© 2014 Christina Ford, Ryerson University
Cautionary Tales for Children is 79 pages of light verse each decorated with drawings, written by Hilaire Belloc and illustrated by Basil Blackwood (B. T. B.). This book was published in London by Duckworth and Co. This particular publication of Cautionary Tales for Children was published during the final year of WWI in 1918, although it was republished many times both before and after this date. The First World War (1914-1918) is of great significance to Hilaire Belloc’s writing, he produced numerous works both during the war and on the subject of the war.
The war had an even larger influence in Belloc’s personal life with the loss of many of his loved ones. Blackwood, the illustrator of Cautionary Tales for Children and long-time friend of Belloc, died in the war in 1917 (De Fontenoy 6). A year later in 1918 Belloc’s son Louis went missing during a bombing and was eventually assumed to be dead, his body having never been found (Speaight 372). It is likely that these two deaths, and the impact of the war in general, had an influence on the decision to republish Cautionary Tales for Children in 1918. The work that Belloc produced during the war were all historically and sociologically focused (Speaight 541) and Cautionary Tales certainly contains a much more lighthearted and humorous tone.
Cautionary Tales for Children contains the stories of 11 different children whose actions produce extreme effects, usually of the most undesirable kind. Four of Belloc’s characters perish as a result of their mischievous and nasty behavior. Matilda and Rebecca become ironic victims of their own actions while the other two unfortunate characters come to their respective ends under more peculiar circumstances. Jim abandons his nurse and is dramatically eaten by a lion while Henry King who ingests string dies because it has knotted up inside him. But not all of the characters in Cautionary Tales for Children suffer such random and disproportionate punishments. Godolphin Horne is unhappily employed as a boot black after he is passed over for the position of court page because of his poor manners and lack of respect. Another character, Hildebrand, is similarly less drastically punished when he is frightened by a car and simply brought to reason by his father.
Although a few of the stories include morals they are so nonsensical that they can’t be taken seriously. One of these morals appears at the end of Franklyn Hyde’s story and tells readers that when playing children should avoid mud but sand is okay. The illustration underneath this is of a staunchy looking man in a suit kicking at the rear end of a boy dripping with mud who appears to be either jumping to avoid the man’s foot against his behind or being lifted off the ground by a kick to his rump. The boy’s expression is not one of pain but rather he seems to be scowling and appears more as a guilty trouble-maker than an innocent child. The man looks ridiculous he appears to either be raising one eyebrow in an awkward way or unevenly bug-eyed. The illustrations add to the wit of the humorously absurd events in the stories, George’s story is a particularly good example of this. George’s head looks like a sideways pear at the end of the story after he is disfigured by a dangerous toy that also results in the death of many people, the dangerous toy in question being a balloon he was given for good behavior.
PRODUCTION AND RECEPTION
Hilaire Belloc and Basil Blackwood first met while both attending Oxford and remained life-long friends afterwards (Speaight 80). Cautionary Tales for Children was one of four books collaborated on by Belloc and Blackwood, the first of which was The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts in 1896 (Speaight 112). Belloc’s friendship with Blackwood extended much further than a formal author-illustrator relationship. The two spent time together in Scandinavia (Speaight 91) and Blackwood was also a godfather to Belloc’s daughter Eleanor (Speaight 119).
The original publication of Cautionary Tales for Children was in 1907 and was well received, it drew large audiences all over England who came to hear the Cautionary Tales sung by Clara Butt (Speaight 270). There seemed to be a lack of information recorded on the reception of this book’s 1918 publication, presumably because, among others, literary critics, newspapers, and journalists were focused on the coverage and recording of the war in its final year. Reviews of the book from both pre- (original publication date in 1907) and post-war (1936) publications help provide an idea of how the book was received by the public. Both reviews praise Belloc’s wit and his clever satire of stories intended to moralize and properly socialize children.
The review of the pre-war, original publication of Cautionary Tales for Children expresses particular appreciation for Blackwood’s illustrations and claims they are the best to accompany nonsense verse since Edward Lear (The Academy 249). Blackwood’s illustrations in the book make even the fatal stories laughable, they are quite the opposite of graphic and often picture ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters in an equally ridiculous fashion. The 1936 review of the post-war publication of Cautionary Tales for Children also compares the book to the work of Edward Lear in its parody of traditional English morals (Barnes 303). It is possible that during the war the readership may have interpreted the book more seriously but the reviews suggest that both before and after the war Cautionary Tales for Children was read purely as a satire or parody.
ANALYSIS IN RELATION TO THEME VIA CRITICAL APPROACH
Cautionary Tales for Children was written and originally published prior to the First World War during the Edwardian years in Britain. A great portion of Edwardian writing is focused around childhood and Cautionary Tales‘ original publication date and content are consistent with this trend (Gavin 166). The child in Edwardian fiction challenged the Victorian trend to present childhood as a solitary stage with adulthood as the escape and presented the child as separate and unadulterated by adults, the adult world, and its problems (Gavin 166). This Edwardian attitude toward children and childhood is reflected in the content of Cautionary Tales and is referred to in the Introductory poem to the book. The poem is a response to the question of whether or not the stories it tells are true and lets the reader know that they are not. In this introduction Belloc discredits the kind of moral precepts that British success has been attributed to especially during times of war (Edwards 312). It is important to note that this book was originally released during a period that glorified childhood in its literature and held it sacred and untarnished by the external, adult world rather than during the dark years of the war.
Another important consideration is Belloc’s poetry overall as only a fraction of the work he produced, he also wrote essays, novels, histories, criticisms, and more. Belloc wrote on many heavy subjects, including the war, but his poetry is typically of a much lighter tone (Mendell 4) and this is evident in the verses of Cautionary Tales. Despite the fact that Belloc wrote extensively during the war Cautionary Tales for Children was not written about the war, nor was it written during the war. However Belloc’s light verse is not free from his tendency to reveal his views, not only was Belloc a devout Catholic and at one time in his life a politician he was also known for his strong opinions and stronger inclination to defend them. Belloc’s humorous verse incorporates wit and irony but remains consistent with his values and beliefs in the things they show appreciation for and the things they satirize (Hamilton 45-46). Blackwood`s illustrations increase this effect by complementing Belloc’s ridiculously grotesque satirical tales perfectly (Mendell 12).
The publishing company that originally published Cautionary Tales for Children in 1907 was not the same publishing company that published this particular book in 1918. Duckworth and Co., known for their publication of several novels from well-known modernist writers, particularly Virginia Woolf (Beare), was responsible for the 1918 publication of Cautionary Tales. Duckworth and Co. also published several other works of Belloc’s, two of which Blackwood also worked on (Hamilton 64). The publisher had at very least an appreciation for, if not a friendship with, the author and illustrator`s work and it is likely that Blackwood’s death would have had some impact on the publisher as it did on the author Belloc.
Cautionary Tales for Children is a brilliantly witty satire which seems to always have been interpreted similarly as such by the receiving public. The book’s contents are humorous and were composed during the childhood-revering Edwardian period during which war was not a concern to children and it had little if any effect at all on their socialization experience. It is also possible that the book’s publication in 1918 was intended to satirize the socialization of a new generation of British youth directly affected by war. In this sense Cautionary Tales for Children`s 1918 publication could have presented a sentimental and nostalgic return to fond memories of a less complicated and brighter version of childhood that was lost forever with the war. Belloc’s poetry has been distinct in its contents from his other work implying in its lighter tone and more playful themes that it is meant to be read for entertainment rather than for a lesson or moral. The book’s release during the final year of the war was likely influenced by the fond remembrance of not only Belloc’s son Louis but also Blackwood who were both tragically lost to the war. With the heavy losses brought by the war and an era that was gone forever Cautionary Tales for Children provided a literary return to earlier, pre-war childhood tales.
Belloc, Hilaire. Cautionary Tales For Children. London: Duckworth, 1918. Print.
Beare, Geraldine. “Duckworth, Gerald L’Étang (1870-1937), publisher”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford UP, 2004. Web. 27 February 2014. –link to entry.
Barnes, Walter. “Contemporary Poetry for Children.” The Elementary English Review 13.8 (1936): 298–304. Print.
“Cautionary Tails for Children.” The Academy (1907): 249–249. Web. 10 March 2014. –link to review.
Edwards, Owen Dudley. British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007. Print.
Fontenoy, Marquise De. “Lord Basil Blackwood Died in Battle, It Seems Certain.” Washington Post 28 July 1917: 6. Web. 10 March 2014. –link to article.
Gavin, Adrienne E. “Unadulterated Childhood: The Child in Edwardian Fiction”. The Child in British Literature: Literary Constructions of Childhood, Medieval to Contemporary. Ed. Gavin, Adrienne E. New York: Palgrave, 2012. 166-181. Print.
Hamilton, Robert. Hilaire Belloc: An Introduction to His Spirit and Work. London: Douglas, 1945. Print.
Mandell, C. Creighton, and Edward Shanks. Hilaire Belloc The Man and His Work. London: Methuen, 1916. Web. 24 February 2014. –link to book.
Speaight, Robert. The Life Of Hilaire Belloc. London: Farrar, 1957. Print.