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The Victorian Auntly Narrative Voice and Mrs. Molesworth's Cuckoo Clock

From: Children's Literature
Volume 17, 1989
pp. 1-24 | 10.1353/chl.0.0577

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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...