- Mrs. Molesworth:Victorian Visionary
Mary Louisa Moles worth (1842-1921) wrote 101 books. Of this enormous output, much of it for children, only a few titles remain in print. Certain aspects of Mrs. Molesworth's children's books may indeed strike modern readers as quaint and old-fashioned, but as Roger Lancelyn Green has remarked, she also "wrote books for children which children loved dearly then and can enjoy now (104). Green adds that at least a dozen of Mrs. Molesworth's juveniles could be read with enthusiasm by today's children. Critics of children's literature will also find riches to explore, as Mrs. Molesworth contributed significantly to the molding and making of the traditions of British children's literature, influencing subsequent writers from E. Nesbit to C. S. Lewis.
One of the first important critics to recognize the excellence of her writings for the young was Swinburne, who wrote in The Nineteenth Century Review in 1884:
It seems to me not at all easier to draw a life-like child than to draw a life-like man or woman. Shakespeare and Webster were the only two men of their age who could do it with perfect delicacy and success . . . . Our own age is more fortunate, on this single score at least, having a larger and far nobler proportion of women writers: among whom, since the death of George Eliot, there is none left whose touch is so exquisite and masterly, whose love is so thoroughly according to knowledge, whose bright and sweet invention is so fruitful, so truthful, or so delightful as Mrs. Molesworth's. Any chapter of The Cuckoo Clock or the enchanting Adventures of Herr Baby is worth a shoal of the very best novels dealing with the characters and fortunes of mere adults,(in Green, 112)
In her long and prolific writing career, Mrs. Molesworth produced realistic books for the youngest reader, books of verse, realistic novels for older girls, visionary fantasies and dream-visions, and some of the very finest Victorian literary fairy tales. Her use of the dream-vision and her exploration of female identity make her fantasies some of the more rewarding of her books to explore in depth.
In many of these, the author employs the dream vision as a central structural feature. Critics have often discussed the importance of this ancient literary form in the children's stories of Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald, who seem to have appropriated it primarily from the English [End Page 105] Romantic poets. Mrs. Molesworth's fantasies owe much to George MacDonald, but she was also strongly influenced by Chaucer's medieval dream-vision, The Parlement of Foules. She probably read such dream-visions as The Pearl as well, but Chaucer's poetry was certainly known to her. The chief interest, in any case, concerns the uses to which Mrs. Molesworth puts the conventions of the dream-vision for her own creative purposes. Of particular interest is the powerful extent to which she enlists the dream vision to subvert the constraints of the moral tale so prevalent in Victorian children's literature.
One of the finest examples of this side of her work is Christmas-Tree Land (1884). In this story, two children, Maia and Rollo, are sent to live in the castle residence of their wealthy kinswoman, Lady Venelda. The children's mother has died and their father, who is forced to be away from home, is unable to take care of them. Rollo and Maia are to begin a new life as the story begins.
The sleeping-waking motif is introduced in the first chapter. On awakening for the first time in her new home, Maia looks out over the hills and forests and declares it "a land of Christmas trees" (2). Rollo for his part feels a deep emotional bond with the landscape of his ancestors.
The children's cousin, Lady Venelda, is a stern and elderly person. She insists on discipline, punctuality, obedience, and a strict regimen of lessons for the children. If the children are well-behaved, however, they are rewarded with long rambling walks in the nearby forest.
For Lady Venelda, the pine forests were...