We finally took on Mrs Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock (1877) this month, having put it on our Books We Must Get Round To list at our very first meeting two years ago. It was the book that established Mrs Molesworth (1839-1921) as a leading children's author, and a prolific one too - the Enid Blyton of her day, perhaps. By the time of her death in her early 80s she had produced over a hundred books, sometimes writing as many as seven in a year. Below is a picture of author Rosemary Sutcliff's own copy of The Cuckoo Clock, sitting on the shelf in her library.
Mary Louisa Molesworth was born in 1839 in Rotterdam where her Scottish father, Charles Stewart, worked as a shipping agent. The growing family soon returned to England and settled in Manchester, eventually moving to Whalley Range (then a select middle class suburb on the outskirts of the city). As a teenager, Mary Louisa attended classes given by Reverend William Gaskell, husband of the famous industrial novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell. She also spent a year in Switzerland, studying French.
In 1861 Mary Louisa married well: to Captain Richard Molesworth, nephew of the 7th Viscount Molesworth. The couple lost two of their children in close succession in 1869, but five others survived into adulthood. Mrs Molesworth published her first novel in 1870, and her first children's book, Tell Me A Story, was published in 1875. The marriage was an unhappy one and ended in legal separation in 1879, by which time Mrs Molesworth was an established author. Her admirers included the poet Swinburne, who wrote: "Any chapter of The Cuckoo Clock is worth a shoal of the very best novels dealing with the characters and fortunes of mere adults."
In The Cuckoo Clock young Griselda is taken to stay with her very old maiden aunts who live with a very old servant in a very old house - reminiscent of Lucy Boston's The House at Green Knowe. We don't know why she's there, but she's lonely and bored and she's required to be good. There is something of Katy in What Katy Did about her. She strikes up a friendship with a magical cuckoo in a clock, who takes her on various gentle adventures. Eventually she makes friends with a real child: a boy called Philip, and the cuckoo tactfully flies back to his clock (which turns out to have been made by Griselda's grandfather).
Mrs Molesworth often wrote about lonely children finding friends with magical help. Her cuckoo is strict, sharp and quick to chastise. Using animals as bossy teachers and guides is a familiar technique amongst many of our favourite children's authors - C S Lewis adopted it in his Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), as did E Nesbit, whose Psammead (Five Children and It, 1902) was frequently acid-tongued, but Mrs Molesworth's overly-didactic and moralistic approach does become rather heavy-handed by contrast.
Overall, we felt that The Cuckoo Clock was an interesting historic piece, but insipid: Alice without Lewis Carroll's originality. There were some charming ideas (a nightdress decorated with real butterflies and scented drops of dew for refreshment, for example), but the story didn't make any great progress, the adventures were lacking in punch, and the author was at times frustratingly lazy ("This wonderful thing happened but I can't explain it"). It did bring to mind other more pleasurable books: the Mrs Pepperpot series (Alf Proysen, 1956 onwards) and The Faraway Tree series (Enid Blyton, 1939-1951) were both mentioned, as was The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911).
Maybe we'd enjoy one of Mrs Molesworth's many other books more (The Tapestry Room, 1879, perhaps, or The Carved Lions, 1895). As to her reputation as "the Jane Austen of the nursery": on this one reading it doesn't seem to be justified. The advantages of the e-book generation come to the fore here; no financial outlay is required to give more of her books a try as many are freely downloadable.
Our next meeting is on Wednesday 8 May 2013, when we will be talking about Alan Garner's 1967 Carnegie-winning fantasy, The Owl Service, named in 2007 as one of the top ten Carnegie-winners of all time.