We all know and love Dr. Seuss’s brilliant children’s books, texts, and artworks that taught us that love and compassion for every living soul can be magical; after all, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” His work has helped countless children navigate the confusion and excitement of growing up, made our futures seem full of endless fantasy: “Kid, you’ll move mountains!”
But guess what? He also wrote a book for adults, and although it didn’t do well commercially, it’s just as full of excitement and wit as his children’s books. The book is entitled The Seven Lady Godivas; it’s a subversive, pretty empowering retelling of the Lady Godiva legend.
The ancient legend supposedly took place about a thousand years ago when the wife of the Earl of Coventry hopped on a horse naked and rode through the village to protest the Earl’s high taxes. Her husband ordered all the people of Coventry to lock themselves indoors and not to peek at the woman on horseback. One man, named Tom, dared to peer at the naked female form; as a result, he went blind.
In many ways, the legend is about a perversion of the female body; the naked woman and the man who peers at her are shamed. Even punished. Seuss’s book redeems both the Lady and Tom; in it, the bodies are beautiful symbols of both love and intelligence. Seuss begins, “Today Lady Godiva brings to mind a shameful picture– a big blond nude trotting around the town on a horse […] there is always a Peeping Tom, an illicit snooper with questionable intentions.”
As the satire continues, we realize that this is not at all the way things actually went down in the ancient town of Coventry. Seuss explains that there was not only one Lady Godiva but seven Lady Godivas (a sacred number in the Judeo-Christian religion) and “their nakedness actually was not a thing of shame.” The women’s nudity, like Adam and Eve’s before their expulsion from Eden, is a thing of innocence and beauty. And each one, drawn carefully by the artist, is uniquely stunning; each is of a different age and shape.
The “Peeping Tom” was never the pervy dude we thought he was, either. Tom and his six brothers are each beloved by the Ladies Godiva; their family name just happens to be “Peeping.”
In Seuss’s world, the story of Lady Godiva is one of seven brilliant who understand the dangers of horses. Much like the women themselves, the horses are untamed, free spirits. When the Earl (in this version, the Ladies’ father) attempts to ride a horse out of their palace, he gets thrown and dies. The women promise not to marry the men they love until they discover the “worthy Horse Truth” and can share it with the village and their beloveds.
The climax of the book centers around the women’s studies of horses; each goes out, inspects a horse, and comes back with a piece of wisdom on the powerful, majestic creatures. The women are the heroes of Seuss’s adult narrative; their tale is “a beautiful story of love, honor, and scientific achievement.”
Maybe the world wasn’t ready for this work of genius when it came out, but I disagree with the lovely Brain Pickings article that introduced me to these women in its assertion that the book is “so-bad-it’s-good” or an “enduring reassurance that even genius can falter.” It is a truly an elegant and subversive work of satire that is both “sex-positive” and “body-positive” almost a century before those terms were coined. Way to go, Dr. Seuss!
Thanks to Brain Pickings and to my best friend, Rae Greenhoe
Images via Brain Pickings