Excellent anthology about sport, literature, and culture in eighteenth century Britain

Katarina Tornborg
Lund University

Sharon Harrow (red) British Sporting Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century 232 pages, harldcover, ill.. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2016 (British Literature in Context in the Long Eighteenth Century) ISBN 978-1-4724-6508-5
Sharon Harrow (red)
British Sporting Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century
232 pages, harldcover, ill..
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2016 (British Literature in Context in the Long Eighteenth Century)
ISBN 978-1-4724-6508-5

Everyone knows what happens when one is about to buy a new car. Suddenly one sees only the make of one’s choice. It is a question of awareness, of a changing perspective. What’s been there all the time materializes, becomes visual. I experienced something of that kind while reading the anthology British Sporting Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century, edited by Sharon Harrow. Apart from being a thoroughly good read, it is also a comprehensive and solid academic study within the field of Cultural Studies which highlights how sports have taken place in and interacted with all kinds of narrative – naturally focussing on the long century of the title, a period which runs roughly from the restoration of Charles II to the throne in1660 to the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.[1]

1660 seems to be a good starting-point. The strict puritanism of the previous centuries was loosened and gave way to a more liberal view of life culturally and politically. People had long been fettered by behavioural rules and regulations and there was a pent-up longing for easier social intercourse, for games and sports, for the theatres and the alehouses, the markets and the holidays. There was no obvious distinction between the various venues, as the borders were still porous.

Theatres reopened, sports were being practised and began slowly to gain momentum and form. Rural pastimes and games became commercialized; money flowed in and out in the 18th century craze for wagers and betting. The debate was on-going: What was immoral and sinful? What was to be permitted? How could the boundaries be upheld between innocent playfulness and morally useful practises and the harmful and sinful? Where did virtue end and vice begin? The authorities recognized the need for recreation and fun, simultaneously fearing tha all of that pried people away from work and from God.

It is these debates and concerns, and how they were textually represented in pamphlets, advertising articles, literature, satire, statutes, letters and the emerging specialised sports magazines, which is the focus of this anthology. Horseracing, archery, boxing, tennis, swimming and other games are studied in a cultural, social and political context, and it becomes obvious that sport plays an enormously important part in the creation of a national identity, of preserving the differences between the sexes and between the foreign and the domestic.

Let us return for a moment to the car metaphor in the beginning. Not being a particularly sporting person, this reader however, will never again be able to read a novel or a poem without paying attention to the passing or obvious references to sports, to disregard the various metaphors connected with sports or games. That is what good books do. They change your mind. A tennis ball in Shakespeare is no longer merely a tennis ball; it is a perfectly adequate metaphor for man’s position in the universe. Fielding’s account of the tricks of the trade at racecourses once disclosed cannot be un-disclosed. Charles Johnstone’s (1719-1800) novel Chrysalis or the Adventures of a guinea (1730) is now on my reading list. The idea of the world observed from the point of view of a coin travelling in always changing pockets, has an appealing flavour to it.

The last chapter of the book, “Rehearsing Leander: Byron and Swimming” treats the romantic poet Lord Byron’s relation to swimming – his famous feat of swimming across the Hellespont (in one hour and ten minutes) has been the subject of debate, allegations and satire – – among others by the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf.[2] Byron’s obsession with timing, training and perfection is purely modern, but his goal was to pay homage to the mythical Leander who swam across the gulf in order to be with his beloved Hero. This is a wonderful example of how a different perspective alters preconceived ideas of both poetry and swimming.

Men swam, for recreation and spiritual excercise inspired by roman military training. Women did not, for moral reasons. They were obliged to use so called bathing machines, i.e., small huts with wheels drawn out to sea by horses, to take a dip clad in stiff tent-like garments which did not allow movement of any kind. (The first European swimming school for women opened in Stockholm in 1847 with Nancy Edberg as the first teacher).[3]

So, what is meant by the word sport? The concept is as vague as it is loose. In the 18th century, sport could mean anything from serious horseracing to the paid for, clandestine rides taking place in simple pubs or other dwellings. A lady of pleasure was also a sport. The ambiguity of the word suggests all kinds of pleasures and pastimes between the legal and the illegal, the seedy and the wholesome.

Men swam, for recreation and spiritual excercise inspired by roman military training. Women did not, for moral reasons.

In Shakespeare’s time, bearbaiting, cock fighting and juggling were amusements either within the theatre or in the grounds outside. An operagoer in the 18th century would have had difficulties in hearing what was sung. The opera house was a social meeting-place where people talked, played cards, ate and drank. (Lights out during performances and the silent attentive audience came with Wagner a hundred years later.)

The chapter entitled “Boxing for England” highlights the career of the Jewish bare-knuckle boxing champion Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836). He grew up in Aldgate, raised a large family and worked in various professions before he ”pursued the more lucrative profession of the fist”.[4] Mendoza’s own considerable marketing skills contributed to a new awareness of the sport – he became the national hero, on the stage and in the ring in an era characterized by gross antisemitism. The inherent conflict of his background and ethnicity, and the semi-illegal position of the sport, was literally played out on his body in prize-fights and performative sparring on the stage, thus mirroring the position of boxing in the broader context of morality, art and nationalism.

Sports leave traces. Also in fashion. In the chapter on the satirist and artist John Collet “Sporting with clothes”, the debate on gender and gender roles becomes visual. Women dress in modified menswear; they ride on horseback, shoot, go fishing and play skittles. They drink beer from huge tankards and smoke. What is it that we see? How challenging it is to disregard contemporary understandings of gender in order to place oneself in the position of Collet’s own contemporaries! What, for instance, does the picture of a young man dressed in his wife’s cap with her fan in his lap, signify? A private game of cross-dressing or a covert but common practice? Dress is always a means to an end, and 18th century women copying male attire may have made more than fashion statements. The simpler the attire, the more bodily freedom. Consequently, dress has always been subjected to censures and injunctions.[5]

The point is that whether Collet moralized or not, upper class women and women of the bourgeoisie were restrained in a way that their working sisters were not. Dress was one divider, freedom of movement another. Women who belonged to ”the Quality” were not supposed to exercise – neither their wits nor their bodies – whereas working class women needed strong bodies and functional dress to work. Obviously, the women themselves challenged the order of things. The Scottish poet and writer James Thomson (1700 -1748) who wrote Rule Britannia, was also famous for his poem The Seasons, the last of which, Autumn was published in 1730:

But if the roughe sex by this free sport
Is hurried wild, let not such horrid joy
E’er stain the bosom of the British fair.
Far be the spirit of the chase from them!
Unbecomely courage, unbeseeming skill;
To spring the fence, to rein the prancing steed;
The cap, the whip, the masculine attire,
In which they roughen to the sense, and all
The winning softness or their sex is lost.[6]

Well. That about sums it up. What the poem clearly implies is that women actually did ”spring the fence” just as in Collet’s picture. Entreaties and warnings of the above quoted kind wouldn’t be necessary unless a new discourse of sporting women was evolving.

Even if women did not do sports in an organised manner, there were exceptions to the rule. In archery men and women participated on equal terms. “Archery in the Long Eighteenth Century” traces the history of archery from the medieval weapon of war to the elegant shooting ranges and clubs of the 18th century. The interest in archery gained momentum in the beginning of the century and waned towards the end. Technical data on the diameters of the targets, the weight and shape of arrows and bows provide information about the differences between men’s and women’s equipment. A match could take many hours the archer needed to be patient and strong. The interest in ancient times (where England’s own master archer Robin Hood served as romantic inspiration), as well as the elegant poses – no jumping about, no disarray of hair or clothes, made archery the sport for upper class women. In fact, archery was the perfect venue for matrimonial matchmaking, the perfect catwalk to show the latest fashions on.

The Long Eighteenth Century was a period of political unrest. The American War of Independence (1775-1783) expanded into a war with France, The Netherlands and Spain. The French Revolution in 1789 posed a real threat. New rationalistic ideals, which comprised economy, social mobility, the division of labour, were at the heart of the Enlightenment. In the need for new definitions of concepts such as national identity, sports played a crucial part.

In the chapter “Olympism and Pastoralism in British Sporting Literature” the starting-point is the growing interest in classical antiquity and the Olympic games. Explorers, scholars and scientists travelled to the sites and excavated places of interest. The textual sources were few and fragmented so how the games actually were played and organised was a matter of conjecture. Thus the concept of olympism was open to interpretations and adaptions, to a ”brittified” narrative, which was not always based in hard fact. On the other hand, as the author of this chapter observes, the classical Greek texts that had been translated into English since Henry VIII had endowed two professors in Greek, one in Cambridge in 1540 and one in Oxford in 1541, provided modern readers with insights into a lost golden era of sports. ’Tis the stuff that dreams are made of.

The fusion of classical philosophy and the modern interpretation of these texts resulted in a brittification of sports and sporting culture, which were linked to notions of nature, recreation and spirituality. A pastoral countryside saw the revival of new Olympic games. (The Cotswolds Olimpicks from the 1640s are still being held.)

When a ball is smashed with one hand and smashed back again by an opponent, well – there’s tennis for you.

“Jockeying for position” is the apt title for an article that in depth describes the development of a new gigantic market for anything to do with horses. The18th century obsession with betting was in a sense democratic – anyone with a shilling could lay a wager. Manor houses were lost and gained; a year’s earnings could easily disappear with the wrong muzzle over the finishing line. A fascinating under-world of fixed races, cheats with jockeys’ weights, bribery and manipulated horses is revealed. Various pamphlets and books gave advice on how to buy and train horses and how to avoid being cheated. The racecourse was often the subject of political comments – satirical ditties were sung about MPs who spent money on horses instead of tending to the country’s finances. The authorities tried to restrict the number of races and thereby the money flows, to little avail.

The women did not race (officially). The sidesaddle was a moral gatekeeper, a woman shouldn’t spread her legs and the saddle in itself restricted movement. The right leg is draped over a pommel on the saddle and the left is in the stirrup, which means that the rider must use a whip on the right side. Anyone who has tried knows that side-saddle-riding is not an easy art to command.[7]

Games and sports involving some kind of round object – a ball – must be among the oldest in the world. When a ball is smashed with one hand and smashed back again by an opponent, well – there’s tennis for you. Jeu de paume, real tennis, the game of kings, that more of less died out in the late 18th century only to resurface in the 19th century as the outdoor sport that engage millions of people.

“The Uses and Transformations of Early Modern Tennis” brings to life the ball as universal metaphor for the fate of all mankind. Writers like Montaigne, Shakespeare and Smollett used the tennis ball to describe the world. The tennis ball’s history is exciting, and why the sport died out a matter of scholarly discussion. Jeu de paume/real tennis was an indoor sport with elaborate palaces to house the courts. The sport seems to have met with a similar fate roughly at the same time in many European countries, Sweden included. The tennis-courts transformed into theatres, the buildings were abandoned, or demolished, why? Perhaps modern lawn tennis simply replaced the old-fashioned royal sport.

British Sporting Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century illuminates the intricate connections and interdependencies of (all kinds) of literature and (all kinds of) sport. The different cultures fertilized one another in various ways. Athletics and sports rose and fell in popularity with the texts that commented, satirized, lauded or condemned. Organized sport is uninteresting if there is no audience. Individual triumphs need the gaze of the onlooker to become complete, as it were. This interaction between the media and the sports is what the recent games in Rio is about, I think. Sports represents a huge investment in money, time, buildings and venues. It is an individual and collective effort. It is about winning or losing, becoming rich and famous or sinking into obscurity. Until fairly recently sports and athletics were a male prerogative; it wasn’t until 2012 all participating nations sent women athletes to the Olympic games.

During the Long Eighteenth Century sports became organised, codified and regulated. Sport was business, performance and narrative and also quiet pastimes for solitary souls. To walk, to fish, to run and to swim can be a solely private activity or a joint venture.[8] The 18th century female culture of walking made virtue out of necessity.[9] For instance, the intriguing fact that weak, under-exercised and corseted women in long skirts managed miles of daily walking deserves deeper study. If not a sport, still it is exercise. It would be a good deed if another one, pertaining to women and sports, could follow this excellent anthology. Preferably covering the same period in time. After all, the Long Eighteenth Century is when sports became modern.

Copyright © Katarina Tornborg 2016

[1] Sharon Harrow, “Playing by the Rules” in Sharon Harrow (ed) British Sporting Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century (Routledge 2016), 5 ff (henceforth referred to as British Sporting Literature).
[2] Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968) wrote a humourus poem which deals with a young man who wants to be a romantic hero. I quote the last lines in Swedish followed by my translation. I don’t aspire to fully capture the pathetic and silly mode of the young man’s lamentations. […] Väl har jag klumpfot, men – den är dock min!/Snart skall jag över horisonten simma/som en gång Byron simmade med sin!/Jag simmar som i trance, i salig dimma!/Blonda grevinna G…! Snart är jag din!/ Mot horisontlös värld, där vägar saknas,/går skaldens väg, den gudaboret naknas! […] I do have a club foot – but it belongs to me!/Soon I will swim across the horizon/as once upon a time did he! (i.e Byron)/ I swim in trance, in blissful mist!/ Blonde countess G…! Soon I will come to thee!/ To a horizonless world, where no roads are/Leads the poet’s path/ the nakedly divine.
[3]Project Runeberg, “Nya Stockholm” http://runeberg.org/nyasthlm/0144.html, 130 f
[4] Sharon Harrow,“Boxing for England: Daniel Mendoza and the Theater of Sport” British Sporting Literature, 156 ff.
[5] See Christine Bard, Kjolen, frihet eller fängelse, (Stockholm 2011), 75 ff, 100 f, The French original reads Ce que soulève la jupe. Identités, transgressions, résistances (Paris 2010). Surprisingly, there does not seem to be an English translation of this study of identity, transgressions and gender with the skirt in focus.
[6] I took the liberty of quoting this stanza from Betty Rizzo, “Equivocations of Gender and Rank: Eighteenth Century Sporting Women”. Eighteenth-Century Life 2002 Vol 26, No 1, 70, http://eds.q.ebscohost.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se, accessed 2016-08-11. The article discusses the differences in mobility between upper class and working women, elaborating on the required weakness of the former. Delicate and weak women were seen as a different “breed” that distinguished them from their stronger working sisters.
[7] CuChullaine O’Reilly, FRGS, “Sidesaddles and the Fight to Ride and Vote” provides an interesting history of women and equestrianism. http://www.lrgaf.org/articles/sidesaddles_and_suffragettes.htm. Accessed 2016-08-16.
[8] The classical text on contemplative angling is Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler (1653). A new edition is edited by Marjorie Swann, (Oxford 2014).
[9] The heroines in the novels by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), Jane Austen, (1775-1817), Emily Brontë, (1818-1848), Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) all walk, often miles. Walking allowed women to be either by themselves or with friends without the constraints of their indoor life. To take a long ramble was an act of independence and of harmonious intercourse with nature. For an elaboration of this theme, see Birgitta Berglund, Woman’s Whole Existence, The House as an image in the Novels of Anne Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen (Lund 1993). It is a mystery that the consumptious and frail Brontë sisters themselves managed long excursions – also in foul weather – on the Yorkshire moors.


Table of Content

“Wholesome recreations and cheering influences”: Popular Recreation and Social Elites in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Emma Griffin

Olympism and Pastoralism in British Sporting Literature
Jean Williams

Sporting with Clothes: John Collet’s Prints in the 1770s
Patricia Crown

The Uses and Transformations of Early Modern Tennis
Alexis Tadié

Archery in the Long Eighteenth Century
Lind V. Troost

Jockeying for Position: Horse Culture in Poetry, Prose, and The New Foundling Hospital for Wit
Donald W. Nichol

Boxing for England: Daniel Mendoza and the Theater of Sport
Sharon Harrow

Rehearsing Leander: Byron and Swimming in the Long Eighteenth Century
Jack C’Amico

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