The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The New Mother" (1882)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The New Mother” was written by Lucy Clifford and first appeared in Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise (1882). Clifford (1853-1929) was a popular and even controversial author and playwright. She wrote bestsellers, was the hostess of a London literary salon, and was friends with George Eliot, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and many other writers. She is forgotten today, although “The New Mother” is occasionally anthologized. “The New Mother” is one of the strangest and most frightening children’s stories ever written.

Blue-Eyes and Turkey are two children living with their mother in a cottage next to a large, dark forest. Their father is at sea, and the cottage is a lonely one; the village is over a mile away, and the three are alone much of the time. Blue-Eyes (named after her father’s eyes) and Turkey (named after his favorite bird) are good children and love their mother so, and they love their neat little cottage. They are always happy when their mother sends them to the village to get the mail, since there might be a letter from their father, and when she tells them not to look at any strangers or talk to them, they obey her. But one day Blue-Eyes and Turkey see a strange girl sitting by the side of the road. She is strange-looking and shabby and seems to be unhappy, and because both of the children are kind-hearted they ask if she is alright. Her answers are abrupt, and they are tempted to leave, but she says she lives in the village, and they continue talking to her. They are intrigued by the thing she is sitting on, which she calls a “peardrum.” The peardrum looks like a guitar, although it has three strings and only two pegs, and it makes music by turning a handle hidden on its side. The strangest thing about the peardrum is that it has a small box attached to one side, and the girl says that she has two little people inside the box, a man dressed as a peasant and a woman dressed to match, and when she puts them on the lid of the box and plays the peardrum they both dance wonderfully. The children beg to see the two little people, but the girl refuses, since Blue-Eyes and Turkey are good little children, and she only shows the little man and woman to naughty children. Blue-Eyes and Turkey promise to be naughty, but the girl does not believe them, and walks away.

The two children tell each other that if only they had been naughty, they would have seen the two little people, and when they go home they tell their mother that they want to be naughty. But they won’t tell her why, and she tells them that if they are naughty, "“Then,” said the mother sadly–and while she spoke her eyes filled with tears, and a sob almost choked her–“then,” she said, “I should have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and wooden tail.”"1 

This makes the children cry, since they love their mother and do not want her to go. But they are obsessed with the little man and little woman. When they tell the strange, shabby girl about their mother’s threat, the girl casually dismisses it and tells them that they couldn’t be really naughty if they tried. That afternoon Blue-Eyes and Turkey make a mess in the cottage, breaking their mugs and throwing their bread and butter on the floor and not doing what their mother tells them to do. But their mother only tells them to go upstairs until they are good. They tell her what the shabby girl told them, that there is no mother with a wooden tail and glass eyes. Their mother grows angry at this, and sends them off to bed. The next day the shabby girl tells them that they haven’t been naughty enough, and that they have to do the thing well and skillfully. So the two children go home and break everything they can put their hands on. Their mother cries and tells them that if they are not good on the next day, she will leave and the new mother will come. Neither child believes her, but both are sorry that she is sad. The next day the shabby girl tells both that they need to do more: throw the cottage’s looking-glass out the window and stand the baby on its head. They go home and are quite naughty. Their mother cries and dresses herself in her best gown and sun-bonnet, and dresses the baby in its best Sunday clothes, and sadly kisses her children goodbye. Blue-Eyes and Turkey promise that they will only be naughty for a little while longer, but the mother leaves the cottage. The two children run after her, but she walks into the fields and vanishes from sight.

Blue-Eyes and Turkey are sorry, but they hear strange music and run to the strange girl, who is dancing through the fields. She tells them that they did their naughty things the wrong way and continues dancing. She tells them that the little man and woman are far away, and that their mother is never coming back. The strange girl dances off into the distance, and the last thing Blue-Eyes and Turkey hear from her before she vanishes is “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long, and her spectacles are left behind; but she is coming, she is coming–coming–coming.”2 The children return to the cottage, which is a mess, and they bolt the door, because they do not want to meet the new mother. They clean the cottage, anticipating that their mother will return. But that night they hear something heavy being dragged through the ground outside the cottage, and then a loud and terrible knocking on the door. They peek through the window and see a figure in a black satin bonnet at the door, and they know it is their new mother. They try to hold the door against her, but hear her mutter, “I must break open the door with my tail,”3 and the door splinters at the first blow. The children flee into the forest, and there they live, for many months, never returning back to the cottage, where the new mother has taken up residence.

Victorian children’s literature has more than its share of disturbing moments and characters, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Heinrich Hoffmann’s Pleasant Stories and Funny Pictures to L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” novels (see: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). But few nineteenth-century stories retain their ability to trouble and even unnerve modern adult readers so well as “The New Mother.” A plot summary only describes the outlines of why the story frightens--it does not capture the spirit of what is so disturbing about “The New Mother.” Children will undoubtedly be scared by the departure of the beloved mother and her replacement by the nebulous but frightening “new mother.” Adults will recognize the dangers to the children from the beginning. The shabby girl’s Wrongness and role as a tempter is almost immediately, both in her words and behavior. Several of her comments (“It requires a great deal of skill, especially to be naughty well;”4 “The pleasure of goodness centers in itself; the pleasure of naughtiness are many and varied”5) will be far more meaningful to adults than children. And the imagery, when the children’s mother disappears and then when the shabby girl dances across the fields and fades into the distance, are best appreciated by adults. The atmosphere of “The New Mother” is ominous and the terror, for adults, comes from an identification with the children, who are truly innocent, and their slow descent into a hell for the young.

“The New Mother” is so rich that it can sustain multiple interpretations. “‘The New Mother’ charts a problem-filled passage to subjectivity, amid the pervasive lures of consumerism and the marketplace;”6 the peardrum “has the appeal of an unattainable toy, which, in this instance, is freighted with sexual connotations.”

Heavy with didacticism and highly moralistic, Clifford’s story finds its pace within a select group of writings by Victorian women that includes works by Christina Rossetti and Anne Thackeray Ritchie. These are often disturbing texts, sometimes possessed of an almost malevolent undercurrent that refuses to grant a comforting closure to the young reader. They are...a counterbalance to the “obsessive nostalgia” of Carroll, MacDonald and Barrie, but their subversiveness is disguised by an outward conformity to stereotypically didactic female literary style.8 

“Heather Schell's ‘Clifford's “The New Mother” and the Menace of the Lower Classes” ([Turn-of-the-Century Women 5 (1990): 43-47]), for instance, reads the tale as a reactionary fable about "’fallen’ women and their threat to contaminate the middle class. Although interesting, her argument focuses on one character and tends to reduce the overall impact of the story to simple ideology.”9 

Clifford's story goes beyond universal emotions and terrors by being deliberately set within a small village during the closing days of a fair. Clifford employs the fair as a symbol of corruption and disorder that destroys the home through the course of the story. Like John Bunyan's Vanity Fair, carnival, according to Clifford, represents the worldly, the antidomestic, and the material. Most importantly, carnival unleashes powerful forces of subversion, symbolized in the story by a strange, seductive young girl and the terrifying new mother, which are containable only by the story's didactic narrative frame. "The New Mother" demonstrates that the carnivalesque, which Bakhtinians praise as liberating, in fact has a sinister side. The story nicely illustrates the tradition that Mikhail Bakhtin calls the Romantic grotesque, which transforms the "joyfil and triumphant hilarity" of medieval and Renaissance carnival into a vision of "an alien world" in which all is "meaningless, dubious and hostile."10 

And so on.

Finally, Lucy Clifford was friends with Henry James, “and it is possible that ‘The New Mother’ was one of the sources of The Turn of the Screw.”11 

Recommended Edition

Print: David Sandner and Jacob Weisman, eds., The Treasury of the Fantastic: Romanticism to Early Twentieth Century Literature. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2013.

Online: https://archive.org/details/anyhowstoriesmor00clifiala/page/n7

 

1 Lucy Clifford, “The New Mother,” in Anyhow Stories: Moral and Otherwise (London: Macmillan and Co, 1882), 23.

2 Clifford, “New Mother,” 39.

3 Clifford, “New Mother,” 45.

4 Clifford, “The New Mother,” 18.

5 Clifford, “The New Mother,” 26.

6 Patricia Demers, “Toys and Terror: Lucy Clifford’s Anyhow Stories,” in Dennis Denisoff and Claudia Nelson, eds., The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 189.

7 Demers, “Toys and Terror,” 195.

8 Elizabeth Thiel, The Fantasy of Family: Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature and the Myth of the Domestic Ideal (Abingdon: Routedge, 2008), 78.

9 Naomi J. Wood, “‘The New Mother’: Domestic Inversions, Terror, and Children’s Literature,” The Journal of Narrative Technique 26, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 293.

10 Anna Krugovoy Silver, “The Didactic Carnivalesque in Lucy Lane Clifford’s ‘The New Mother,’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 40, no. 4 (Autumn, 2000): 727-728.

11 Alison Lurie, Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Literature from Cinderella to Harry Potter (New York: Penguin, 2003), 110.