Wednesday, 11 December 2013

‘Play the Game’ – Victorians and Sport

"Play up! play up! and play the game!"


So, I’ve decided to attempt to ‘reframe’ the Victorians by exploring their love for Sport. Although Victorian Britain saw the creation of many rules and sports still used today, the sports themselves make little, if no appearance in the literary works we have studied this year. I found this strange – firstly because it might just be believable for the working class Britons depicted in Mary Barton to have a ‘kick about’ on the ‘Manchester Fields’; especially as sports were then and indeed are still in a way perceived today to be of interest to the working class. But if John Barton slide tackling George Wilson wasn’t believable, then surely Brontë removed the scene where Isabella and Edgar serve up a five set thriller in their garden. Although seemingly ridiculous; football, tennis and a range of other sports were increasingly popular across the classes and are surely an important part of the literary works social-historical context but instead of including these, the respective authors have instead got the women sat about sewing and drinking tea.

The first 'Ashes' winning team of 1882
Source: Wikipedia
Whilst continuing to use Gaskell’s Mary Barton as an example of a sport absent novel, it is obviously worth considering the time in which the novel was published and how that compares to the development of what we would now regard as ‘sports’. Being published and indeed set in the 1840s, Gaskell’s novel coincides with the peak of Britain’s love of cricket, a sport with rules which had been in place since the mid 18th century; in fact 1877 saw the first British cricket tour of Australia, which of course was lost (further proof that sport has changed very little!). Incidentally, the Australians toured Britain in 1882 and upon winning the series The Sporting Times published this famous obituary:

‘In affectionate remembrance of English cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. N.B. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.’

... these of course being The Ashes which are still lost by England today.


Cricket as described by The Guardian (2003), was played by factory workers, people like John Barton and George Wilson, on recreational fields, like those featured in the novel, though it would probably be played more often than depicted in the novel! It was also, whilst watching a Youtube clip of the BBC’s documentary series ‘Empire’, that I noticed that increasingly strong link between the idea of sport and indeed playing sport, and the attitudes and abilities of soldiers in battle. This strong link which runs throughout the episode ‘Playing the Game’, could have been applied through Gaskell’s Mary Barton as she presents the Chartists; in having these people playing sport Gaskell could have further presented the Chartists as honourable and just people.

If you can tolerate the open shirt of Jermey Paxman for an hour, you can watch the whole episode below, although Paxman does summarise with a comparison to Newbolt’s poem ‘Vitaï Lampada’ or ‘Torch of Light’, which shows an acute comparison between a young man playing cricket and a young man going into war:

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
Ten to make and the match to win --
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote --
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind --
'Play up! play up! and play the game!' (Sir Henry Newbolt)



Victorian Britain was also the birth place of modern football and rugby. Both games were played among the working classes and were considered brutal sports which often resulted in people being too injured to go to work. Maybe this is why Gaskell chose to not include the popular working class game in her novel, to remove the air of savageness which would then be associated with her protagonists. To remove this ‘brutality’ and restore the Victorian spirit of fair play and discipline the schools of Eton and Rugby sat down and wrote up the official rules, which ended up contrasting greatly – the Rugby school allowing the predominant use of hands, and the Eton school ruling it as foul play and so creating the two different games: Rugby and Football.

An athlete being helped across the line at the first London Marathon.
Source: The Guardian Website.
If Gaskell deliberately left sport out to ensure that her characters appeared to be more ‘Victorian’and respectable then I suppose it’s justifiable; John Barton planning murder on crutches isn’t quite as effective. Though if the novel had been set just a few decades later then I am sure that John Barton would have been racing the others around the fields: the late 19th Century saw a dramatic increase in participation for the extremely competitive sport of pedestrianism. Pedestrianism is essentially walking until your competitors give up and it was common for races to last days! To give you a glimpse of how ridiculous and indeed competitive the sport was, British champion George Littlewood had his alcohol football set alight whilst he was using it, following his record ‘walk’ of 623 miles in six days. The competitive nature of ‘pedestrians’ produced the first cases of doping in sport, mainly because it was seen that ‘athletes’ could use medicines to cure any problems they had during sport as they would out of it; so cocaine and alcohol were normal practice whilst participating! Such was the popularity of the sport that the first London marathon was run in 1908. To supplement the runners love for 'tonics' whilst participating, each ‘athlete’ was given a mug of gravy to ‘help recovery’.

Gaskell’s absence of sport may just about be justifiable, though I am adamant that had the novel been written a few decades later she would have simply had to include John Barton demonstrating his abilities as a pedestrian, whilst taking cocaine and like every good northerner, recovering with a mug of gravy!

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