Published in 1939 by Random House
Review of Dr. Seuss’s first “Adult book” : “[The Seven Lady Godivas] is crawling with nudes but has not a single prurient scene or moment.”
– Alexander Laing
The book opens with a forward from the author. It explains that most people think of Lady Godiva as a “blonde nude trotting around the town on a horse. In the background of this picture, there is always Peeping Tom, an illicit snooper with questionable intentions,” but Dr. Seuss feels it is time to set history straight. He explains that there were Seven Lady Godiva’s and their nakedness was not a shameful thing. Also, Peeping wasn’t really peeping, it’s just a family name. He describes what is to come as “a beautiful story of love, honor and scientific achievement.”
The setting is in Coventry in 1066 at Lord Godiva castle. Lord Godiva studied horses before they were broken in by the common man. He sets off to war on horseback to the amazement of his seven daughters. He is quickly killed when throw off his horse, Nathan. The Godiva sisters swear an oath to not indulge in love until they have each come up with a Horse Truth to honor their father’s work. This is a difficult task because they are each engaged to a Peeping brother, all of whom wait patiently for their betrothed to find her Horse Truth.
Each Horse Truth has a specific sister that is engaged to a specific Peeping. They are divided by banners with their names on it.
- Discovery: Too fat to ride a horse she wanders the barns and stumbles upon a horse yawning so big that he looks as if he’s inviting inspection. Turns out it was a mare that their Uncle Ethelbert gave them last Christmas. Next day she goes to her sisters with her nose bitten off.
- Horse Truth: “Don’t ever look a gift horse in the mouth!”
- Horse: No name given
- Marries: Peeping Tom.
Dorcas J. Godiva
- Discovery: Demands they must do research (which she defines as “the concentrated examination and correlation of the multitudinous phenomena co-existent in some specific field of activity.”) Decides to study Horse-Drawn Vehicular Transportation. Builds several variations of the horse drawn cart, including one behind the horse, one above the horse, one under the horse and finally one in front of the horse. Her horse gets so upset by this new cart that they crash “in the greatest horse-and-tree conflict that Coventry has ever known.”
- Horse Truth: “Don’t put the cart before the horse.”
- Horse: Thidwick (this name will come up later in the book Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose)
- Marries: Peeping Dick
- Discovery: Overworks her horse so much that he becomes a drunken bum. When she attempts to force him to drink water to sober up the horse states, “I’ll die before I touch it.” And he does.
- Horse Truth: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
- Horse: Brutus
- Marries: Peeping Harry
- Discovery: A true sailors sweetheart she decides to study “equestrian aquatics” She makes a horse powered boat in which the horse runs on a treadmill to power the paddles, but her horse gets so tired that she needed two horses so they can switch half way through the trip. When her horses attempt to switch everything goes wrong and her ship sinks. She floats down river and out to the sea yelling her horse truth.
- Horse Truth: “Never change horses in the middle of the stream.”
- Horses: Dapples and Clover
- Marries: Peeping Jack (he’s a sailor and he picks her up at sea)
- Discovery: Kicked by her horse into a pile of hay, leaving her with two big horse shoe prints on each cheek. In the hay she finds a diamond stick pin that her lover lost when he was “a-trysting on a previous occasion”
- Horse Truth: “Horse shoes are lucky”
- Horse: No name given
- Marries: Peeping Drexel
- Discovery: Desperate to be with her lover decides to escape instead of coming up with a Horse Truth. When she tries to climb out her turret window her eldest sister catches her and forces her to climb back in bed. Gussie then runs into the barn with a bundle of stuff. After a lot of ruckus noise she burst out of the barn on a horse painted “dizzy blue-green” and rides out of Castle Godiva forever.
- Horse Truth: “That is a horse of another color!”
- Horse: No name given
- Marries: Peeping Sylvester.
- Discovery: The eldest and most determined to her father’s cause is left alone to try and find her Horse Truth. It is now 1105 and 39 years have passed since the first Godiva sister was wed. She has nursed her horse back to health, all the other horses are dead and she is counting on this one to help her with her Horse Truth. That night her horse is stolen. Rather than burst into tears Hedwig comes up with her Horse Truth as she locks the barn.
- Horse Truth: “Don’t lock the barn door after the horse has been stolen.”
- Horse: Parsifel
- Marries: Peeping Frelinghuysen.
Here is the Family Tree of the 7 Godiva sisters, with their family contributions to history.
I just love this book. As an adult fan of Dr. Seuss it is fun to get to read one of his books that isn’t aimed at children, but still has that ridiculous fun quality to it; full of silliness and imagination. There isn’t anything too “adult” about this book actually. It’s not crude or even really suggestive. The women are nude but they are like Barbie dolls, no nipples or detail, just curves and goofy looking curves at that. The subject matter isn’t that “adult” either, but you do have to be familiar enough with all the terms that are “Horse Truths” in the book to get the humor of it and you have to understand what “Peeping Tom” has come to mean to be able to enjoy the Peeping brothers. It’s like watching a cartoon from your childhood and seeing all the funny things they threw in just for the parents that have to sit through annoying children topics all the time.
Seuss was also able to play with language more, because he could use an adult vocabulary. One of my favorite terms is “equestrian aquatics.” It is just so fun to say and so silly to think about, but a child wouldn’t understand it or be able to say it probably. I also love the over complicated definition of research as “the concentrated examination and correlation of the multitudinous phenomena co-existent in some specific field of activity.” That is full of words that children and many adults wouldn’t understand. I myself had to look up what he meant by “a-trysting” which has a delightfully suggestive definition “an agreement as between lovers to meet.” Meaning that Peeping Drexel lost his diamond pin while they were making out in the hay.
It’s just such a fun book. Another aspect I enjoy is the many animals looking in on most of the action. Dr. Seuss carries on this tradition in many of his other books, but this is the first one where it is really apparent. There is a cat and a bird that show up on several pages and, at one point a dog, as well as a rabbit at the very end; all of them taking in the scene as we are reading along.
This is the first book that Dr. Seuss published through Random House. Random House was fairly small and new at the time and they were willing to give him a lot of freedom and to sell a flop just to get him to sign on. They went on to become a huge publishing company and used The Cat in the Hat as a logo for many of their children’s books (I talk about this further in the Seuss Fact section.) Dr. Seuss informed Random House that he wanted to do an adult book with naked ladies and they said “Okay!” It was a huge flop. Dr. Seuss explained that he just wanted to
“escape the monotony of writing about nothing but ‘men folks and children, dragons or fish.'” So he tried to, “draw the sexiest-looking woman I could, and they came out just ridiculous.”
And that they are, but I think he gave each of them a distinct look and shape which I appreciate.
This is the first book that has a single female character in it. There is no mother, sister or female parade goer in And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street and there isn’t a single lady at the court in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. So our introduction to a Seussian female is seven naked sisters.
Seuss convinced Random House to re-issue it in 1987 with the tag line “Re-Issued by Multitudinous Demand” which he just made up to make it sound more popular. On the inside sleeve it also says,
“Originally published in 1939, Dr. Seuss’s first book for adults is a collector’s item. It sells for as much as $500 in the rare book market. So you can save up to $490.05 with this pretty-close-to-the-real-thing edition.”
Other than the equastrain aquatics which I’ve already quoted twice my favorite line is:
“‘Oh no you don’t!’ shouted Arabella. And she dragged the
poor creature straight out to the pump.
‘Pump stuff!’ shuddered Brutus. ‘I’ll die before I touch it.’
I like this quote because to me it is the height of the silliness. It is the only time any of the horses speak and the way it is broken up makes the line “He did.” Hilarious. I love that the way he writes has comedic timing.
This is just a great full page image. Lots of detail and Seussian shape, especially in the window at the top and the tower in the background.
Here is an excellent blog called The Atlantic that shows off all the fantastic illustrations. Just click the link and check out the great images.
Thanks for reading,
Jack St. Rebor