In 1939, before becoming the children author legend, Dr. Seuss published The Seven Lady Godivas, a book about seven naked women that decide to go bare to show who they really are.
Every once in a while, a new Dr. Seuss movie adaptation hits the screen, not only because of their visual appeal (which is a lot when it comes to Dr. Seuss), but also because his stories always have important and essential life lessons worth learning. This year, we’re getting a whole new animated version of the classic Grinch, and, in case you live under a rock, that sassy green creature is invading the streets with ads and tons of cute merch. But beyond the excitement for another Grinch story, whenever one of these classic characters is revived, it’s worth talking about the man behind the stories. This time, as you got from the title, we’re going to talk about a rare adult book Dr. Seuss published before becoming the star children's literature author we love. Published in 1939, The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History's Barest Family, is a very odd book with a lot of resonance today.
Before his massive success, Dr. Seuss had created some comic strips and short children's stories published by Vanguard. By 1939, he was offered a contract with Random House, which he accepted on one condition: that they let him publish an adult book first. They agreed, albeit reluctantly. The book, then, is an interpretation or a version of the folk thirteenth-century English legend of Lady Godiva, Earl Coventry’s wife, who decided to ride naked on horseback to protest her husband’s taxation policies. Of course, Dr. Seuss' retelling is a bit different from the original legend, since according to him, “today Lady Godiva brings to mind a shameful picture. [...] The author feels that the time has come to speak.”
This version tells the story of not one but seven Godiva sisters, who, after their father’s death, vow never to marry and to be true to themselves (see why this is so relevant today?). As he explains in the prologue, “there was not one; there were Seven Lady Godivas, and their nakedness actually was not a thing of shame.” Now, it’s not all seriousness when it comes to Dr. Seuss, and regardless of his attempt to create an adult book, there’s also a bit of the nonsense we all love. Lord Godiva announces to his seven daughters, who “had brains” and “wasted less time upon frivol and froth,” that he’s going to the Battle of Hastings on horseback. As the author remarks, at the time, horses hadn’t been properly domesticated and were still considered wild animals, which made the sisters worry about her father’s decision.
The moment Lord Godiva gets on the horse, it goes crazy and makes the Lord fall, killing him immediately. The sorrow and grief make the sisters determined to avoid any other death like that and vow to study horses to make them safe for the world. From here, the book becomes a sort of general knowledge guide about horses, accompanied with each of the sister’s attempts to understand these creatures. I told you, there’s a hint of that absurdity we all love. To do so, these ladies decide to present themselves before horses just as they are with no disguise at all. In that way, their nakedness is their way of saying we’re all animals after all.
Sadly, though the story is kind of cute and funny, and the illustrations are just what we would expect from Dr. Seuss, the book was a complete flop. Of the 10,000 copies printed, only 2,500 were sold. As Carolyn See explained in her 1974 article for Esquire, the book came out at a moment when America “was feeling too blue to be cheered up by pictures of silly ladies.” In addition, the US was still deep in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and the book was a bit expensive for those day’s standards. Besides all this, later on, Dr. Seuss reflected on the failure of his book, claiming that he had really tried to create sexy and appealing female illustrations, but that they ended up looking kind of strange.
However, his spirit wasn't broken. In fact, the failure of the book made him come up with what would become one of his mottos, that “adults are obsolete children.” He, then, decided to write for children who, in his opinion, were always more imaginative and appreciative. And of course, it worked perfectly for him. Actually, throughout his career as a writer he only published two adult books, The Seven Lady Godivas, and You’re Only Old Once! in 1986, a verse book dealing with the everyday nuisance of aging, which he wrote while he was battling oral cancer. If you ever have a chance to read it, do it: it's a great tale that reflects his very unique artistic style. Moreover, it has many deep and emotional moments communicated with his characteristic sense of humor. I mean, it’s even subtitled “A Book for Obsolete Children.”
All in all, although he’s definitely the best of the best when it comes to children's literature, his first adult book includes the critical and forward-thinking points of view about life that made him such a great writer. As I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that he was talking about body acceptance and going against female body shaming is something that resonates today and that we should all learn from.
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