The Edwardians turned out for some curious entertainments. In 1907 they flocked to hear Clara Butt, that towering contralto, sing the newly published Cautionary Tales of Hilaire Belloc, Liberal MP for South Salford and defender of the Catholic faith. All seats were sold countrywide. The Cautionary Tales - which tell of Henry King, 'Who chewed bits of String and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies', and Rebecca, 'Who slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably' - are in iambic octosyllabic couplets and can run to fifty lines or so. How did Clara Butt contrive to sing these metricated fables? What tune, or tunes, did she employ? Were children, at whom these tales were supposedly directed, admitted under parental guidance? And what did Belloc think of her efforts, which are said to have done nothing but good to his sales? ('I'm tired of Love: I'm still more tired of Rhyme/But Money gives me pleasure all the time.') As Joseph Pearce tells in Old Thunder, he was already fretting over his increasingly lightweight reputation for comic verse and was pursuing 'meatier material'. He had under his belt The Modern Traveller, that splendid satire on African exploration ('Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim Gun, and they have not'), and The Path to Rome, an idiosyncratic bestselling account of his solo pilgrimage by foot across Europe in 1901, lodging at one franc a night and fording rivers as necessary.
LRB 20 February 2003 | PDF Download