“The New Mother” and Coraline

Lucy Clifford’s “The New Mother” (1882) is—I’m sure unintentionally—one of the weirdest and most unpleasant stories I’ve ever encountered. When I linked to it, and a bunch of other horror stories, a few weeks ago, I was intending to do a post on things unsaid in horror stories—the effect of not describing something. However, I soon realised that a) that’s an impossibly vast topic; b) it might be better to try to address it when I have my hands on the forthcoming Best of Gene Wolfe; c) the Clifford was interesting enough to merit a post on its own. Spoilers for the Clifford follow, and also for Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. (And, parenthetically, there’s an interesting debate on spoiler statutes of limitations, at John Scalzi’s.)

A brief synopsis first, if you’ve not read the story—though it’s short enough that it’ll scarcely take a quarter of an hour of your time. Two children, called Blue-Eyes and the Turkey, live with their mother in a house on the edge of the woods. Their father is away overseas, and so their poor dutiful mother has to raise them on her own. On an errand for their mother, the two children notice an urchin girl sitting by the side of the road. The girl tempts them with the promise of gifts, but says that in order to earn these they must be naughty—they must upset their mother and break the crockery. When they return home and explain to their mother how they wish to be naughty, she says that they mustn’t do this, or she’ll have to go away and leave them in the care of a “new mother” with glass eyes and a wooden tail. When, later, they encounter the urchin girl again, she tells them that of course the new mother is a fiction: “Of course really there are no mothers with glass eyes and wooden tails; they would be much too expensive to make.” So the children do indeed return home and break the crockery and throw food on the floor; despite repeated warnings from their mother, they persist in this. So the mother leaves with tears in her eyes; the new mother arrives, although she’s only partly glimpsed. She breaks down the door of their little house with her wooden tail, and the children flee in terror. They are reduced to living alone in the woods, while occasionally catching a glint of the new mother’s glass eye through the window of their old home.

The obvious thing to say is that it’s a product of its time—even the word “naughty”, repeated throughout the story, has a prim, Victorian feel to it. And it’s hugely manipulative, of course: as a cautionary story for children, it plays on the most basic fears of abandonment by parents and uses them to extort the good behaviour it wants. The vastly disproportionate punishment for “naughtiness” is another way in which the story puts a thumb on the scales, and so is assigning the “realistic” point of view—that the New Mother doesn’t exist—to the tempter, the urchin, who’s eventually proved wrong. And further: the New Mother is terrifying because she’s inexplicable. (Why, for instance, does she have or need a wooden tail?) The author could choose to tell us something about her backstory, but again—it fits with the child’s-eye viewpoint Clifford chooses—she instead decides to tell us that the world is vaster and more baffling than children can comprehend. Her last turn of the knife is to reveal that the village urchin does indeed know about the New Mother, and to hint that she may have induced the children to their naughtiness with this outcome in mind.

“The New Mother” is an acknowledged influence on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline though Gaiman, as you’d expect, presents both a subtler and a more palatable tale. I’ve not yet seen the movie (it’s not out here in the UK till May), but one of the things I most liked about the book was that it took similar horrors as Clifford but wrote against the grain of her story. Coraline falls through into another world where soulless substitute parents (“the other mother”) want to make her like them by sewing buttons to her eyes. (Like the wooden tail, an inexplicable grafting of the inorganic to the organic.) But Coraline is smart enough to be able to figure out the rules of this world, to gather some agency for herself and so escape – a possibility alien to Blue-Eyes and the Turkey. Unlike “The New Mother”, Coraline also works as a tale for adults: I read the fake parents as dire warnings to parents who might be reading the book. The fake parents seem initially to be open and caring, but Coraline can see through them, can distinguish fake love and real love. If you’re a parent (it says), make sure you’re for real in how you treat your children, because they can tell the difference, and it matters. In short, that’s the difference between the Clifford and the Gaiman. In the Clifford, the only decision that gets made is the childrens’ choosing to be naughty. Everything else is just playing out of consequences: the mother has no choice but to leave and to send in the New Mother—whereas Coraline says that there are always choices to be made, by everyone.

9 thoughts on ““The New Mother” and Coraline

  • March 10, 2009 at 4:12 am
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    I first came across “The New Mother” through a reference in a still-useful academic study called Victorian Fantasy in 1979, and then tracked down the story in some anthology or another; because of its powerful imagery, it’s never quite faded into invisibility. Lucy Clifford was not only married to a mathematician who supposedly anticipated Einstein’s notion of curved space, but ran a salon which at times attracted everyone from Henry James to Virginia Woolf.

    So even though her story partakes of the Evangelical cautionary tale already popular in Victorian children’s fiction, I think it touches upon deeper anxieties as well, and I suspect this is what Neil picked up on. (I also remember a good conversation with him about this story about the time he was working on Coraline. Prickett finds connections between this and later works by Kipling and M.R. James, and I think one of the things Neil recognizes, in both Coraline and The Graveyard Book, is that if you take the stapled-on morals away from those stories, you’ve got some pretty compelling psychological fantasy.

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  • March 10, 2009 at 5:26 pm
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    "The New Mother" wasn't one of the stories I read when doing my dissertation research, but I was struck by how genuinely disturbing the work of M.R. James, Oliver Onions, Hodgson, and other Victorian/Edwardian supernaturalists can be. One observation (and after 30+ years I can't recall who originally made it) is that these stories rise about the same time that modern psychology and psychiatry are also being invented, and that as Freud & Co. enter the general consciousness, the function of the classic ghost/creepy story (to express and address various anxieties that are otherwise not directly addressable) declines. I recall that Lovecraft has a handle on this in Supernatural Horror in Literature, though his expression of the matter is typically florid and metaphysical.

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  • March 10, 2009 at 6:12 pm
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    Thanks, both, for great comments. I’m a) sniffling with a cold, and b) trying to finish another post, so I’ll try to do a proper response later.

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  • March 10, 2009 at 11:48 pm
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    It’s also worth pointing you to THE PEAR DRUM in Neil Phillips’ Penguin Book of English Folktales. It’s The New Mother after it entered the oral tradition, and is, kind of, a much better story — or at least, it’s now the version I remember, when I talk to people about it.

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  • March 12, 2009 at 2:41 pm
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    In rigid obedience to my own predilections, I’ve always read “The New Mother” as a pure horror story, a story false until the truth is told. So I do think it can be read by adults, who might well wish that it were simply a children’s story, a story that ends with the world redeemed, or at least intact (ie the true mother comes back). But of course it’s not — the rind is peeled off, and the world we see inside has the wooden tail, the abyssal incomprehensibleness, of the world of 1882 turning slowly to the end.
    (Belief in god, as well as adherence to children, is part of the orange rind.)

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  • March 16, 2009 at 12:35 pm
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    Neil: I have a circa-11-year-old ur-memory of “The Pear Drum” (from a falling-apart paperback from the local library – not sure if it was the Phillips) but haven’t read it since. I’ll seek it out.

    John: I think I see the reading you’re pointing to, but I see the Clifford text as having a different emphasis. The story sets up an opposition between order (the real mother and her baby) vs chaos (naughtiness, entailing the new mother and – as you say – incomprehensibility). Clifford wants the reader to remember the second in order to preserve the first. In that sense, it’s different from a more “adult” story like Heart of Darkness because it says that there is a backstop, a way of preserving a local habitation of order. I think the crucial thing here is the unspeaking baby who the mother takes with her – she’s taking this act of abandonment in order to preserve the future as embodied by the baby; if she didn’t, it would seem just like selfishness. The unspoken end of the story is the other half of the opposition – the mother and baby living in peace and tranquility.

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  • March 17, 2009 at 11:24 am
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    Graham: I’ll do my best to skewer that mute baby with eyes blank and pitiless as the sun, but not till I reread the story, in which case I’ll probably agree with you entirely.

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  • May 10, 2009 at 1:31 pm
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    I read this in the Oxford collection after my friend suggested this and said of its similarities to Coraline.

    Much, much scarier than Coraline. At least, Coraline is optimistic and has a happy ending. The New Mother lets no happy ray of sunshine. I remember the nights I spent cowering in my bed imagining the New Mother…

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  • June 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm
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    Picking up this thread quite a bit later… I'm a great admirer of Lucy Clifford, and have written a play adaptation of The New Mother, which was produced in Montreal (Youtheatre) and at the 2007 International Showcase of Performing Arts for Young People in Cleveland. Audiences were totally gripped by it, but many teachers and parents (surprise, surprise) found it too scary. Neil, I would love to give you a copy of the script when you come to Toronto for the Luminato Festival next week. It's also posted on my website:

    http://www.kathleenmcdonnell.com

    -Kathleen McDonnell

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