ONE REASON DR. SEUSS worked in so many fields was that he never felt that any of them were respectable enough. This went for children's books too. In the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine review of The King's Stilts, he told his college friend Alexander Laing that it was his "annual brat-book." With two such "brat-books" under his belt, Geisel wanted to expand his purview. So when Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf lured him away from Vanguard in 1939, it was under the condition that Geisel be allowed to do an "adult" book first. That book was The Seven Lady Godivas.
The Lady Godiva legend, of dubious origin, states that in 1037, the Earl of Coventry's wife rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry in protest against her husband's unfair taxes. In a later sanitized version of the story, the citizens of Coventry were ordered to remain in their shuttered houses during the ride, but one man looked out, Peeping Tom. He was then struck blind.
Geisel had turned to Godiva as subject twice before in cartoons in the late 1920s (see left). And there had been other instances of nudity in his art, such as his take on the rape of the Sabine women, which hung in the Dartmouth Club for many years. That legend also had bearing on The Seven Lady Godivas as a parody by Stephen Vincent Benét entitled The Sobbin Women appeared in Argosy in 1938 with many of the same story elements that Geisel would use in his own book, namely seven women barricaded in a building refusing to marry their seven suitors. The similarity between the two stories along with the use of a sexually charged legend certainly suggests that Geisel was aware of the story of the previous year. (The Benét later served as the inspiration for the 1954 musical film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In another link between the stories, Geisel flew to New York in 1954 to discuss a musical based on The Seven Lady Godivas, which never came to fruition.) So how did one Lady Godiva become seven?
"HISTORY HAS TREATED NO NAME so shabbily as it has the name Godiva...There was not one; there were Seven Lady Godivas, and their nakedness actually was not a thing of shame. So far as Peeping Tom is concerned, he never really peeped. 'Peeping' was merely the old family name, and Tom and his six brothers bore it with pride."These Lady Godivas are naturists who didn't waste time on "frivol and froth." On May 15, 1066 their father set out for the Battle of Hastings on horseback. ("True, Lord Godiva had been experimenting with these animals for years. But the horse remained a mystery...") Before he is out of the castle gate, Lord Godiva's horse throws him, and "the old warrior was dead" on impact. His seven daughters take a pledge that day:
"'I swear,' swore each, ' that I shall not wed until I have brought to the light of the world some new and worthy Horse Truth, of benefit to man.'"
All seven sisters (Clemintina, Dorcas J., Arabella, Mitzi, Lulu, Gussie, and Hedwig) were engaged to the seven Peeping brothers (Tom, Dick, Harry, Jack, Drexel, Sylvester, and Frelinghuysen), so this was no idle oath. The sisters lock themselves in the castle, Hedwig, the eldest, makes a book with seven pages in which each sister is to inscribe her Horse Truth, and the scientific study begins.
The first Horse Truth ("Don't ever look a gift horse in the mouth!" Discovered after Teenie Godiva gets her nose bit off by the "mare Uncle Ethelbert gave us last Christmas.) is found that very first day. The final Horse Truth ("Don't lock the barn door after the horse has been stolen." Discovered after just that has happened.) isn't found until forty years later, New Year's Day 1106. In between, the girls work through their stable, subjecting horses to carriages above, below, before, and aft ("Don't put the cart before the horse."), driving them to drink ("fermented mash") through nervous exhaustion (the cure for which would be water, but "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."), powering treadmill equipped boats (sea horses, of course, although "Never change horses in the middle of the stream."), kicking (that leads to the discovery of a lost diamond stickpin; "Horseshoes are lucky."), and getting painted ("That is a horse of another color!").
As each Horse Truth is discovered, the contributor leaves the castle to wed her Peeping, all of whom also stayed true during all of those years.
OF THE FIRST PRINTING'S TEN THOUSAND COPIES, only about twenty-five hundred were sold. The Seven Lady Godivas became the first (and there was only one other) of Dr. Seuss's books to go out of print. Geisel later said, "I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd." The lack of eroticism does not account for the books failure, however. The truth is that it's just not very good, a collection of bad puns that goes on too long. Geisel convinced Random House to reissue the book in 1987 "by multitudinous demand," which was "an outright lie, which I wrote myself," but the book was once again remaindered and fell back out of print.
GEISEL DID EMPLOY the Dr. Seuss name on one last book for adults (or "obsolete children" as the cover says). You're Only Old Once! is a book that grew out of Geisel's declining health and many doctor visits towards the end of his life. Waiting in waiting rooms, Geisel began to sketch "what I thought was going to happen to me for the next hour and a half." The resultant book is a light verse take on the frustration with the modern medical system. It was released on Geisel's 82nd birthday, the last book written and drawn entirely by Dr. Seuss. It is still in print.
ALL OF THE QUOTES and information in this post came from The Seuss, The Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss by Charles D. Cohen, Dr Seuss: American Icon by Philip Nel, and Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography by Judith and Neil Morgan.
Good Night, Wendy is an occasional series on adult works by children author's. For previous entries, see here.All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.