As Christmas approaches, I’m in the mood for something Victorian. So, let’s go back to 1877 when Mary Louisa Molesworth wrote her most famous children’s novel – `The Cuckoo Clock’. I don’t think it has ever been out of print since. Plenty of cheap but  attractive old copies are available and some of the modern paperback editions include the original illustrations by Walter Crane. You can download the whole novel for free via Project Gutenberg but the format may not be very pleasant to read.` Mrs Molesworth’ is the author name that appeared on all her children’s books, even after she separated from her violent  husband. I don’t dare drop the `Mrs’ because I just know that she wouldn’t approve if I did.

This story is set in an ancient house in an un-named English town. After her mother dies, young Griselda is sent to live with her  great-aunts in this mysterious house.  Aunt Grizzel and Aunt Tabitha are kindly old women but they don’t know much about how to treat children. Griselda is lonely and bored though she is fascinated by a cuckoo clock brought to the house by her long-dead German grandmother. The wise old servant, Dorcas, tells her that this clock is `the luck of the house’.  After damaging the clock in a fit of temper, Griselda feels horribly guilty. When she apologizes to the clock, Griselda discovers that the cuckoo which comes out to mark the hours is not a mechanical bird but a `fairyfied cuckoo’.

The sharp-tempered cuckoo tells Griselda that she has `a great deal to learn’ but promises to consider her request for someone to play with. The next night, the cuckoo takes her inside his clock and then off to `Mandarin Land’ which seems to exist within an old Chinese cabinet. In the nights that follow, the cuckoo shows Griselda scenes from her grandmother’s life, teaches her how to fly with the aid of a feather cloak, and takes her on adventures to strange and beautiful lands. Yet the cuckoo’s greatest gift to Griselda is a new friend in the ordinary world…

Some literary critics are rather sniffy about Mrs Molesworth. One complained that `her choice of words is limited and unimaginative’ but I think that Mrs Molesworth’s plain and pacy style is what makes it possible for modern children to enjoy her books. She doesn’t go in for ornate language, complicated sentence structures or lengthy descriptions and she often addresses her readers directly in chatty manner.  When Griselda is taken to the loveliest of gardens in Butterfly-Land, Mrs Molesworth claims that she’s unable to describe it all – `I must leave a good deal to your fancy’. She seems to have seen her stories as collaborations between herself and her imaginative young readers.  Mrs Molesworth can describe things with precision and a dash of charm when a bit of detail is necessary, as in the case of the paths through Butterfly-Land – `the flowers growing along their sides were not all “mixty-maxty,” but one shade after another in regular order – from the palest blush pink to the very deepest damask crimson; then, again, from the soft greenish-blue of the small grass forget-me-not to the rich warm tinge of the brilliant cornflower.’

Mrs Molesworth’s books have attracted some surprising admirers, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and  Algernon Swinburne (you may have come across the latter as a character in Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne trilogy). Swinburne pointed out that Mrs Molesworth had a remarkable gift for conveying how children think and feel. `The Cuckoo Clock’ certainly gives me the impression that she remembered very vividly what it was like to be a child, especially an unhappy one. Griselda is no soppy shrinking violet, she’s a feisty little girl because her `childhood among the troop of noisy brothers had taught her one lesson – she was afraid of nothing.’ Nor is she in the least angelic. She sometimes sulks or loses her temper or gives in to self-pity.

Mrs Molesworth apparently believed that the purpose of fairy tales was to teach children to be good. There is nothing sneaky about the moral lessons in her own tales. The fairy-cuckoo is forthright in his criticisms of Griselda and clear in his instructions for improvement but you will probably be pleased to hear that Griselda puts up a spirited fight against becoming good. She asks the cuckoo to desist from his annoying habit of telling her that she has `much to learn’ and when Dorcas compares Griselda to her saintly grandmother, she responds that, `no one would like to be told they were like their grandmother. It makes me feel as if my face must be all screwy up and wrinkly.’ The cuckoo’s insistence that children should follow the orders they are given won’t appeal to modern children, but as Griselda is rebelling against being given a proper education in subjects such as Maths and Astronomy, adults may think that the cuckoo has a point.

When I first read `The Cuckoo Clock’ as a child, I envied Griselda for her magical adventures as she danced with an Emperor or wore a dress made from living butterflies. Re-reading this novel as an adult, it seems a tougher and more poignant book than I remembered. Griselda has lost her mother and been separated from her father and brothers, but this is treated as nothing exceptional. Along with happy visions, the cuckoo chooses to show Griselda the funeral of her grandmother, who died at the age of eighteen after giving birth to Griselda’s father. Such deaths were common at this period and Mrs Molesworth didn’t flinch from writing about them in her children’s books. When Griselda finds a new purpose in life by helping to look after a younger child, it rings true. This is a story about growing up and moving on, which means that Griselda no longer needs a magical helper. The ending of `The Cuckoo Clock’ is bittersweet. If you’re willing to run the risk of becoming a better person, why not give this quaint novel a try? Until next week…