A review of
Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children
by Glen Emil
Cautionary Tales for Children
By Hilaire Belloc
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
Harcourt, $16.00, 71pp
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September 11, 2002 Special to Goreyography
Edward Gorey's first major posthumous publication is like a newly forged work, with freshness and originality. This is the third publication of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, a collection of seven moral tales, which first appeared in London in 1907. Belloc originally collaborated with Oxford classmate Basil Blackwood for the illustrations, which endured several reprints in the UK and America. Harcourt's reprint of Cautionary Tales for Children contains sixty-one new illustrations (at least new within the last dozen years) enfolding the 95-year old verse, and the result is very satisfying.
Gorey created the illustrations several years ago, but chose not publish them. After his death, Andreas Brown (proprietor of Gotham Book Mart and executor for Gorey's estate) and his staff rediscovered this body of work and began the process of publishing them in their entirety. This particular collaboration postmortem not only adds dimension to Belloc's lessons in propriety, it may nudge Blackwood's illustrations aside to create a new definitive edition (unlike the self-proclaimed definitive edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula by Barnes & Noble in 1996, which recycled illustrations from Gorey's Dracula, A Toy Theatre, to no great effect). After seeing this well-rendered work, I can only imagine the treasures in Gorey's archives yet to be revealed, as time goes by.
Gorey's Victorian style is a delightful fit for Belloc's verse. In fact, those already familiar with Belloc's Cautionary Tales or Cautionary Verses series may very well conclude that they were strong influences for Gorey's The Beastly Baby, The Gashlycrumb Tines, The Epipleptic Bicycle, The Wuggly Ump and others. Certainly, many of the verses in Cautionary Tales feel like they could have been written by Gorey:
"Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion",
"Henry King, Who chewed on bits of String, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies",
"Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death",
"Franklin Hyde, Who caroused in the Dirt, and was corrected by his Uncle",
"Godolphin Horne, Who was cursed with the Sin of Pride, and Became a Boot-Black",
"Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father", and
"Hildebrand, Who was frightened by a Passing Motor, and was brought to Reason".
Their two styles appear similar at first, but Gorey's own stories seem to drift about on the borders of the supernatural. Belloc's children quickly pay the price for their moral defects, as if the gates to purgatory are always nearby; Gorey's kids often seem more innocent, with misfortune meted out by mysterious forces (or wild animals) at work. This is the added dimension, I feel, which the new illustrations bring to Belloc's stories.
In keeping with the style his later works, Gorey's characters do not betray much surprise or dismay upon their faces, but by their mimed, balletic extensions. Instead of his normal vignettes drawn within an outlined frame, Gorey allowed details to travel beyond the illustration frame. It seems to provide a greater connection to the verse. Blackwood's Victorian pen and ink characters were thickly accented, in all their stentorian glory. Gorey's Victorian players live in a stark world: the children naïve, resolute, and devoid of active speech. Many of the illustrations simply set the stage - leading up to the big moment, which is then played out in the imagination. It is Edward Gorey's delightful magic, at work.
Had these tales been destined for the comic stage or theater, Gorey's illustrations would provide an excellent storyboard. And in fact, Gorey's private theatre troupe on The Cape, Lé Théâtricule Stoïque, staged a puppet theatre version by the same name several years ago. I only wish I had the privilege to see it.