The Cuckoo Clock

The Cuckoo Clock

by Mrs. Molesworth

first published in 1877

edition I read: London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1967, with illustrations by E.H. Shepard

165 pp.

Age: 5 +

Interests: magic, birds, manners, fantasy, butterflies

illustration by Walter Crane

A little girl named Griselda is sent to stay with two maiden aunts, and is soon lonely for a playmate. The cuckoo from the parlour clock volunteers for the job, and by night transports her to various magical places. He entertains Griselda but also helps her learn how to be more obedient and control her temper.

This was written back in the day when the sole intent of writing literature for children was to improve their character and persuade them to behave! The cuckoo in this story is surprisingly stern and nagging, but the story is still filled with great imaginative moments – a ball in the land of nodding mandarins, a dress made of live butterflies, and a visit to a desolate landscape on the far side of the moon.

illustration by E.H. Shepard

Another highlight of the book is a realistic and flawed heroine. Griselda is prone to very human temper tantrums, fits of crankiness, boredom and caprice. Her passions, actions, and judgements are representative of the way children really think and behave. Books from this era are too often populated by unbelievably virtuous children and have an unbendingly stern Christian message, however Mrs. Molesworth is one of the better writers of her generation and this is surprisingly readable after all these years (135!).

A little historical perspective:

Victorian literary fairy tales tend to have a conservative moral and political bias. Under their charm and invention is usually an improving lesson: adults know best; good, obedient, patient, and self-effacing little boys and girls are rewarded by the fairies, and naughty assertive ones are punished. In the most widely read British authors of the period – Frances Browne, Mrs. Craik, Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and even the greatest of them all, George MacDonald – the usual manner is that of a kind lady or gentleman delivering a delightfully disguised sermon. Only Lewis Carroll’s Alice books completely avoid this didactic tone.¹

illustration by E.H. Shepard

The Cuckoo Clock was published 12 years after Alice’s adventures, and while it is continents away from that book’s anarchic nonsense, there are a few similarities between the two works’ rather petulant and headstrong heroines.

Mrs. Molesworth also unfortunately gave rise to a late Victorian literary character commonly known as the ‘Beautiful Child’ with her book Carrots (1876), most noteworthy now for its cloying baby-talk. The ‘Beautiful Child’ cult, which historian Humphrey Carpenter calls “crude and sugary”, reached its apex ten years later with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, which “swept across America like a plague”², sentencing countless little boys on both continents (A.A. Milne among them) to long hair in ringlets, and velvet jackets with lace collars.

illustration by E.H. Shepard

Mrs. Molesworth’s Carrots was written just a year before The Cuckoo Clock, but thankfully in the latter work the preciousness is confined to the baby-talk of the younger boy Griselda meets near the end of the book. The Cuckoo Clock remains the most enduring (and reprinted) of Mrs. Molesworth’s books for children.

In conclusion: As moralistic as the tone is in this book, it is still a rather enchanting read with many imaginative magical episodes. Will be more appealing to younger children, who might not be as repelled by the cuckoo’s rather humourless and condescending speeches as older children might be.

(This title for purchase at

(Read this book online at Project Gutenberg.)

¹ Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-ups. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990) p. 99

² Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 108

illustration by Maria L. Kirk

illustration by E.H. Shepard

illustration by E.H. Shepard

illustration by E.H. Shepard

illustration by Charles Edmund Brock


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kvetchmom
    Nov 28, 2011 @ 17:29:12

    I am totally charmed by the artwork!


    • Kim
      Nov 29, 2011 @ 05:01:27

      I know, isn’t it fantastic! The old classic books are particularly great because you have so many great artists doing the various editions over the years. E.H. Shepard also did the Winnie the Pooh books, I love his black and white work.


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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