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A Tail of Terror

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 a literary dinner party) and all the people are really dolls:

What shall we do to be real?” they cried, “What shall we do to be real?
We none of us feel, though we look so nice, And talk of the vague ideal.”

In “The New Mother” the frightening thing is that inanimate matter has become real. This tale draws on the primitive fear of objects which survives just below the surface in most of us—the suspicion that our new tennis racket or our old Datsun is secretly hostile, that the politician speaking on television is really a plastic replica.

The “strange wild-looking girl” whom the children in “The New Mother” find sitting by the wayside claims that she lives in their village; but they have never seen her there before. She is sitting on a musical instrument called a “peardrum,” which, she tells them, she will play only for naughty children. This peardrum, in the accompanying illustration, is shaped very like a womb; so it is not surprising to hear that when the girl plays a little man and woman come out and dance together. “The little woman has heard a secret—she tells it while she dances.”

Naturally the children long to see this dance and learn this secret, so they go home and try hard to be naughty. Their mother, distressed, tells them that if they do not stop she will have to leave them and go far away, and “send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” But the children keep on trying to be naughty, encouraged by the girl with the peardrum, who remarks to them that “the pleasure of goodness centres in itself; the pleasures of naughtiness are many and varied.”

Day after day the children become naughtier—but never quite naughty enough for the strange girl. They break furniture and crockery, throw the clock on the floor, and put out the fire. Finally they behave so badly that their mother leaves them—but even then they do not get their wish. The strange girl dances past their cottage accompanied by an old man playing in a peculiar way on a flute and two dogs waltzing on their hind legs. “Oh, stop!” the children cry, “and show us the little man and woman now.”

But the strange girl passes on, calling back to them, “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long,…but she is coming—coming—coming.” The procession disappears down the road, becoming “a dark misty object.” The children return to their disordered and deserted cottage to wait for night, and for the arrival of the New Mother:

Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking at the door….

Turkey and Blue-Eyes bolt the door, but the new mother breaks it open with her tail. The children escape into the cold forest, and at the end of the story are still living miserably there, longing to go home and see their real mother again.

And still the new mother stays in the little cottage, but the windows are closed and the doors are shut, and no one knows what the inside looks like. Now and then, when the darkness has fallen and the night is still, hand in hand Blue-Eyes and the Turkey creep up near to the home in which they once were so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother’s glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of her wooden tail as she drags it along the floor.

The figure of the New Mother, and the elemental terror aroused by her coming, seem to belong to a more primitive world than that of the usual English folk tale. They suggest the carved wooden images and superstitions of the voodoo cult, which Mrs. Clifford may have seen or heard of during her childhood in Barbados and recalled, perhaps not even consciously, many years later.

Like so many other women writers of her time, Mrs. Clifford’s principal motive was to keep the pot boiling, and much of what she produced was the standard Victorian and Edwardian stew of romance, melodrama, high-mindedness, and high life, spiced with just enough passion to titillate but not actually shock the reader. But even in her worst books there are passages of good writing, and her best novel, Aunt Anne, well deserves the praise it received from her friend Henry James, who often addressed Mrs. Clifford in his letters as “Aunt Lucy.”

Aunt Anne (1892) is a psychological study of the sort James might well have admired. The eponymous heroine is a sixtyish spinster who is both sentimental and calculating, weak and determined. The story of how, under cover of family affection, she moves in on her nephew Walter and his wife, forcing them to support her extravagances and alter their life style to suit hers, is comedy almost worthy of Jane Austen. But the remainder of the novel has darker undertones. Aunt Anne gradually becomes involved with a young fortune hunter, the sinister and pathetic Alfred Wimple:

To look at he was not prepossessing; he had a pinky complexion, pale reddish hair and small round dark eyes with light lashes and weak lids…. He was fairly gentleman-like, but only fairly so, and he did not look very agreeable…. The oddest thing about him was that with all his unprepossessing appearance he had a certain air of sentiment.

Mrs. Clifford’s account of this relationship, and of the deceptions practiced on each other, themselves, and their friends and relations by Anne and Wimple, is Jamesian in its subtlety and elaboration.

It would be interesting to know how much of this novel was written in deliberate or unconscious imitation of Henry James. Certainly Aunt Anne has something in common with Miss Tina in The Aspern Papers (1889), also “a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman” who falls in love with a much younger man. And it would be equally interesting to know whether James, when he wrote his famous ghost story, remembered his friend Lucy Clifford’s strange and haunting tales for children.

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