Fascinating study of an early bicycle enthusiast

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Duncan R. Jamieson[1]
Ashland University


Jeremy Withers
The War of the Wheels: H. G. Wells and the Bicycle
264 pages, paperback.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2017 (Sports and Entertainment)
ISBN 978-0-8156-3526-0

Herbert George Wells (1866–1946), futurist, novelist, journalist, sociologist, historian, is best known for his science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. While this has entertained generations of readers since its serialized appearance in Great Britain and the United States in 1897, for cyclists there is another side to this future oriented author, which can be seen in his 1895 novel “The Wheels of Chance: A Cycling Idyll.” Here the drapery assistant, Mr. Hoopdriver, takes a cycling holiday and encounters the “lady in grey.” Wells was an avid cyclist until middle age, using his bicycle forays as sets for many of his works. The Wheels of Chance is only one of his cycling novels; he also wrote Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910), two lesser known comic novels that prominently involved the bicycle.

To anyone who has read anything by or about H. G. Wells, it is immediately obvious that he is fascinated by technology and the future, the intersection between them and the increasingly intrusive place of technology in modern human society. Throughout his life he remained conflicted on this point. Even to the most unsophisticated reader, it is obvious technology is anything but benign. The question to be answered is whether technology is a positive or negative force. While it can be both, this is not necessarily the answer for Wells; he continuously debated where the balance lay. For a cancer patient, for example, radiation therapy is a case in point. On the positive side the radiation destroys the cancerous cells, which is the purpose. On the negative, however, the radiation does not discriminate, destroying healthy cells as well.

To Wells the bicycle represented an ideal technological creation and a wonderful means of transportation. However, he gave up wheeling in favor of the automobile for transportation and hiking for exercise; still he continued to wrestle with the juxtaposition of technology as a positive or malevolent force for humanity. In a real sense this may be the underlying issue in most if not all of Wells’ writings. For the cyclist, consider The Wheels of Chance. Here we have the bicycle taking the protagonist out of the overcrowded, hot, dirty city to the bucolic countryside. This is an image endlessly repeated on both sides of the pond during the bicycle’s early years in the late nineteenth century, and one that continues to resonate in the twenty-first century. Yet, at the same time, is the bicycle specifically and technology generally all that benign? Throughout the years of the high wheel bicycle and the first decades of the diamond frame safety, ministers excoriated the bicycle from the pulpit for keeping its riders from Sunday services. Some physicians claimed the bicycle damaged the woman’s reproductive ability, thus possibly compromising the future of the human race. Bicycle riding led to poor posture as the rider hunched over the handlebars to gain an aerodynamic advantage. It undermined the separate spheres of men and women. In its early years it served as a signifier of class.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances Willard believed the bicycle offered women opportunities for equality otherwise unavailable.

Cycles scared draft animals. In Eastern Europe on his way around the world, the first to circumcycle the globe, 1884-1886, Thomas Stevens’ high wheel startled a mule carrying two women. It bolted and dumped the women in a river. The monolingual Stevens wondered what might have resulted if any harm had come to the ladies. Scorchers—cyclists who rode too fast and generally ignored traffic laws—endangered pedestrians, an issue that remains a problem today on crowded, multi-purpose streets. A New York Times reporter who recently did a piece on cycling scofflaws in Gotham, wrote of her mother being struck and killed in a crosswalk by a reckless cyclist who ran a red light in Washington, D. C.  Melody Hoffman, in Bike Lanes are White Lanes (2016) points out that all too often the resurgence of urban bicycling leads to gentrification as upwardly mobile young professionals look for urban housing, changing the make-up of neighborhoods and displacing longtime residents. Though not the definitive answer, In The War of the Worlds the Martians had far more sophisticated examples of technology that in the end failed them. Might humans reach the same point?

Continuing with the bicycle, these are just a few examples of its malevolence. There are equally interesting and legitimate examples of the bicycle’s positive influence on human society. Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances Willard believed the bicycle offered women opportunities for equality otherwise unavailable. Both American and British novelists praised what the wheel did for woman’s rights. Florine Thayer McCray’s Wheels and Whims: An Etching (1884) and Mrs. Edward Kennard’s The Golf Lunatic and His Cycling Wife (1902) both featured characters who praised the bicycle for furthering the women’s rights movement. Wells himself thought the bicycle an ideal form of transportation that took riders just the right distance while liberating them as they reconnected with the beauties of the natural world.

Together these examples demonstrate Wells’ dilemma regarding technology in general and the wheel in particular. Specifically, in The Wheels of Chance the bicycle did allow city bound workers to escape the city for a holiday in the country, but did they have the chance to enjoy the bounty of nature? On his holiday Mr. Hoopdriver met another cyclist who complained “It’s a most interesting road, birds and trees, I’ve no doubt, and wayside flowers, and there’s nothing I should enjoy more than watching them. But I can’t. Get me on that machine and I have to go.” Wells understood this in 1895 just as clearly as Andrew Ritchie did in 2011 when he entitled his book on the history of early bicycle racers Quest for Speed.

Like Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s first publisher, Withers and Syracuse University Press realized the ability to attract two separate and distinct groups of readers. The War of the Wheels will attract attention from those interested in literature in general and more specifically Wellsian enthusiasts. Conversely it will interest cyclists in general and specifically cycle historians. For the general reader this is a fascinating study of one of England’s best known authors and is well worth the read.

Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2017

[1] This review was originally published in AETHLON: The Journal of Sport Literature, and is reprinted here with kind permission of the reviewer.
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