Two innocent children in late-Victorian England encounter a strange, attractive young woman who may be either a devil or a damned soul. She tempts them to disobedience, promising to reveal ambiguously sexual secrets, gradually leads them further and further into evil, and then disappears abruptly. This is not Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, but a tale for children written sixteen years earlier by James’s dear friend Lucy Clifford. Her story, “The New Mother,” originally published in Anyhow Stories (1882), is one of the oddest and psychologically most disturbing in Victorian juvenile fiction, which is full of such tales. (Even the works of the best-known writers like Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald contain characters and happenings that might haunt an adult reader, let alone a child.)
Mrs. Clifford, who today is virtually unknown, was in her own time a successful novelist and dramatist, the author of several best sellers, and the hostess of a London literary salon. Besides Henry James, she was the close friend of George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, James Russell Lowell, and many other writers. Born Lucy Lane in Barbados, she came to London to study art and in 1875 married William Kingdon Clifford, a gifted young professor of mathematics and the friend of Thomas Huxley, George Henry Lewes, and Leslie Stephen. But after only four years Clifford died, leaving his wife with two young daughters and very little money. George Eliot helped her to get a Civil List pension, which she began to supplement almost at once by writing: romantic novels, verse, plays, and short stories.
Anyhow Stories, one of the first of Mrs. Clifford’s works to appear, contains tales she had evidently told to her own daughters; in “The New Mother” the protagonists are even called by her children’s nicknames, “Turkey” and “Blue-Eyes.” The book is uneven: some of the stories and verses are conventionally sentimental and moral—pale copies of the work of currently popular juvenile authors like Mrs. Molesworth; others are startlingly original.
Especially interesting to a modern reader is the psychological sophistication of the best of these tales. Many of Mrs. Clifford’s characters have the mechanical sense of the world and precarious relation to reality which we now associate with schizophrenia. In “The Imitation Fish,” which suggests the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, a tin toy fish lives in dread “lest its falseness should be betrayed” to the child whom it loves. Instead, something even worse happens: the child, believing the fish real, throws it away into the sea. In “Wooden Tony—An Anyhow Story” (which did not appear in the original edition, but was included in a later volume of adult stories) the hero is an evidently autistic child who is, or believes himself to be, turning into wood. And in the poem “The Paper Ship” the narrator sails to a land where the clock is always at half-past nine (an hour when guests in Victorian London might gather in the drawing room after …