Through the Eyes of a Child During 1918: Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children

Cautionary Tales for Children, by Hilaire Belloc

Fig. 1. Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales for Children, Children's Literature Archive.
Hilaire Belloc’s, Cautionary Tales for Children, Children’s Literature Archive.

There is an abundant amount of literary texts published during the 19th century that addresses society’s expectations of appropriate child behaviour. Many of these beliefs were gender specific, focusing on the expectancy of what constitutes as obedient behaviour for young boys and girls (Frost 27). However, in response to these advisory texts, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children satirizes this style of writing and the messages they tend to convey. As there have been three separately published editions at various time periods, this exhibit will particularly examine Duckworth and Company’s 1918 edition, published in London, England, with illustrations provided by Basil Temple Blackwood (B.T.B.).

In relevancy to the theme of war, Duckworth and Company had published Cautionary Tales for Children towards the closing of the First World War (1918) possibly to provide a form of post-war relief for children. The following research intends to explore Belloc’s purpose for parodying cautionary texts for children by comparing it to conventional Victorian advisory children’s literature. The reason for republication during the end of the First World War will be further researched to provide clarification and understanding as to how child audiences of 1918 would receive this particular edition. Additionally, the following exhibit will explore how the theme of war is conveyed through the partnership of Blackwood’s illustrations and Belloc’s verses.

Hilaire Belloc, 1870-1953

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Hilaire Belloc (1902), Testimony to Hilaire Belloc (London: Methuen and Co. LTD, 1956)

Hilaire Belloc was an English writer, who had written a wide selection of biographies, essays, novels, travel books, poetry and children’s books (Lingen). Less known for his serious literary pieces, Belloc was better known as a children’s writer whose main focus was to produce works that opposed the culture of didacticism (Lingen). The Herald reports that Belloc’s children’s books were so successful that upon the production of More Beasts for Worse Children, there had been “heavy advanced orders” of the text, causing an inability to produce enough supplies (26). Belloc’s work in children’s literature aimed to satirize early 19th century writers who focussed on instructional texts for appropriate child behaviour; he did this by creating extremes of unnaturally obedient children and mischievous children, who would consequently suffer an ill fate due to their disobedience (Lingen).

Content Topics, Verses & Illustrations

Many of the sketched illustrations provided by Blackwood congregate to a common theme of ‘consequential death;’ meaning, that due to specific circumstances, these characters experience a morbid fate. Provided with some insight from Ian Cooke, a Lead Curator for International and Political Studies at The British Library, this close examination will explore how a child from 1918 may interpret the text.

Contrast of Victorian Expectations of Child Behaviour
Matilda Death
Fig. 1. Matilda’s Ashes. Basil Temple Blackwood. Illus. in Cautionary Tale for Children.

When it came to the behaviour of children, obedience and dutifulness was a major expectation among parents and guardians (Frost 11). Ginger S. Frost explains that it was assumed by most parents that females were morally superior in comparison to males, which enabled them to escape their way out of trouble. It appears that Belloc had written “Matilda” in parody of this belief. Although the plots of each tale are extreme, the duality of word and image make it clear that  Belloc believed that female superiority is inadequate, and that anybody who commits wrongful decisions will be prosecuted (fig. 1). 

Given the context of the poem, Blackwood’s illustration emits a sense of morbidity; that these are the ashes of a young girl who had burned to death because she had lied on numerous occasions, and thus could not be trusted by the townspeople. Although the sketch does not include typical images of gore – as some of the other illustrations do – the context of the poem enhances the gruesomeness of the tale.

Straightforward Illustrations of Morbidity
Dalton Father
Fig. 2. D’Alton’s Father. Basil Temple Blackwood. Illus. in Cautionary Tales for Children.

Blackwood alternates from indirect sketches of morbidity to unequivocal illustrations of the macabre, which can most especially be seen in the poem “Gordolphin Horne.” By including a graphic illustration of a man who had been hung, Blackwood effectively reaches out to the child audience a form of execution (fig. 2). The sketch is rather detailed in comparison to the illustration of Matilda, possibly to enhance Belloc’s attempt to create a parody of conventional cautionary tales, as the inclusion of death is unfamiliar to Victorian children’s texts.

Duality of Illustration & Verses

The closing verses of “Jim” work effectively with the illustration to produce a skin-crawling feeling. Belloc’s narrator states,

Jim Lion Death
Fig. 3. Jim, Cautionary Tales for Children. Illus.

“Now just imagine how it feels / When first your toes and then your heels, / And then by gradual degrees, / Your shins and ankles, calves and knees, / Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.”

The partnership of Blackwood’s sketch and Belloc’s set of verses offers additional gruesomeness to the poem, as the duality of word and image work together to produce an enhanced experience of death and violence (fig. 3). Although it may be clear to a child of 1918 that this is a tale of exaggeration and humour, this particular image reinforces the idea that this text functions as a means of leisure.

Analysis of Images in Relation to War & Reception of a 1918 Child Reader

It is clear that beneath the purpose of providing a parody of Victorian cautionary tales, these images represent underlying themes of death and morbidity as well as a commentary to Victorian ideals. The way in which Belloc produces his poetic verses, he creates an upbeat tempo that eliminates the sorrowful ways in which these characters die. This strategy of pairing poems and playful illustrations of death helps lighten the morbid themes, thus amplifying the notion that this text intended to be humorous.

During the time of its republication in 1918, the closing of the First World War was also in motion. As many lives had been lost to the war, it is sound to predict that the republication of Belloc’s text was to demonstrate that the Victorian era is now over. As mentioned before, Belloc had written this text to satirize the Victorian ideals of child behaviour. Therefore, in republication of this text, clarifies an end to the old world.

Cautionary Tales for Children. Book.
Cautionary Tales for Children Published by Eveleigh Nash. Book.

Moreover, as child audiences were the target for the original text, the republication was no different. Blackwood’s original illustrations were created in 1907, in which Cooke states that prior to the war, the use of morbidity for children’s humour was common (The British Library). Yet Cooke states that during the war, children, “experienced the loss of parents and other adults in their families as fathers and uncles joining the armed forces…” (The British Library). Thus, children may have been desensitized to concepts of death, violence and morbidity. Therefore, with the republication of this title, children of 1918 may have been able to identify with these images, and interpret them with humour.

Production and Reception Within the Media

HB 191 NY Tribune copy
Fig. 4. Hilaire Belloc’s War Article “German’s Sacrifice Divisons in Desperate Haste to Break Through. The New York Tribune. 1918.

Eleven years after its first publication by Eveleigh Nash, Cautionary Tales for Children was republished by Duckworth and Company in 1918. Although there are no sufficient articles that clearly discuss the production and reception of this particular edition, there are few speculations that this edition was a commemoration for Belloc’s son who had died in 1918, as well as for Blackwood, who had died 1907. However, given the time of its republication, the First World War was concluding. It appears that many journalists and newspaper companies were focussed on the outcomes of the war rather than publishing reviews on literary works. Even during this time, most of Belloc’s published works appeared in newspapers, where he offered his conclusions on the war rather than the recent republication of his text (fig. 4).

Walter Barnes does, however, provide some reception on Belloc’s text New Cautionary Tales which follows closely to the structure and style of Cautionary Tales for Children. Calling it a “Child’s book of necessary nonsense,” Barnes claims that New Cautionary Tales was Belloc’s:

Latest offering to the gaiety of the children of the nations […] No one since Edward Lear surpasses Belloc in the palatable mixture of sense and puckishness, of high spirits of nonchalant handling of intractable rhymes and meters. These are cautionary rhymes, but often set spinning with the ‘reverse English’ on them so that the Jane and Ann Taylor-ish morals are neatly and completely laugh out of court (303).

Although Barnes discusses the more recent text, I found that his review can be interpreted as a ‘secondary reception’ as its formulation had been inspired and structured according to Cautionary Tales for Children. Both texts share the same style of presenting virtuous lessons through poetic verses, while also ridiculing those who enforce didacticism (Lingen). However, direct reception for Cautionary Tales for Children remains unfound possibly due to the excitement of war ending.

The decision for Duckworth and Company to republish Belloc’s work appears to be an attempt to comment on the closing of the First World War. Duckworth and Company may have felt that with the closing of the war brought forth a time children needed to escape from the traumatic events and be enlightened with moralistic, yet humorous literary material. Cautionary Tales for Children presents illustrations and ideas of morbidity that children of this time could identify with, without having sorrowful feelings.

Carol Fox claims that, “literature is one of the most powerful media for communicating to children what war is, what it is like, what it means and what its consequences are, thus the project is not so much an ideological or moral enterprise as a literary one” (126). Thus, in the decision to republish this text, Duckworth and Company may have felt that a fun, playful piece of literature may assist children in healing from the war, and possibly answering any questions they may have of it. Therefore, the text fulfills two purposes – to parody the cautionary texts that were commonly distributed, but to also function as a response to the effects of war, by providing education as well as leisure to children.  

Outcomes of Duckworth and Company’s 1918 Republication

The end of the First World War had marked the closing of a chapter within the United Kingdom. Thus, Duckworth and Company’s means for republication expresses society’s outgrowth for orthodoxly modes of cautionary texts for children. The societal movement away from these ideals demonstrate the aspiration for a new beginning; which would mean an end to the period of instructional texts for children. The republication of Cautionary Tales for Children assisted the transformation within the society and its environment.

Conclusion: How Would a Child of 1918 Receive This Text?

A common experience of the First World War entailed death of male figures within a typical family household in the United Kingdom. Thus, given the effects of the war, children of 1918 may have had a sense of identification with the morbid concepts. Albeit the exaggeration and hilarity in Belloc’s prose, it is due to children’s close experience with death, that they are able to recognize these concepts and interpret them in a comical way. Thus, as a result, the children become desensitized to these normally, alarming topics.

While a juvenile audience from the Victorian era may express unease, children of 1918 had most likely approached the text with an understanding of Belloc’s intent – to pair the customary form of didacticism with playful verses and illustrations that mocked this form. With its republication in 1918, the child reader may have used this text as an instrument of leisure as it illustratively presented ideas that they could identify from their life experiences of the war.

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Works Cited

Barnes, Walter. “Contemporary Poetry for Children (Concluded).” The Elementary English Review 13.8 (1936): 298-304. JSTOR. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Cooke, Ian. “Children’s Experiences and Propaganda.” The British Library. N. p., n.d. Web. 10
Mar. 2014.

Jebb, Eleanor Belloc and Reginald Jebb. Testimony to Hilaire Belloc. London: Methuen, 1956. Print

Fox, Carol. “What the Children’s Literature of War is Telling the Children.” Reading 33.3
(1999): 126-131. Wiley Online Library. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

Frost, Ginger Suzanne. Victorian Childhoods. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2009. Print.

Lingen, Marissa K. “Belloc, Hilaire.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature 2006.
Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

“Books and Their Makers” The Herald (Los Angeles [CA]) 30 Jan. 1898: 26. Chronicling
America: Historic American Newspapers.
Library of Congress. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.


© Copyright 2014 Carmen Jimenez, Ryerson University