Aunt Grizzel and Aunt Tabitha were hardly the fittest playmates for motherless Griselda but ancient help was at hand from
Geraldine Le Marchant,
heroine of Mrs Molesworth’s The Carved Lions, is wanly recuperating as Victorian maidens are wont to do. (She has very sensibly run away from Miss Ledbury’s seminary but chosen bad weather for her escape.) Along with the sympathy and calves’ foot jelly she is regaled with ‘a quaint old story-book’.
‘It was old-fashioned even then’
she tells us, ‘for the book had belonged to [Myra’s] mother, if not in the first place to her grandmother. How very old-world it would seem to the children of to-day – I wonder if any of you know it?’
The story-book in question
was The Ornaments Discovered, first published in 1815*, but Geraldine’s observations might well ‘to-day’ be applied to her own author’s The Cuckoo Clock, the most famous story to come from Mrs Molesworth’s fluent pen. It was the third of her hundred or so books for children, arriving in 1877 hard on the heels of Tell Me a Story (1875) and Carrots (1876 – a bestseller in its time and notorious for its author’s lavish dispensation of baby-talk). It has rarely been out of print in all its 137 years of life and has been illustrated by leading artists of three generations: Walter Crane, Charles Brock, and E H Shepard. It was the third title to be chosen in 1941 at the start of the Puffin Story Books series, and, however old-fashioned it may seem, it is currently vouched for by Emma Chichester Clark (no grandmamma she) in a brief introduction to a photographic reprint of the edition with the Shepard illustrations**: ‘the kind of book I read from start to finish, curled up in an armchair or in the back of the car’.
The attractions are discernible.
Mrs Molesworth sets a promising scene with nine-year-old (I think) Griselda arriving at the dark mansion where she is to be cared for by her great-aunts. Her natural sprightliness is somewhat oppressed by the circumambient formalities; she is in need of a playmate; and it is unsurprising that, after a petulant start, she is taken up by the fairified cuckoo in the cuckoo clock. He is a rather sententious fellow (she gets fed up with him saying ‘You have a great deal to learn’) but he understands her loneliness and undertakes to help.
Thus far so good.
The inherently implausible situation is convincingly set up and although the trials of a refined Victorian young lady are indeed ‘old-world’ there is dramatic potential in her dilemma. Instead though you get an arbitrary succession of dream-like episodes that neither relate to each other nor cumulate towards a denouement. There is a party with some nodding mandarins from the house’s great saloon; there is a flashback where Griselda sees her great-grandfather making the magic clock and her grandmother, Sybilla, going to a too-early grave. There is a visit to Butterfly Land for a rather irregular botany lesson, and, towards the end of the book, a flight to the dark side of the moon – just one example of how all the many tales of lunar travel have been set at nought by that ‘giant leap for mankind’ of Neil Armstrong’s. There is no narrative compulsion about these events (which to my laddish mind frequently descend to soppiness) and even the arrival of Master Phil to be Griselda’s playmate is unsatisfactorily contrived – and gives the author more opportunities for child-speak: ‘Nebber mind… we must have comed the wrong way…’ etc.
If we were to ask the cuckoo to account for these failings
he might well put them down to his creatrix’s impulsiveness. We know*** that she deemed herself a natural storyteller, finding tales in everything, and happily intruding upon her own stories with comments and explanations: ‘For fairies, you know, children,… are sometimes rather queer to have to deal with…’, ‘It was not “fruzzly” silk if you know what that means…’ But the craft of narrative construction – plumbing the depths of the situations that are propounded – often eluded her. How much stronger The Cuckoo Clock would have been if the relationship between Griselda, her aunts and the family history had been more fully articulated and the quest for a playmate more naturally developed (at times the story seems like a primitive trial for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden). She could do it if she would, for The Carved Lions of 1895, with which these columns began, is far more deserving of classic status (‘the highest artistic finish and restraint’ said Roger Lancelyn Green). The story of Geraldine’s unhappy consignment to boarding school and what happened at Miss Ledbury’s is said to be drawn from the author’s own experience but I sometimes meanly wonder if she hadn’t been reading another book by Mrs Hodgson Burnett: Sara Crewe; or what happened at Miss Minchin’s.
* By Mary Hughes and published by William Darton junior. The ‘ornaments’ were ‘amiable manners and a well-regulated mind’.
**Jane Nissen Books
***The prompting for this choice of title for ‘Classics in Short’ derives from the recent publication of a definitive biography: Mrs Molesworth by Jane Cooper, published by the author at Wealden Cottage, Pratts Folly Lane, Crowborough, East Sussex TH6 1HR, xv, 412pp, illus., 0 9542854 0 9, £25. The book won the 2002-3 Harvey Darton Award of the Children’s Books History Society.
The illustrations by E H Shepard are taken from the 2002 Jane Nissen Books edition, 1 903252 14 8, £7.99 pbk.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.