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«Author(s): Jamie Wise Title: Horse racing in nineteenth-century literature Date: 2013 Originally published as: University of Chester MA dissertation ...»

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Author(s): Jamie Wise

Title: Horse racing in nineteenth-century literature

Date: 2013

Originally published as: University of Chester MA dissertation

Example citation: Wise, J. (2013). Horse racing in nineteenth-century literature.

(Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Chester, United Kingdom.

Version of item: Submitted version Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10034/311621 University of Chester Department of English MA Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture EN7204 Dissertation Horse Racing in Nineteenth‐Century Literature Assessment Number: G34469 2    Abstract The popularity of nineteenth-century horse racing is firmly established. Throughout the century it provided entertainment, amusement and employment across all the classes. Most scholarship focuses on horse racing in terms of leisure and the negotiation of class values, noting the shift from the sport as a predominantly aristocratic playground in the early part of the nineteenth century, to the commercialised arena of entertainment it became towards the end of the Victorian era. What is unexplored by both historical and literary critics however is the representation of horse racing in nineteenth-century literature. This dissertation attempts to fill that void. The carnival values of the racecourse, horse racing’s shift towards commercialism, concepts of class defined leisure and the sports inevitable association with gambling are all scrutinised with reference to both the historical context of horse racing and their inclusion in nineteenth-century fiction. George Moore’s Esther Waters, Émile Zola’s Nana and Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’ are all closely analysed in terms of their representation of the racecourse carnival, racecourse space and infrastructure and working-class gambling. The aim of this dissertation is ultimately to provide an in depth reading of the few significant representations of horse racing in nineteenth-century literature and to shed light on why the popularity of the sport across the nineteenth century is not replicated by meaningful inclusion within the literature of the day.

1    Acknowledgements I would like to thank all the English department lecturers and staff for their help and support throughout both the dissertation process and the entire MA programme. I would especially like to thank my supervisor Dr Sarah Heaton for her continued advice, patience, knowledge and critical input, without which this dissertation would have been impossible to complete. A special mention must also go to my family and friends for their ever present encouragement and helpful corrections of my often terrible spelling and grammar.

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In 1866 the Daily Telegraph commented that ‘practically the only ‘sport’ which in England may fairly be described as national is comprised in the single word ‘horseracing’’.1 Yet horse racing in the nineteenth century was not something easily defined or categorised under any single umbrella description. Rendered unstable by the seismic influences of the Industrial Revolution and the far-reaching changes to society which preceded and followed, horse racing’s position as a ‘national’ sporting pastime was subjected across the nineteenth century to the conflicting tensions of class, commercialism and leisure. It was a movable feast in which the racecourse, traditionally a site of all-inclusive carnival, became a complicated space housing middle-class capitalism, working-class leisure and morally-questionable gambling, all of which functioned in a mutually dependant yet conflicted relationship.

Despite its move towards a ‘national’ spectator sport, representations of horse racing in the literature of the nineteenth century are sparse and sporadic at best; even as textual background to a novel’s other narrative focus the sport remains largely absent. This study will examine the complex nature of horse racing’s place in Victorian society alongside representations of the sport within nineteenth-century fiction, providing both an original analysis of Victorian literature’s response to horse racing, something which like the representations themselves is mainly absent from the critical canon, while also attempting to reconcile the sport’s obvious popularity with its meagre treatment in the novels of the day.

Chapter One provides a contextual overview of nineteenth-century horse racing focussing on the racecourse as a site of carnival, horse racing’s position as a medium of working-class leisure and the sport’s inextricable link to gambling. Mike Huggins’s Flat


Daily Telegraph, 20th August 1866, p. 16.

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The Turf: A Social and Economic History of Horse Racing both provide a comprehensive and authoritative history of horse racing and the racecourse, however neither offer a detailed analysis of the complexity of racecourse space and the carnival therein. 2 This chapter will bring together Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the carnival as a sanctioned arena in which social paradigms are temporarily suspended, and  Henri Lefebvre’s concepts of practical and theoretical space in order to better interpret the nineteenth-century racecourse as a site which housed complex social tensions.3 Focussing primarily on Epsom, the home of the Derby meeting, what emerges is the nineteenth-century racecourse as a contradictory space in which carnival-style freedoms, increasing commercialisation, middle-class capitalist intrusion and expanding working-class leisure, existed together in a complex relationship centred on both racecourse infrastructure and evolving social concepts of leisure and the working class.

Furthermore ideas of nineteenth-century working-class leisure specifically in relation to horse racing, although discussed in detail by Huggins and Vamplew, fail to incorporate such ideas with theories of space and movement. Again focussing on Epsom this chapter will highlight how the infrastructure of the racecourse itself, as a licenced space of legitimate working-class leisure and carnival excess, was intensely problematic for burgeoning middleclass concepts of disciplined recreation. That is the cross-class excesses of the carnival provided precisely the wrong example of leisure while the social zoning of the racecourse, a product of the increasing commercialisation of the sport, limited the potential for horse racing to provide any example of middle-class leisure by segregating the classes.


Mike Huggins, Flat Racing and British Society 1790-1914: A Social and Economic History, (London: Frank Cass, 2000); Wray Vamplew, The Turf: A Social and Economic History of Horse Racing, (London: Allen Lane, 1976).

Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Rabelais and His World’, in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004); Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (trans. Donald NicholsonSmith), (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

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Again both Vamplew and Huggins along with Michael Flavin’s Gambling in the NineteenthCentury English Novel give an extensive overview of nineteenth-century gambling in terms of its legality, social perception and its function in working-class leisure time. Taking such contexts as my foundation I will again relate them to theories of space and the social restrictions of the racecourse and horseracing more generally. What will be argued is that gambling, particularly for the working classes, became a displaced intellectual activity, creating a space of autonomous expression and communal interaction which defied the hegemonic control of restrictive betting laws and the social zoning of the racecourse. In analysing horseracing in the nineteenth century the first chapter provides both the social context and theoretical premise from which the literary texts of the following two chapters will be considered.

Chapter Two focusses on George Moore’s Esther Waters and Émile Zola’s Nana.

Both novels will be analysed in terms of their representation of the carnival, social zoning and the negotiation of racecourse space. The chapter concludes by examining the depiction of working-class gambling in Esther Waters. Often considered an anti-gambling polemic by both contemporary and modern critics and the author himself, I will argue that the extended descriptions of working-class betting create a counter narrative which runs against such claims, showing gambling to have both intellectual and communal value for the workingclass characters in the novel.

Chapter Three examines the representations of horse racing in the work of Charles Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’ will be analysed in terms of their representation of the racecourse carnival and racing’s association with gambling. Dickens’s response to working-class gambling in his non-fiction is then considered and, in what follows, I will argue that gambling for Dickens

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also the counter weight of moral questionability. The outcome is an inability to reconcile horse racing as a legitimate form of leisure in both his own conceptualisation and his fiction, resulting ultimately in the lack of any significant representations of the sport in the Dickens canon.

Given the limited space available in this study it is not possible, nor is it the intention, to provide an all-encompassing, encyclopaedic analysis of nineteenth-century horse racing and its position within Victorian literature. Rather the purpose is to provide a contextual overview of the sport detailing the nature of racecourse space, working-class leisure and gambling, while examining specific nineteenth-century texts in which the representations of horse racing, in terms of these social contexts, are most prevalent.

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different classes, sexes and ages mingled together in an atmosphere which encouraged the abandonment of social norms and customs.5 In this way it was an expression of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque, a temporary liberation from socially constructed paradigms and class hierarchies.6 An 1839 meeting at Carlisle had, as well as the horseracing, sack races, wheelbarrow races and a soap tailed pig competition.7 An account of the small Hartlepool races in 1855 describes ‘nymphs of the pave and light-fingered gentry and country blues perambulating among the crowds of pedestrians and the fire-eaters, tumblers and musicians’.8 The History of the British Turf published in 1879 describes how the minor course of Harlestone in the north of England had an ‘importance in its own neighbourhood’ as it supplied the ‘occasion for a general holiday’. 9 That is it provided the opportunity, as


Bakhtin, Literary Theory, p. 686.

Huggins, Flat Racing, pp. 117-139.

Bakhtin, Literary Theory, pp. 686-692.

Carlisle Journal, 6th July 1839, p. 24.

Hartlepool Free Press, 8th September 1855, p. 18.

James Rice, History of the British Turf, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1879), p. 87.

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hierarchies and paradigms as cross-class crowds mingled together in a festival atmosphere.10 Epsom’s Derby meeting came to exemplify racing’s carnivalesque atmosphere.

Paintings such as William Powel Frith’s The Derby Day (1856-1858), Gustav Doré’s illustration The Derby, at Lunch: 1872 and the Punch cartoon ‘A view of Epsom Downs 1849’, all emphasise the cross-class integration which took place on the course (see appendices one, two and three). The Era in 1856 described it as ‘The Epsom Racing Carnival […] this great national festival – one of those universally acknowledged British holidays’, categorising it specifically as a ‘universally’ accepted form of carnival, but crucially something which is a temporary ‘holiday’ from social norms.11 The same paper also described how, in the crush to board the train to Epsom for the 1856 Derby, ‘first-class passengers were only too glad to avail themselves of third-class accommodation’.12 The Illustrated London News explicitly recognised this breakdown of social boundaries declaring in 1896 that the Derby was ‘clearly subversive of the proper distinctions which should always in a well-governed society exist between class and class’.13 In a similar vein the journalist George Augustus Sala, in 1892, described how ‘all ranks and conditions of men and women are jumbled together on the course’.14 Even sporting papers reporting on the actual racing recognised the meeting’s carnival atmosphere. The Sporting Gazzette in 1853 called it a ‘truly national holiday’ describing the ‘myriad ranks’ of those attending.15 The Derby was then


The exception to racing’s all-encompassing carnivalesque atmosphere was Newmarket, which was run by and for the upper classes, with crowd numbers often less than one thousand throughout the century it was attended mainly by the elite members of society. Huggins, Flat Racing, p. 144. The History of the British Turf describes the ‘businesslike [sic] enjoyment of the days sport’ at Newmarket’s 1875 Craven meeting rather than the carnival excesses of other courses. Rice, History of the British Turf, p. 49.

The Era, June 1st 1856, p. 58.

The Era, June 3rd 1856, p. 46.

Illustrated London News, June 24th 1896, p. 14.

George Augustus Sala, in Laurie Brannan (ed.), Derby Quotations, (Berkshire: Sporting Press, 2004), p. 131.

The Sporting Gazette, 4th June 1853, p. 36.

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