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The Cuckoo Clock

The Cuckoo Clock

Next in my challenge to read the first 200 Puffin Books is The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth. After The Microbe Man, which was a little heavy going, I decided to opt for something a little lighter and fluffier. This one is PS3, only the third book to appear in the Puffin Story Book series. It was published in Puffin in 1941, but was first published way before that in 1877 by Macmillan.

puffin challenge
The cuckoo clock

The Gist

At the start of the story, Griselda arrives to live with her two spinster aunts, Miss Grizzel and Miss Tabitha. We're not sure how old she is (but I'd guess around seven), or why she's there (she isn't an orphan). The aunts are kind and mean well but they're a bit stuffy. They're big on manners and propriety, and making sure that Griselda gets a good education. In true Victorian style, they're not big on fun.

Griselda does her best to toe the line, but she's BORED. Her lessons are dull, the house is quiet and ordered. She has no playmates or toys. Her only amusement is the hourly appearance of the cuckoo in the clock, poor girl.

It's little wonder then, that she gets frustrated. When her Aunt Grizzel suggests that she should follow the example of the cuckoo in his "faithful discharge of duty", she gets angry and throws a book at the clock. She's instantly regretful, thinking she has broken it when the cuckoo fails to appear for the first time in donkey's years. However, the clock isn't broken, it's only that the cuckoo is in a strop (because he's magic, obvs.) Once Griselda apologises, he takes pity on her and takes her off on some magical adventures, if only to give the poor girl something to do.


So many books of this era have heroines who are rather priggish or saccharine sweet. They always behave and see sunshine and roses in everything. Griselda is much more down to earth and normal. She wants to be good and to please her aunts, but she's only young, and naturally gets bored and frustrated. She isn't naughty, but doesn't always want to mind her manners or do as she's told. She longs for adventure and beauty and finds it a struggle to be surrounded by dullness and routine.

There is one scene where Griselda longs to go and play outside, but when her aunts finally allow it, she finds she can't actually have any real fun:

"Play!" repeated Griselda indignantly, as she turned to follow the old servant. "Do you call walking up and down the terrace 'play,' Dorcas? I mustn't loiter even to pick a flower, if there were any, for fear of catching cold, and I mustn't run for fear of overheating myself. I declare, Dorcas, I  don't have some play soon, or something to amuse me, I think I'll run away."

I found myself feeling quite sorry for her. The story must have really appealed to all those Victorian children who found themselves in similar situations and who probably felt much like our heroine. No wonder it was such a success.


The cuckoo clock

Magic and adventure, of sorts

I did find the magical elements of the story a little underwhelming. Griselda travels with the cuckoo to the land of the Mandarins, and she visits butterfly land, flies up and down the chimney, and goes the far side of the moon. The descriptions are great, and Griselda's obvious joy at seeing such unusual things is endearing. However, there was something slightly lacking in these adventures. To me they just didn't seem terribly interesting or exciting. I guess I've just been spoiled by all the magicial literature we've had in the 146 years since the book was written. So many fictional children have been on far more inventive and fantastical adventures since 1877, which leaves The Cuckoo Clock feeling a bit tame. No doubt at the time though, it would have really captured young imaginations.


I also found the Cuckoo slightly disappointing. He's a rather stuffy character, always scolding and correcting Griselda, just like her aunts or her teacher. I wanted Cuckoo to be a bit more of an escape for Griselda - a playmate that she could have fun with, rather than learn from. I think Griselda is sometimes of the same opinion:

"But I didn't come up here to learn," said Griselda; "I can do that down there;" and she nodded her head in the direction of the ante-room table. "I want to play."

I think the Cuckoo is written this way because he is supposed to represent diligence and obedience; and he is there to inspire these qualities in Griselda. There is an element of Victorian values creeping in at all times - a message to readers to be good little children who work hard and obey their parents. However, it isn't too preachy, because Mrs Molesworth does give Griselda an opportunity to rebel a bit against authority. She certainly speaks to the Cuckoo in a tone I'm guessing she wouldn't dare use with her aunts.


The importance of pictures


These two images are actually by the same illustrator - Charles Edmund Brock. The black and white is a very bad reproduction from the Puffin edition (apologies), and I believe the coloured one is from the 1930 Macmillan edition. The latter is the kind of picture you want in a children's book - especially one that wants to convey colour and excitement. Griselda's adventures take her away from her boredom and routine and into another world - a lot like Dorothy opening the door from black and white to technicolour in The Wizard of Oz.

Charles Edmund Brock - Feasting her eyes on the lovely things before her illustration from The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth published by Macmillan in 1930 - (Meister

I know the Puffin edition had to be printed in black and white, and that the war effort meant that the quality of ink and paper really weren't the best. But the drawings are just so drab, they almost make the story more boring, instead of more interesting. It's such a shame, as I do think that better illustrations would have helped things along a lot.


All a dream?

You have to wonder, did the magical adventures actually happen, or were they all in Griselda's imagination? At the end of every adventure, she either wakes up in her bed, or is returned to where she started from. So has she just been dreaming? Does she imagine the cuckoo's character, based on the adults that surround her? Are the adventures just conjured up out of boredom and a longing to be free of her restrictions? And does the Cuckoo stop visiting Griselda when he knows she has found a playmate? Or is it that Griselda just doesn't need to imagine him anymore?

It's quite a clever book, in that both explanations work equally well. Either she is a lucky little girl who gets the rare opportunity to experience magic, and you come away feeling a bit jealous. Or she's rather a sorry figure who is so desperately unhappy she's forced to conjure up her own fun. Which leaves you feeling a bit sad.

Whichever way the author intended it, it has fired up young imaginations for 146 years, which is pretty good going really.


Slightly lacking in the 'magical' department, but enjoyable on the whole.


The Cuckoo Clock is easy to get hold of secondhand. Copies range from cheap, recent paperbacks, to lovely vintage hardbacks.

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