one of the most-to-be-pitied little girls in all the world. So that by the time Dorcas came to call her to tea, I doubt if she had a single pleasant thought or feeling left in her heart.


She just huddled into bed, huddling up her mind in an untidy hurry and confusion, just as she left her clothes in an untidy heap on the floor. She would not look into herself, was the truth of it; she shrank from doing so because she knew things had been going on in that silly little heart of hers in a most unsatisfactory way all day….


On the third occasion, Griselda, excited at meeting the first child she has seen for months (136), asks abruptly if she can play with Phil. Miss Grizzel refuses, so Griselda, conscious of her own innocence and candour, loses her temper, is rude, and rushes up to bed. Again, it is psychologically convincing that Griselda's anticipation of being refused predisposes her to give way to temper (148) and that her anxiety to get her request granted leads her to make it in a way that ensures that refusal:

Griselda knew she was not making her request in a very amiable or becoming manner; she knew, indeed, that she was making it in such a way as was almost certain to lead to its being refused; and yet, though she was really so very, very anxious to get leave to play with little Phil, she took a sort of spiteful pleasure in injuring her own cause.


As an account of the irrationality of human reactions, the insight here of "How foolish ill-temper makes us! Griselda had allowed herself to get so angry at the thought of being thwarted that had her aunt [agreed]… she would really, in a strange distorted sort of way, have been disappointed" (149) evokes Alice Vavasour in Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? (1863) who writes to tell her lover she is going on a trip of which she knows he will disapprove, and then is disappointed when he doesn't. All the immediately identifiable phenomena of momentary unbearable irritation, anticipation of trouble, working oneself up, self-delusion, and cutting one's nose to spite one's face still strike us as both amusing and psychologically realistic. Griselda's lapses are explained and partly extenuated, while also being rendered with a quiet, clear, negative narratorial judgement.

From her first two lapses Griselda learns the narratorially generalised truism that "an ill-tempered child is not on the whole, likely to be as much loved as a good-tempered one" (129). In her last lapse, Miss Grizzel is firm with her, the cuckoo makes her ashamed by teasing her about the little black dogs of temper which torment children (170), and she learns that giving way to momentary bad temper can hurt those she loves, that anticipating trouble is counterproductive, that superiors in authority are harsh and do know best, and that things tend to work out well.

Bildungsroman Self-Education

The (untraced) epigraph to chapter 11 reads:

Children, try to be good!
That is the end of all teaching …
And if you find it hard
Your efforts you need but double;
Nothing deserves reward
Unless it has given us trouble.

"Being good" encompasses all the virtues, and all require effort. Griselda's main inherent personal virtue is submissive patience in hard circumstances. Her main inherent social virtue is love (i.e., submission to the needs and wishes of others). Her main enhanced virtues, which are both personal and social, are restraint of temper, dutiful obedience (i.e., submission to the just authority—rather than naked power—of others) and industriousness. Temperately obeying orders and studying hard are assimilated to each other, and with these, The Cuckoo Clock as Bildungsroman moves completely away from "Patient Griselda," its moral didacticism mediating the earnest Victorian "Gospel of Work" and self-improvement (Houghton 242-43, 249, 251).

Just as Griselda is inherently agreeable, she is inherently industrious, she "did not dislike lessons; in fact she had always thought she was rather fond of them"(18), likewise she says "'of course I know I should obey'" (184). But she is neither perfectly industrious nor obedient, and the cuckoo's moral instruction is in a very real sense Griselda's own Bildungsroman process of self-education. For, as loving, old, fragile, tough moral teacher-in-authority, the cuckoo mirrors Miss Grizzel, and is the psychologically internalised dream-refraction of her values, as well as being Griselda's compensatory wish-fulfilment companion, mother and leader outside the constricting wintry house. Their association and resemblance between is pointed when Miss Grizzel tells Griselda that the cuckoo can teach her punctuality (a form of steadiness and stability) and the "'faithful discharge of duty'" in obedient dutiful industry (15, 20) and holds "up her hand in a way that reminded Griselda of the cuckoo's favourite 'obeying orders'" (95). Just as the plot implicitly exemplifies the dicta that the narrator explicitly articulates, the narrator is incarnated in both Miss Grizzel and the cuckoo, and the human character has her correlative in the magic/dream wooden bird, who makes explicit what she leaves implicit. In their world, gentle teacherly love encourages industry—little Phil resolves to learn to read only because he knows his beloved mother would like it (141).

"Obeying orders" is one of the loving cuckoo's catch phrases, and the discipline of unquestioning obedience and industry are part of an inclusive cosmic scheme. The cuckoo himself has to obey orders and teaches Griselda that when she does not, things go wrong (35). At the mandarins' ball, he tells her to "obey orders" and leave before it has finished, when she is still enjoying herself (73). Whose orders these are, and why they are given is left out, and clearly it is an unquestioning obedience which is required. Even in respect to the acquisition of information, the inherently eager and inquiring model child must learn its limits and unquestioningly submit to older, wiser authority. When Griselda asks too many awkward questions, and the cuckoo makes it clear that as a child there are many things she is "not intended to know" (172). He also teaches her the mental discipline of restrained precision—to organise her thoughts, be exact in her statements, learn to define what she means, and not chatter hastily or jump to conclusions (47, 48, 53, 111, 113, 167). The cuckoo is (ambiguously) Griselda's own mental projection, and as such, she is teaching and learning all this herself.

The cuckoo shows Griselda the concrete examples—i.e., Griselda (ambiguously) dreams of—a vision of her grandmother Sybilla with Sybilla's grandfather, who has to work hard (82), and the industrious butterflies, whom Griselda thought were idle (112-16, 121-22). He simultaneously inculcates respect for age and unchanging order. Miss Grizzel, showing Griselda the mandarins, has told her always to respect age (12), but Griselda realistically resents continuously being told that she is like her "good" grandmother Sybilla. This makes her feel old (42) and the cuckoo, showing Sybilla to her ironically reminds her of the exasperation (85) it causes to teach her respect for age, show her that adults are always right, give her a sense of family history and filial reverence for a stable past. The cuckoo's whimsical account of how the butterflies paint flowers and distribute seeds teaches Griselda about the role of insects in plant propagation and reinforces a conservative, fixed stable order with the lesson that humans should not meddle with plants but rather leave them alone like wild flowers (113-17).

With a very Wordsworthian note of Duty as the "Stern daughter of the voice of God" at whose behest the heavenly bodies move, the cuckoo also tells Griselda that the sun and moon, too, "obey orders" and do their appointed work (168). So, Griselda gradually works harder and harder at her lessons, finds that application makes them easier (21, 128-29,186), and ultimately learns the narratorial lesson that "the only way as yet discovered of getting through hard tasks is to set to work and do them" (129). She can finally say to Dorcas, "it seems to me, Dorcas, that it's all 'obeying orders' together. There's the sun now, just getting up, and the moon just going to bed—they are always obeying, aren't they? I wonder why it should be so hard for people—for children, at least" (184).

Bildungsroman Conflict of Generations

The child's conflict with the older figures of authority, Miss Grizzel (not Miss Tabitha) and the cuckoo, who are the "correctives" provided—again, as in Emma—to place the sympathetic protagonist's faults in correct perspective, neither obscures nor mini-mises those faults. The conflict is always defused by gentle comic narratorial irony, which is most often directed to explain and expose Griselda's naivete and lapses, trivialising their immediate causes, and which readily slips to the great-aunts' gentle innocence and the cuckoo's fussiness as well. This irony actually mocks Griselda but only apparently mocks the older generation, reinforcing the value of unquestioned authority rather than granting any insight into the issues (why submit?) that it potentially opens to interrogation. Special pleading, too, operates on behalf of the figures of authority, so a possible case against them is never clearly stated; there are always excuses offered. Transference ensures that an animus that could be directed at one figure is directed at another, so that a potential explosion in the sphere of daily life is dissipated in the sphere of fantasy. Elders may be old-fashioned, fallible, pompous, and the model child in conflict may be pert with the less authoritative of them, but she never actively rebels against them, and the novel can neither allow for such rebellion nor conceive of it.

The gentle narratorial irony works on inter-adult power relations, when Griselda notes that Miss Tabitha echoes all that Miss Grizzel says; at the inconsistent operation of different laws for children and adults, when Griselda silently wonders how Miss Grizzel takes liberties with the antique mandarin dolls which are older than she (12), and on old-fashioned sententiousness, when in 1877, Miss Grizzel's talk of improving "golden hours of youth" (19) appears in the cultural context of Carroll's parody "How doth the little crocodile" in Alice (1865) of the pedagogic solemnity of just these lines from Dr. Watts' "The Bee" (Divine and Moral Songs, 1715). As Griselda is a model but fallible child, her world is likewise a fallible but model world, and special pleading extenuates the faults of her corrective figures of authority, who are automatically protected by their old age, the consequent physical and emotional fragility (26, 77, 150-51), and their loving good intentions and understandable ignorance. They are not fairy-tale cruel stepmothers or Marquis Walters, do not cause Griselda's main deprivation (motherlessness), and because they are old they do not realise that she needs the vent for energy in unconstricted play and the companionship which they cannot give her. The only point at which Miss Tabitha disagrees with Miss Grizzel is when the latter worries about whether she has treated Griselda badly in forbidding a meeting with Phil (152). Thus The Cuckoo Clock presents the human figures of authority not so much like anything in Emma, but more like Lady Russell in Persuasion: senior, gentle, loving, well-intentioned, but humanly fallible.

The Cuckoo Clock also has the old, loving cuckoo who does recognise Griselda's needs and provides substitute mother-love and energetic play and companionship for her. Because Miss Grizzel is human, and the cuckoo, who is much more to the forefront and harps much more on Griselda's errors, is not, most irony and minor rebellious rudeness is dissipated by being transferred and deflected to him in the sphere of fantasy. Griselda mutters under her breath when Miss Grizzel talks about the golden hours of youth, which seem less golden than toilsome to her (19). She sulks mutinously and quietly when Miss Grizzel tells her that her lessons will recommence (96-100); and the only time, on her third lapse, when she does openly lose her temper and speaks out with Miss Grizzel, this is a grave matter (150). But like Dorcas, the "fairyfied" cuckoo is a modified moral authority, for he is also a toy-like, animal-like comic playmate, possibly Griselda's dream and thus her equal, so a display of spirit to the cuckoo does not carry the same negative weight as would a similar display to Miss Grizzel. Increasingly severe and critical phrases cumulatively call him the primary conduit for the novel's "gracious and effective moralising" (Anon, Nation 353), the "domestic sprite" who "charmed children gently into the nursery virtues" (Fisher 98), the "kind but rather governessy" (Avery, "Introduction" 9), the "very moral" bird (Blount 97) who is purposefully all these things in order to be a harmless, occasional comic butt for Griselda, who is invested with a very carefully circumscribed and attractively sweet self-assertiveness only with Dorcas and him.

Though the narrator does not spell it out, when Griselda vents her rage at the clock by throwing her book at it, she is actually transferring it away from Miss Grizzel who has been insisting on her studying hard. When in response the clock stops striking, this is a metaphorical image for the adult ploy of withholding love and attention, and together the house-hold's sense of a great misfortune compounded by the culpability of despoiling property, is kept emotionally subordinate. Griselda then expresses the irritation with adults which she restrains for most of her waking life in her ambiguously presented dreams of the less than human cuckoo-instructor, who is more pontifical, sententious, and sharp-tongued than Miss Grizzel. Griselda participates more in the narrator's irony about the cuckoo than about the great-aunts. When the cuckoo practises an adult stratagem to conceal his ignorance while maintaining his authority as he "hastily" tells Griselda not to argue when she asks an awkward question which he cannot answer (49), the adult-directed irony is more explicit because it is more harmless (and there is no irony about the notion that Griselda is not intended to know certain things). Griselda's spirited irritation with him is justified. She does not like being laughed at by him, can protest (38, 177), can even point out what looks like his stupidity (176), can stop him when he pontificates overlong (54, 168-69, 175-76), and her cumulative reactions to his catch phrase "You have a great deal to learn" culminate in dancing about with clasped hands, entreating him to stop (48, 53, 62,108).

At times the cuckoo puzzles Griselda with difficult information (49, 59, 158-59, 161, 178; for example his information about astronomy) which is occasionally part of the novel's didactic and rhetorical intentions. Mrs. Molesworth thought that "suggestion… of scientific achievements" is not unsuitable in a children's book (Peculiar Gift 505-6), hence the cuckoo puzzling Griselda with the notions that "big and little," "slow and quick," are all relative, all "matters of fancy," and issues relating to physics. Griselda learns to accept this relativistic refocusing of Carrollean growth and diminishment in the Alice books as an adequate explanation of their changes of size and the duration of their adventures (59, 173), and also it acts as rhetorical explanation of the fantasy, moving away from explanation by dream convention to a foreshadowng of similar rhetorical devices in the later fantasy fiction of E. Nesbit (1858-1924, e.g., The Story of the Amulet 1905) and C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) (with time going at different rates in different worlds in all the Narnia books, 1950ff.). The portions where the cuckoo puzzles Griselda are also a new, more relaxed Victorian comic parody of the older Georgian stilted dialogue form with an eager inquiring child easily drinking in information from the wise tutor, gushing forth lists of facts or moralisings. Rousseau's Emile gave Thomas Day the inspiration for his Mr. Barlow, the all-knowing tutor of Sandford and Merton (1783-1789), much of which is in dialogue form, shared by Georgian lesson-books, e.g., Richmall Mangnall's notorious Questions (1800), or Mrs. Markham's History of England (1823) and such very different fictional works as Charles and Mary Lamb's Mrs. Leicester's School (1809) and Mrs. Sherwood's Fairchild Family (1818, 1842, 1847)—all these were in print in 1877, but the temper had changed. Dickens voiced his irritation with Mr. Barlow in Our Mutual Friend (1865), and Francis Burnand parodied him as a reprobate in The New Sandford and Merton (1872) in the same decade as The Cuckoo Clock.

But though there is mockery of the cuckoo as pontifical, puzzling, pedagogic instructor, there is none directed at him as moral preceptor, and Griselda is never puzzled or irritated at his moral dicta. She is a trifle indignant when she finds that the lost bird at the window is the cuckoo who could have got in without her help, but she immediately, repentantly realises the truth of his homily: "Child!" said the cuckoo … "you are very foolish. Is a kind thought or action ever wasted? Can your eyes see what good seeds grow into? They have wings, Griselda—kindnesses have wings and roots, remember that—wings that never droop, and roots that never die" (104).

The Bildungsroman conflict of generations comes to a head in daily life, with Miss Grizzel and Griselda over Phil, when Griselda meets Phil in the wood, Miss Grizzel's old-fashioned values cause her to forbid Griselda from keeping her appointment with him, and the conflict is imbricated with class assumptions which are conflated with gender issues and trivialised. We must retreat from neither Miss Grizzel's nor Mrs. Molesworth's snobbery; however, too much has been made of it, too dismissively. As Ruth, Robertson felt, to "positively hound" Mrs. Molesworth about it (in the pattern set by Laski in 1950 and followed by Avery in 1965) obscures much else that is worthwhile. Now, Griselda does not transfer her resentment to the cuckoo, but the cuckoo solves her immediate problem of the appointment, taking Griselda that night to tell Phil the situation (they never discuss the meeting, so its dream-status remains ambiguous).

When Griselda meets Phil, ragged and untidy, she does what her hierarchical world does: she immediately establishes class indices, for she is "naturally" unwilling to mix with a rude, common child. She plays with Phil only after hearing that he has a nurse, for before that "she had not felt at all sure what sort of little boy he was, or rather what sort of people he belonged to" (138). With echoes of Pip and Estella and the boy/young lady theme of Great Expectations, Griselda "wouldn't want to play with a naughty rude boy," as she tells Dorcas (148), and she has already immediately equated naughty rudeness with commonness (social inferiority). Correspondingly, Griselda "isn't a little girl, she's a young lady," Phil tells his nurse, with a naive discrimination not solely based upon an infant's conceptions of age (192).

The one unforgivable sin for Victorian children was lying to (and keeping secrets from) those in charge (Avery, Childhood's Pattern 138-41, see for example Charlotte Yonge's The Stokesley Secret 1861, Mrs. Molesworth's Carrots 1875, This and That 1899). When "impatient Griselda" keeps secret that it is she who has stopped The Cuckoo Clock by throwing the book at it, she does so because she does not wish to hurt further the upset great-aunts (35), and for the rhetorical reason that her consequent fantasy adventures with the cuckoo are strictly private and cannot involve them. At the climax, she "fearlessly" tells Dorcas that she will tell her great-aunts about her meeting with Phil and ask to keep her appointment with him, and though she appears to regret her candour at the unjust interdiction, these are only thoughtless words in a moment of temper (150-51).

Miss Grizzel and Dorcas, as sensible, responsibly loving guardians, see both Phil's presumed low class and his sex, presumed to be predatory, as contaminating barriers to Griselda's association with him. Protective irony at the flustered comic old maiden-lady horror of Dorcas and Miss Grizzel learning of Griselda's acquaintance with a boy whom they automatically assume to be "rude," "common," and "impertinent," and Miss Grizzel's fear that one's afternoon's "companionship with rudeness" may have spoilt Griselda (148, 151-52), only underscores their over-concerned misunderstanding (special pleading) and obscures the class issue of the telling association of rudeness with commonness. Both Dorcas and Miss Grizzel are relieved when they hear that Phil, the only other male in this world apart from Mr. Knee-breeches, is almost a baby (164), young enough to need a nurse, and "quite a little 'gentleman'" (148,153)—where Griselda sees the nurse as a sign that Phil is of her class, the old women also recognise the nurse as a sign that Phil is little enough to be safe.

Miss Grizzel learns from Dorcas that Phil may be the little boy who is staying at a farm owned by Lady Lavander, and then quickly, caringly goes to find that "Lady Lavander knew all about him; his father and mother were friends of hers, for whom she had a great regard, and for some time she had been intending to ask the little boy to spend the day at Merry-brow Hall, to be introduced to her god-daughter, Griselda. So, of course,"—with protective comic italicised irony mocking and simultaneously upholding their instant submission to social and generational authority—as Lady Lavander knew all about him, there could be no objection to his playing in Miss Grizzel's garden!" and Miss Grizzel sets the seal of approval on Griselda's new friendship (186). These narrative tactics point to the silliness of Griselda's ironically rendered rebellious feelings at the unjust interdiction, highlight the value of patient submission which inevitably leads to a happy conclusion, conceal the potential disruption of class issues by transference to and conflation with gender issues, and enlist the reader's sympathies with the structures of authority in this ultimately just world.

Bildungsroman Ordeal by Love and "Cupid and Psyche"

Through the conflict of generations, The Cuckoo Clock presents an asexual, scaled-down version of the Bildungsroman ordeal by love. The nineteenth century mistakenly, it would appear, took "Patient Griselda" to be a form of "Cupid and Psyche" (see Bettridge, Griselda), a late Roman myth (see Dyroff, Fehling), said to be a version of a Märchen tale-type which includes the Norse fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," popularised in England by Dasent's collection Popular Tales from the Norse (1859). Mrs. Molesworth obviously knew "Patient Griselda," and the form the "Patient Griselda" story takes in The Cuckoo Clock may conceivably be influenced by "Cupid and Psyche." Mrs. Molesworth very probably knew "Cupid and Psyche," for the figure of Phil and the resonances of his name make the idea of a relation between them tempting. The novel certainly encourages a reading in relation to the myth.

Griselda's ordeal by love does not parallel the whole of "Cupid and Psyche" any more than her life's troubles closely parallel the details of "Patient Griselda," but The Cuckoo Clock does have a number of images which recall "Cupid and Psyche," some of which do not seem to be otherwise adequately motivated. The striking central one is the image of Griselda bending over the sleeping Phil in his house at night when the cuckoo takes her to see him. This image is the centre of the Psyche myth and the subject of many Victorian paintings, and Phil's subsequent appearance on the moon in the same adventure as a bright-eyed, silvery-winged, sprite figure, is unmistakably that of a Victorian amoretto, which is left unexplained and seems otherwise gratuitous. The C.E. Brock illustrations of the text, perhaps the most famous ones, strongly render Phil as a chubby Cupid.

These two images bring into focus Psyche the butterfly and Griselda's wish to be a butterfly, beloved of the butterflies. Psyche unexpectedly goes to the home of Cupid on her windborne flight to the Happy Valley; Griselda unexpectedly meets Phil in a pastoral place and has a cuckoo-borne flight to Phil. Psyche is served by Cupid's invisible supernatural servants; the fairyfied cuckoo, whom Phil has never seen, invisibly leads the pair home. Seeing Cupid is forbidden. Psyche's two older wicked sisters misrepresent him as a serpent-monster; yet Psyche defies the interdiction and sees him, and has a separation-ordeal with its long journey. Likewise, seeing Phil is forbidden, there are two old sisters (Griselda's great-aunts), who are not full sisters of Sybilla (Griselda's double) and who misrepresent him as a rude, common, predatory contamination. Also Griselda defies the interdiction and sees him (in the sphere of fantasy), and has a separation-ordeal with a long journey. The central image of both narratives is the heroine seeing the beloved asleep. Psyche journeys to the Land of the Dead with all the streams she must cross during her enforced separation from Cupid; Griselda journeys to the dead landscape of the moon with its waveless sea during her enforced separation from Phil. Psyche is aided in her tasks by cthonic goddesses and their animal servants; Griselda is aided in her separation-trouble by the superstitious maid countrywoman Dorcas (who mediates for her with Miss Grizzel) and the cuckoo. Love (Cupid) sustains Psyche in her trials and her journeys home, after which she falls asleep; Love (Phil) it is who rows the boat that is brought to take Griselda home from the dead land, after which she falls asleep. Finally—the telos of both narratives—Psyche is reunited with Cupid and lovingly received by his mother Venus; Griselda is reunited with Phil and lovingly received by his "good," spiritually aware mother, who exemplifies the Victorian Cult of Mother as moral guide and control (see Houghton 355ff.).

Bildungsroman Movement from Provinciality to the Larger Society

The plot of The Cuckoo Clock is constructed so as to pose an issue from one area in terms of a problem from another and "solve" it there. It conflates inevitability and reward to imply a motivated, meaningful, just, natural/moral order, which justifies optimism. Griselda's submissive patience and love are finally justified with her Bildungsroman movement from provinciality, the restricted society of old single women in the country-like old town, to the larger society, the younger company of Phil's townbred family from the outside world (she anticipates meeting his father). This movement is not complete—for Griselda goes from one gentle female world to another, younger one—and is very gradual.

It is initiated by Griselda's movement outward from the enclosure of the old house in winter to the garden and then the wood in spring. Spring comes with the natural alternation of the seasons, and Griselda's achievement of physical freedom in moving out into the garden is the ordinary consequence of waiting for the natural occurrence of the arrival of spring. In the spring, Griselda also, fortuitously finds appropriate social intercourse in a playmate and then climactically, in a human surrogate mother rather than a (dream?) male fantasy-animal one. The literal spring brings only one benefit, but seems as if it brought all of them. Juxtaposition of events is rendered as causation, and the natural, the inevitable, and the accidental are rendered as one seamless whole. Griselda never loses by submission, and her happy movement to the larger world is contrived to imply that her circumstances do not change fortuitously (as is the case), but that changes are both naturally inevitable and that physical freedom is the result and reward for her inherent optimistic patience, and love and appropriate companionship are the result and reward for her enhanced restraint, obedience, and hard work.

At the beginning of chapter 8 there is a long paragraph on the actual arrival of spring, then a short summary of Griselda's attitudes just before she meets Phil:

Griselda became more and more convinced that the only way as yet discovered of getting through hard tasks is to set to work and do them; also, that grumbling, as things are arranged in this world, does not always, nor may I say often, do good; furthermore, that an ill-tempered child is not, on the whole, likely to be as much loved as a good-tempered one; lastly, that if you wait long enough, winter will go and spring will come.


There is a slippage between two distinct (though related) sets of virtues: the first three main clauses are about Griselda's enhanced industriousness, obedience and sweet temper, and the last is about patience/fortitude in hard circumstances in the form of optimistic waiting for inevitable change, which Griselda had from the start. Very skillfully and lightly, quite contrary to stereotypes of heavy late-Victorian moralising, the image of winter departing and spring arriving conflates the literal and the metaphorical. The phrase to describe Griselda's conviction, "if you wait… then winter will go" says that she realised that she would get out of the cold house in spring, and implies a literally absurd causal connection between the waiting for and the arrival of spring. However, the causal connection is satisfactory in the image as a metaphor to mean that Griselda realised that patient waiting for the winter of other, more general, hard circumstances to pass would lead to the arrival of the spring of better ones.

The seasons changing and bringing physical freedom as a reward for patient waiting flows, a little later, into another reward, companionship, for another virtue, industriousness, which is presented as being quite as "natural" and "inevitable." In spring, Griselda "had been all the morning at her lessons, and had tried very hard, and done them very well, and now she felt as if she deserved some reward" (133). She hears the (or a) cuckoo's call, meets Phil in the wood, and Phil too turns out to know the (or a) cuckoo, and is quite sure that the cuckoo meant her to be his playmate (140, 144). It is thus implied that meeting Phil in daily life is a reward arranged by the (dream) cuckoo for Griselda's dutiful hard work; followed by the sense that the rewards for submitting (resentfully) to Miss Grizzel's interdiction are Griselda's night-visits to Phil, and subsequently meeting his mother.

Bildungsroman Working Philosophy: Imagination and Spiritual Growth

Griselda's efforts to "be good" and become better are her psychological quest to ascribe meaning to life's troubles, to establish the bearings that orient her undescribed future. The childish imagination is important as a means of coping (compensating for her motherlessness and constricted loneliness) and contributes to both moral growth (internalising the values of restraint, obedience, and industriousness) and spiritual growth. Nineteenth-century views of the child as the "belle sauvage" and the whole Romantic concept of imagination lie behind Griselda's imaginative and possibly imaginary dream-adventures with the cuckoo. These are suggested to be the work of the unconscious imagination, because they are initiated by guilt, stem from a naive belief in fairies, occur at night or in a context of sleep or both, are private and only ambiguously proven; because of such textual hints as the cuckoo refusing to call himself a fairy, saying that he might be a "fairyfied cuckoo" (37, i.e., fairyfied by Griselda's imagination); and because of Griselda's intense conscious daytime "fancy"—making "pictures" in the fire (87), imaginatively conjuring up the "fairy lore" and tales of which her mind is "perfectly full" (4, 29, 30, 41, 54, 55-56, 72, 132, 177). The text implies that all children have the imaginative faculty: grandmother Sybilla had some special relationship with the cuckoo, Phil knows the cuckoo, too (135-40, 163), and other children besides Griselda have been to Butterfly Land and to the moon (120, 167, 177).

The childish imagination is secular, the cuckoo is not a spiritual messenger, but it leads to a muted note of conscious semi-Christian mystery. Griselda gradually arrives at the working philosophy that one is obliged, alone, to engage in a personal search for the "real fairyland," a spiritual state savouring of a quasi-Christian Heaven. Before her visit to the mandarins, Griselda asks the cuckoo to take her to fairyland. He says that he cannot, that few children have been there, and they found their own way; that there are many doors to it, but Griselda need not waste time looking for them (55). Nevertheless, at first Griselda persists in thinking that the real fairyland is easily accessible; she mistakes Butterfly Land for it, and again asks the cuckoo to take her there on her last journey (110,165). Apart from examples of obedience and industry, when the cuckoo gives Griselda a vision of Sybilla's funeral, he shows Griselda that death is not to be feared, as she sees a procession on a beautiful spring day, and hears a song, more beautiful than the cuckoo's, Sybilla singing (86), secular consolation deriving from a traditional religious source, the Heavenly Choir. Griselda gradually gets bored with the (dream-)wonderlands to which she has been taken (78, 127, 165), and the text thus clearly indicates that these wonderlands of the childish imagination are necessary, useful but insufficient, temporary stages in spiritual growth, and Platonic prefigurations or doubles of the unreached "real fairyland" behind and beyond them. This Platonic doubling and prefiguration of wonderlands/fairyland is part of a larger network of things with (dream-) wonderland doubles (butterfly scent, butterfly garden flowers, mandarin shoes, gardens), and people with Platonic genii (Phil on earth and on the moon), anticipating more sophisticated variants of this rhetoric in E. Nesbit's The Magic City (1910) and C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950).

The useful childish imagination works slowly and gently in the child's internalisation of social values and spiritual growth before it is put aside, like childhood itself, which is a process of gradual growing and putting away of such childish things as lapses from submission and imaginative dreaming. After Griselda's boredom with wonderlands, and acquaintance with her new surrogate the cuckoo says goodbye to her in what is stated to be "merely a dream, nothing else," telling her that she will need him no longer, for her new human friends will understand her, help her to work and to play, and that they will be better friends than the mandarins, butterflies, or even himself (195-96). There is a note of nostalgia in Griselda's final tears of farewell, for she is at an age to start to relinquish the legitimate but temporary refuge of naive life of the imagination. Growth is identified with the inevitable and good outgrowing of childhood itself, a good, blessed temporary state. In some ways the younger the child, the better the child. Like Griselda, Phil, whose babytalk signals his infancy, has inherent virtue, loves his mother (138,142), is sensitive to Griselda's loss (138, 194), respects her age, learning and virtue (138-39, 141), realises his own ignorance, is grateful, submissive and willing to learn more (141). He is in some ways her superior, more a child of nature "from the world of flowers" (128, 142-43, 163, 188), needing no guide as a quasi-angelic higher being than Griselda on the moon, and as the cuckoo says, "in some ways he has a great deal more sense than" she (180). But Phil is also worse than Griselda: amoral and willing to deceive his nurse, though ready to learn better (143), less educable, as he wants to read only to please his mother, and more naive, as he takes fairyland to be a concrete, findable place (139, 140, 141, 144, 187-89).

The Romantics saw growth out of childhood as a simultaneous loss and gain—Wordsworth's loving, naive role-playing (i.e., imaginative) child of the "Immortality Ode" who can see "the glory and the dream," with an unclouded imaginative faculty, is the "best philosopher," but adulthood has its own compensations, "the faith that looks through death," and the "years that bring the philosophic mind." The Georgian educators for children, however, saw childhood as a period of disciplined instruction towards adulthood and set little store by imagination (see Avery, Nineteenth-Century Children, "Introduction"). Mid-Victorian Dickens presented the growth out of childhood as a necessary and inevitable corruption. Late-Victorian Mrs. Molesworth is more like the Romantics than Dickens, as Griselda's increasing and celebrated maturity closes the earlier regions of fancy, and childhood is a time of being and imaginative insight and also of spiritual understanding, becoming, and slow, gentle learning. But she avoids the excesses of the Edwardians (J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, 1904) and twentieth-century Georgians (Christopher Robin in A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, 1926), who see childhood as a perfect idyllic state, marked by imaginative freedom and play, fixed in lyric stasis.

In contemporaneous fantasy fiction, Carroll's Alice herself may become more confident, grow through her dream-journeys, but most didactic Victorian Alice-imitations either leave little scope for growth or present pat violent conversion, the grave retribution of Mrs. Ewing's "Benjy in Beastland" (1871, teaching kindness to animals) or Tom Hood's From Nowhere to the North Pole (1875, preaching against wanton destruction), the fearful, awful examples shown to Flora in Christina Rossetti's Speaking Likenesses (1874, warning against anger) or Kitty in Alice Corkran's Down the Snow Stairs (1887 cautioning against sensual self-indulgence). Or they may provide the sort of unsatisfactory quasi-Romanticism by which Miss Mary, in Canon J. C. Atkinson's Scenes in Fairyland, or, Miss Mary's Visits to the Court of Fairy Realm (1892), is suddenly told that she is too old to make any more of her fantasy visits over time, though she seems exactly the same (Griselda's similar adventures end because they are no longer needed). The Cuckoo Clock is far superior, and in depicting a little girl's lonely trials and growth, ranks with two other similar classic realist Bildungsromane: Miss Charlotte Yonge's Countess Kate (1862), in exactly the same situation with old great-aunts and lessons, which discounts the imagination and values religious faith, and Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1908), where a more disagreeable pair (with the girl as leader) move among less caring adults, and grow by the conscious imagination, the will, and the power of nature in a similar pattern of movement from enclosure in winter to a garden in spring and a new mother.

Bildungsroman Search for Vocation

Griselda has been guided into growth by the play of her naive imagination and by the loving discipline of her human and fantasy guardians, and the model for the child reader finds her own Bildungsroman vocation as model for Phil, as his loving teacher and guide. She teaches Phil to be neat (136, 143, 187), not to conceal anything from his nurse and always ask permission (142), and she is willing to teach Phil to read. She is aware that it is not learning lessons that is important but her attitude to them, and she teaches Phil that the cuckoo says there is a great deal to learn before one can reach fairyland, and that though (the discipline of) learning to read will help, it is not that sort of learning he means but the individual effort of learning to be good (139, 141).

Just as Griselda herself once did not immediately understand the cuckoo's words about the real fairyland, Phil too thinks that he has found the way there, and Griselda smilingly tells him what the cuckoo had told her: "I'm afraid the way to fairyland isn't so easily found" (187). When Phil's mother asks the pair whether they found fairyland, just before the cuckoo's farewell:

Griselda shook her head as she replied—

"Phil doesn't understand yet," she said gently. "He isn't old enough. The way to the true fairy-land is hard to find, and we must each find it for ourselves, mustn't we?"

She looked up in the lady's face as she spoke, and saw that she understood.

"Yes, dear child," she answered softly, and perhaps a very little sadly. "But Phil and you may help each other, and I perhaps may help you both."


Griselda has understood what the real fairyland is, but she is still a child. Her final dream of the cuckoo, which she knows to be indubitably only a dream, does not indicate that she realises all her adventures were dreams. She finds a working philosophy and vocation, but still childishly believes in the objective reality of her fantasy friend, and still requires another motherly guide. Thus in The Cuckoo Clock, as in all Bildungsromane, growth to maturity is never fully complete.


All the great Bildungsromane seem to take the author's own experience for their raw material (Buckley 23), and The Cuckoo Clock and the Chinese mandarin dolls had real life originals in Mrs. Molesworth's childhood as little Mary Louisa Stewart. She told an interviewer that the clock was hers as a child, and that the oriental cabinet of Griselda's mandarin visit, into which Mrs. Molesworth thought it would be delightful to climb, was her sister's (Woolf 674-75). She reminisced of an oriental cabinet of her own and another much larger one in the house of a relation, which were "answerable" "for some parts of The Cuckoo Clock "(Monthly Packet 160). She said that her first books for children "were not so much invention as narrative, … real stories—with, of course, some little alterations" (Little Folks 17), and The Cuckoo Clock, her third book for children, is almost certainly a "real story" in the sense that it is a fiction based almost directly upon a childhood memory, for Griselda's lonely situation; as she makes objects around her into (possibly) imaginary dream-companions, is an elaborated, polished version of the pseudonymously published "The Reel Fairies" (in Tell Me a Story, 1876), which presents a little Louisa (the middle name Mrs. Molesworth used, and sometimes published under), who, like Mrs. Molesworth herself (Monthly Packet 161,162), plays with reels which come alive in a dream. Phil is clearly a reworking of Carrots, the eponymous hero of Mrs. Molesworth's first novel for children, whom she said she drew from her own son (Woolf 675).

So it is probably Mrs. Molesworth's childhood experience which resulted in her classic Victorian fantasy novel constructed upon a scaled-down Bildungsroman structure, a didactic text in which an exemplary model character with inherent virtues is also exemplary in her moral and spiritual growth. It is difficult to keep Griselda's intertwined virtues separate, to know immediately which is a corollary of which, and which incident demonstrates or teaches her exactly what. But it is clear that all her virtues are both inherent and enhanced and that they all involve sub-mission (to circumstances or to authority) and self-abnegation (emotional and mental discipline) in a contentedly loving hierarchical world threatened by no external disruptive element and ordered so that virtue is rewarded and optimism is appropriate. The didactic nature of The Cuckoo Clock has always been apparent, but the twentieth century has politely glossed over it. The same material could produce a much harsher reading of The Cuckoo Clock as the story of the narrative erasure of social and familial injustice, of a child's cooptation into the status quo through her internalisation of its values, and could scornfully hold up its conservative values to show its seduction of Griselda as the seduction of the child reader and the perpetuation of the status quo. Ideology is that which we recognise as being alien to our own "natural" world-view (see Stephens, Language, on its relation to children's literature), and I do not myself find the values of The Cuckoo Clock offensive.

But regardless of how we regard its Victorian moral values, no one has ever found Griselda unconvincing in her lonely Lehrjahre of lapses, gradual growth, and final reward. The novel is skilful in its use of folktale and mythical material, and in its presentation of the protagonist as the narrating focus, described in psychological depth by an ironic narrator and taught by an ironic teacher. Its strategies of irony and special pleading to trivialise and explain any cause for rebelliousness, its transference of incipient rebelliousness from the daily sphere to the sphere of fantasy, and its conflation of various problems and thus their solutions do indeed convincingly construct a world in which submissive optimism is justified. Its presentation of the childish imagination as a source of compensatory refreshment, and a means to moral and spiritual growth which must be outgrown like childhood itself is different from the pure playfulness of Alice and the heavyhandness of many of its imitations.

The status of The Cuckoo Clock as a polished but naive work of fantasy fiction and children's literature has obscured its nature as a miniature Bildungsroman, a tale of youth and moral education, treating didactically the characteristic Bildungsroman exploration of childhood, alienation, self-education, the conflict of generations, ordeal by love, movement from provinciality to the larger society, the search for a vocation, and a working philosophy. Its education of the child reader by its depiction of the education of its child protagonist is its core; neither should be ignored.


I am deeply indebted to the late Ruth Robertson M.A. (d. c. 1988), who began to gather all the information available on Mrs. Molesworth in the 1930s, much of which, destroyed by bombings and families, now exists only in her typescripts and notes. A scholar who worked in a lifelong disinterested love for scholarship, she provided much of the material for Roger Lancelyn Green (below) and some of the Swinburne Letters, assisted the academic research of Ms. Beth Humphries (below) and many others, and was enthusiastic about my suggestion about establishing a Molesworth Society (which now exists). Her literary executor Mrs. Ellery Yale Wood made the decision to give Miss Robertson's papers to Mrs. Jane Cooper (whom Miss Robertson had indeed once met), for the long awaited Mrs. Molesworth biography. Mrs. Cooper has informed me that there is a German thesis on Mrs. Molesworth, held in the International Youth Library in Munich (other details unknown). Mrs. Felicity Hughes, Flinders University, Adelaide, suggested the presence of "Cupid and Psyche" to me in 1980 (which a Canadian academic, however, has dismissed as ridiculous) and Dr. Linda Conrad, Griffith University, Queensland, has provided much scholarly assistance.

Works Cited

(Some other earlier material on Mrs. Molesworth, including Ruth Robertson's findings, is cited in Green's Bodley Head monograph, listed below.)

Aarne, Antii, and Stith Thompson. The Types of the Folk Tale: A Classification and Bibliography. (Antii Aarne's Verzeichnis der Maerchentypen, 2nd ed.). Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Sciences, 1961.

Anon. Review of The Cuckoo Clock. Nation (U.S.A.). December 6, 1877: 353.

——. Review of The Cuckoo Clock. Independent (U.S.A.). December 6, 1877: 10.

——. Review of The Cuckoo Clock. Literary World (U.S.A.). January 1878: 142.

——. Review of The Cuckoo Clock. St. Nicholas (U.S.A.). February 1878: 302.

——. [by Richard Holt Hutton]. Review of The Cuckoo Clock. Spectator (U.K.). December 1, 1877 (page no. unavailable, mutilated copy used).

Attebery, Brian. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature from Irving to LeGuin. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980.

Avery, Gillian. "Introduction" to Mrs. Molesworth, My New Home. London: Gollancz, 1968.

——. Childhood's Pattern: A Study of the Heroes and Heroines of Children's Fiction, 1770-1950. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975. (The reference to Oxford theses on Mrs. Molesworth in the introduction is an exaggeration, though there are similar ones.)

——, and Angela Bull. Nineteenth-Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories, 1780-1900. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965.

Baker, M. J. "Mary Louisa Molesworth." Junior Bookshelf 12 (March 1948): 19-26.

Bettridge, William E. Griselda: Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 887: Analogues of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale. Diss. Ohio, 1966.

——. Letter to S. Sircar, October 4, 1978.

Blount, Margaret. Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction. London: Hutchinson, 1974.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.

Buckley, Jerome H. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974.

Cashdan, Liz. "Powerful Levers: Margaret Gatty, Juliana Horatia Ewing and Mary Louisa Molesworth." Children's Literature in Education 20:4 (December 1989): 215-26.

Cooper, Jane. "'Just Really What They Do': or, Re-Reading Mrs. Molesworth." Signal 57 (1988): 181-96.

Crago, Hugh. "Hearing Her Own Story? Morwenna and The Cuckoo Clock." Papers 3:3 (December 1992): 106-25.

Dixon, Bob. Catching Them Young: Sex, Race and Class/Political Ideas in Children's Fiction. 2 vols. London: Pluto Press, 1977.

Dyroff, A. Das Maerchen von Amor und Psyche. Cologne: Staufen Verlag, 1941.

Fehling, Detlev. Amor und Psyche: Die Schöpfung des Apuleius und ihre Einwirkung auf das Maerchen. Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschaft und der Literatur Weisbaden, 1977.

Field, Carolyn, and Jacqueline Schacter Weiss. Values in Selected Children's Books of Fiction and Fantasy. Hamden, CT: Library Professional Publications, 1987.

Fisher, Margery. Intent upon Reading: A Critical Appraisal of Modern Fiction for Children. Leicester: Brockhampton, 1961.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Tellers of Tales: British Authors of Children's Books from 1800 to 1964 (1946). New York: Franklin Watts, 1965.

——. Mrs. Molesworth. London: Bodley Head, 1961 (and earlier articles listed therein).

Hildick, Wallace. Children and Fiction. London: Evans, 1970.

Houghton, Walter. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957). New Haven: Yale UP, 1975.

Howe, Susannah. Wilhelm Meister and His English Kinsmen: Apprentices to Life. New York: Columbia UP, 1930.

Humphries, Beth. Fantasy and Morality in Children's Books: A Study of Mrs. Molesworth in the Context of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Writers for Children. M.A. thesis, University of Sussex, 1978.

Inglis, Fred. The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Kuhn, Andrea. Jugend und Arbeit: Zur Sozialisation durch Kinderund Jugendliteratur im 18 Jahrhundert. Berlin: Basis Verlag, 1975.

Laski, Marghanita. Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett. London: Arthur Barker, 1950.

Leeson, Robert. Children's Books and Class Society Past and Present. London: Children's Rights Workshop/Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1977.

Molesworth, Mrs. (Mary Louisa Stewart). "How I Write My Children's Stories." Little Folks (July 1894): 16-19.

——. "Story-Writing." Monthly Packet Ser. 4 (August 1894): 160-64.

——. "Juliana Horatia Ewing," (1886) in A Peculiar Gift, ed. Lance Salway. Harmondsworth: Kestrel, 1976.

——. The Cuckoo Clock (1877). London: Macmillan, 1933 (many later editions).

Moss, Anita. "Mrs. Molesworth: Victorian Visionary." The Lion and the Unicorn 12:1 (1988): 105-10.

——. "Mothers, Monsters, and Morals in Fairy Tales." The Lion and the Unicorn 12:2 (1988): 41-59.

Petzold, Dieter. Das englische Kunstmaerchen im neunzehnten Jahrhundert. Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1981 (contains a useful section on Mrs. Molesworth, with insights not available in material in English).

Robertson, Ruth. Letters to S. Sircar, 1977-1986.

Rosenthal, Lynne M. "Maria Louisa Stewart Molesworth 1839-1921," in Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors since the Seventeenth Century, ed. Jane M. Bingham. New York: Scribners, 1988. 407-13.

——. "Writing Her Own Story: The Integration of the Self in the Fourth Dimension of Mrs. Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock" Children's Literature Quarterly 10:4 (Winter, 1986): 187-92.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. Harlow: Longman, 1992.

Thompson, Stith. Motif Index of Folk Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folk Tales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books and Local Legends. Rev. ed. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1955-1958.

——. The Folk Tale (1946). New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Tschirner, Susanne. Der Fantasy-Bildungsroman. Mettingen: Corian Verlag, 1989.

Whalley, Joyce. "Mrs. Molesworth," in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers (1978), ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. London: Macmillan, 1989. 1108-9.

Woolf, Bella Sydney. "Children's Classics: Mrs. Molesworth and Carrots." Quiver 41, Ser. 3 (June 1906): 674-76.

Zanger, Jules. "Goblins, Morlocks and Weasels: Classic Fantasy and the Industrial Revolution." Children's Literature in Education 8:4 (1977): 154-62.


Anita Moss (essay date June 1988)

SOURCE: Moss, Anita. "Mrs. Molesworth: Victorian Visionary." Lion and the Unicorn 12, no. 1 (June 1988): 105-10.

[In the following essay, Moss investigates Molesworth's employment of the dream vision literary form in Christmas-Tree Land.]

Mary Louisa Molesworth (1842-1921) wrote 101 books. Of this enormous output, much of it for children, only a few titles remain in print. Certain aspects of Mrs. Molesworth's children's books may indeed strike modern readers as quaint and oldfashioned, but as Roger Lancelyn Green has remarked, she also "wrote books for children which children loved dearly then and can enjoy now (104). Green adds that at least a dozen of Mrs. Molesworth's juveniles could be read with enthusiasm by today's children. Critics of children's literature will also find riches to explore, as Mrs. Molesworth contributed significantly to the molding and making of the traditions of British children's literature, influencing subsequent writers from E. Nesbit to C. S. Lewis.

One of the first important critics to recognize the excellence of her writings for the young was Swinburne, who wrote in The Nineteenth-Century Review in 1884:

It seems to me not at all easier to draw a life-like child than to draw a life-like man or woman. Shakespeare and Webster were the only two men of their age who could do it with perfect delicacy and success … Our own age is more fortunate, on this single score at least, having a larger and far nobler proportion of women writers: among whom, since the death of George Eliot, there is none left whose touch is so exquisite and masterly, whose love is so thoroughly according to knowledge, whose bright and sweet invention is so fruitful, so truthful, or so delightful as Mrs. Molesworth's. Any chapter of The Cuckoo Clock or the enchanting Adventures of Herr Baby is worth a shoal of the very best novels dealing with the characters and fortunes of mere adults.

(in Green, 112)

In her long and prolific writing career, Mrs. Molesworth produced realistic books for the youngest reader, books of verse, realistic novels for older girls, visionary fantasies and dream-visions, and some of the very finest Victorian literary fairy tales. Her use of the dream-vision and her exploration of female identity make her fantasies some of the more rewarding of her books to explore in depth.

In many of these, the author employs the dream vision as a central structural feature. Critics have often discussed the importance of this ancient literary form in the children's stories of Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald, who seem to have appropriated it primarily from the English Romantic poets. Mrs. Molesworth's fantasies owe much to George MacDonald, but she was also strongly influenced by Chaucer's medieval dream-vision, The Parlement of Foules. She probably read such dream-visions as The Pearl as well, but Chaucer's poetry was certainly known to her. The chief interest, in any case, concerns the uses to which Mrs. Molesworth puts the conventions of the dream-vision for her own creative purposes. Of particular interest is the powerful extent to which she enlists the dream vision to subvert the constraints of the moral tale so prevalent in Victorian children's literature.

One of the finest examples of this side of her work is Christmas-Tree Land (1884). In this story, two children, Maia and Rollo, are sent to live in the castle residence of their wealthy kinswoman, Lady Venelda. The children's mother has died and their father, who is forced to be away from home, is unable to take care of them. Rollo and Maia are to begin a new life as the story begins.

The sleeping-waking motif is introduced in the first chapter. On awakening for the first time in her new home, Maia looks out over the hills and forests and declares it "a land of Christmas trees" (2). Rollo for his part feels a deep emotional bond with the landscape of his ancestors.

The children's cousin, Lady Venelda, is a stern and elderly person. She insists on discipline, punctuality, obedience, and a strict regimen of lessons for the children. If the children are well-behaved, however, they are rewarded with long rambling walks in the nearby forest.

For Lady Venelda, the pine forests were "a sort of shrine dedicated to the memory of her race, for the pine forests of that country had been celebrated as far back as there was any record of its existence"(23). She makes it clear that she regards the woods as her personal property. But for Maia and Rollo, the forest becomes the place of dreams and adventure. Their guide to this dream realm is Lady Venelda's kindly old physician, a character who anticipates C. S. Lewis's Old Professor of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The physician intervenes on the children's behalf, convincing Lady Venelda that frequent walks in the woods will do them good.

With their nurse, Nanni, the children set off on their first excursion. As in medieval dream visions, the children enter a beautiful park in early spring. A catalog of birds, animals, and plants follows. Nanni falls asleep at once in the pleasant wood, while the children visit a cottage they noticed on first arriving at the castle. It is a lovely cottage surrounded by early spring blossoms and a vegetable garden. The children enter and find food and milk on the table. Maia, an avid reader of fairy tales, suggests that it's the three bears' cottage they have stumbled onto.

When she and Rollo return to their nurse, the latter tells them about the dream she's just had:

I thought I saw a lady all dressed in green—dark green and light green—for all the world like the fir-trees in spring, and with long light hair. She stooped over me and smiled, but just then I awoke.


Once back at the castle, however, Nanni is frightened by the servants' claims that the wood and cottage are enchanted. Lady Venelda for her part declares that there is no such cottage in the woods. In the past she has heard rumors of one, but she has searched for the cottage and has failed to discover it. The physician mollifies her by suggesting that Maia and Rollo have perhaps only dreamed of the cottage. Later he assures the children that he believes them but that they need not speak to others of their adventures.

Maia and Rollo return often to the woods, where they meet Silva and Waldo, the forest children who live in the cottage, and Godmother, a divinely beautiful wise old woman, who seems both old and young, and who leads them on various adventures, tells them stories, and finally allows them a visionary glimpse of Santa Claus's garden of Christmas Trees. The episodic adventures move to a happy conclusion when the children are reunited with their father.

Although the image of Godmother owes much to George MacDonald's goddess-like maternal figures, she also resembles the medieval goddess Nature, who was a standard character in almost all medieval dream-visions. In Christmas-Tree Land, Godmother stands in absolute contrast to Lady Venelda. While Godmother argues that the forests are for everyone and cannot be owned, Lady Venelda claims that they belong exclusively to her. Godmother believes in mystery and freedom; Lady Venelda practices restrictive discipline and maintains that she knows the nature of truth and morality. Godmother's red gown appears to be made of softest bird feathers; her dark green cloak looks as if it were woven from the firtrees. She smells like violets and gives the children bunches of spring flowers. Though she is closely associated with nature itself, Godmother remains a mystery. She may appear at any time, Silva explains, "like the sunshine or the wind" (67). In contrast to the narrow rationalism of Lady Venelda, Godmother explains to Rollo and Maia, "I puzzle most children at first, but isn't it rather nice to be puzzled" (71)?

At other times Godmother appears as a mischievous comic sprite, as when she takes the children on a wild ride in her tiny carriage. As they weave in and out among "the great looming pine trees, their strange coachman made their way, without once hesitating or wavering" (135). Though Lady Venelda believes that she owns the fir-tree forest, Godmother clearly presides over it. Silva remarks that Godmother would think nothing of driving "to the moon, or the stars, or down to the bottom of the sea, or anywhere that came into her head…. For, you know, she can go anywhere" (135).

Perhaps most important of all, Godmother tells marvelous stories. These help the children endure the tedious boredom of the castle and the painful separation from their father, "for now their favorite play was to act the story which Godmother had told them"(123).

One of the central episodes in the fantasy occurs in the chapter entitled "A Committee of Birds," which clearly reminds the reader of Chaucer's Parlement of Foules. As Maia and Rollo sleep in the forest, birds of every variety assemble around them and sing. In this chapter Molesworth hints at an abiding theme in her works of fantasy—the discovery of female creativity, for Maia finds that she is herself a singer, "On and on she sang, like the bewitched Princess, though what she was singing about, she could not have told" (168).

The Committee of Birds decides to escort the children to the palace of the king of the birds, the eyrie of the great eagle at the summit of the forest. With Silva and Waldo, the children sail in "something like a ship with two great sails swimming through the air instead of the sea" (169). In a scene which will delight any reader, Mrs. Molesworth tells us that the children are dressed in feathers and that the sails of the boat are made of living birds, a detail reminiscent again of medieval dream visions in which the goddess Nature wears a gown made of living creatures.

The children enjoy a communion-like meal with the birds. In depicting the great eagles, Mrs. Molesworth draws heavily upon the medieval idea of the eagle as an emblem of rebirth, regeneration, majesty, and courage. The incident seems to mark the spiritual, imaginative, and moral growth of Rollo and Maia.

As the children approach their final adventure, Godmother hints that their time with her may be approaching an end. As winter returns, she begins once more to tell stories around the bright fire in Silva's kitchen:

Oh, the wood-fairies, and water-sprites, and dwarfs, and gnomes that they learnt about! Oh, the lovely songs that godmother sang in that witching voice of hers—that voice like none other the children had ever heard! It was a true fairyland into which she led them—a fairy-land where entered nothing ugly or cruel or mean or false, though the dwellers in it were strange and fantastic of shape and speech, children of the rainbow and the mist, unreal and yet real, like the cloud-castles that build themselves for us in the sky, or the music that weaves itself in the voice of the murmuring stream.


Just before Christmas, a robin comes to Maia and Rollo, bringing white feather cloaks which permit them to fly with the robin, who leads them to Christmas-Tree Land. The fantasy ends with an epiphany-like vision, much like the vision of the Holy City which concluded many medieval dream-visions:

They seemed to be standing in the centre of a round valley, from which the ground on every side sloped gradually upwards. And all about them, arranged in the most orderly manner, were rows and rows, tiers, perhaps I should say—of Christmas trees—real, genuine Christmas trees of every kind and size. Some loaded with toys of the most magnificent kind, some simpler, some with but a few gifts, some and those of little value. But one and all brilliantly lighted up with their many coloured tapers—one and all with its Christmas angel at the top.


The children find themselves in Santa Claus's garden, but just as they think they are about to meet Santa Claus himself, they hear the beloved voice of their father.

By concluding her fantasy with this vision of an earthly paradise and in blending the vision with actuality, Mrs. Molesworth suggests, as she sends her two characters back into ordinary social reality, that they must imbue everyday experience with the visionary. Maia and Rollo, even if they forget Godmother and their forest adventures, will nevertheless carry the dream-vision within themselves and will thus be able to maintain a sense of wonder in a restrictive society where children were expected to perform their tasks, attend to duty, and obey adults without question. In The Allegory of Love C. S. Lewis writes that the dream-vision is "an escape, a truancy… alike from vulgar common sense and from the ten commandments … yet the truancy is felt to be, in some flawed and fragile way, a noble thing…. The delicate dream protects itself against moral or common-sensible attack by every kind of concession… by ambiguities … by blending of love earthly and love heavenly … above all it protects itself against the laughter of the vulgar" (172). Similarly Mrs. Molesworth reveals the dream-vision as the mode whereby Maia and Rollo integrate spirit and nature, imagination and actuality, confinement and escape, work and play, and as a means of discovering aspects of the self and reality unavailable in any other way.

Works Cited

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Tellers of Tales. London: Kaye and Ward, Ltd., 1946; rev. ed., 1969.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1958.

Molesworth, Mary Louisa. Christmas-Tree Land. Illus. Walter Crane. London: Macmillan, 1884.



Avery, Gillian. "Introduction." In The Carved Lions, pp. 5-10. London, England: The Faith Press, 1960.

Compares the use of magic in several of Molesworth's children's works to her book The Carved Lions.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. "The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37, no. 4 (March 1983): 497-530.

Discusses how the balance between child and adult perspectives was maintained in Victorian children's literature, citing several authors—including Molesworth—as examples.

Mabie, Hamilton. "Mr. Mabie's Christmas Book Talk." Ladies Home Journal (1889-1907) 20, no. 1 (December 1902): 19.

Comments that Peterkin displays a "fine sympathy and understanding of the child-mind."

Additional coverage of Molesworth's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 165; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 135; Literature Resource Center; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, & Gothic Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 98; and Writers for Children.