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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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gambling, both on-course and off-course, is a corruption which taints sporting endeavour: ‘The Potato field of English sports are afflicted with something worse than a potato blight, an insect more deadly than the aphis vastador: by the betting blight’. Gambling for Sala is a disease which rots the sporting world from within; horse racing’s association with the ‘dead leaves of low gambling and vulgar debauchery’ negate its own pretences for sporting respectability and legitimate leisure. Indeed Sala concludes ‘The Sporting World’ by commenting that although sports such as bull-baiting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting have all but vanished ‘we are not quite spotless in our sports yet’, the implication being that gambling still taints the moral integrity of sport, specifically horse racing. G. A. Sala, ‘The Sporting World’, Household Words, 6 (1852), pp. 133-139, p. 139.

Charles Dickens, ‘Betting-Shops’, Household Words, 5 (1852), pp. 333-336, p. 334.

Dickens, ‘Betting-Shops’, p. 334.

 Runciman, ‘The Ethics of the Turf’, p. 608. 

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gambling before the mass influx of racing information which became available to the working classes in the 1860s. It is therefore, as Dickens’s ‘slang intelligence’ suggests an intellectually redundant activity.

This is crucial when attempting to critically engage with Dickens’s response to horse racing and its association with gambling as a medium of working-class leisure. Robert Caillos in Man, Play, and Games splits gambling into two distinct groups: aleatory gambling based on pure chance; and agonistic gambling in which the gambler has a certain amount of control over the outcome.112 Caillos suggests that gambling on games of chance such as roulette or baccarat are aleatory, whereas horse racing, in which form can be studied and analysed, is agonistic. In short, games of chance are passive gambles, whereas horseracing actively engages the brain by the study of available information which can help to predict the outcome. For Dickens, commenting on gambling in 1852, horse-racing information such as entries, form and ground descriptions as yet were unavailable to the working classes, consequently working-class gambling was aleatory, it was passive. Unlike the space opened up for the working-class gamblers in Esther Waters, gambling in this non-fiction commentary and in Dickens’s fictional representations – the ‘little knot’ in Nicholas Nickleby and the crowded streets in ‘The Lazy Tour’ – becomes a site of confinement in which communal debate is stifled rather than encouraged and active intellectual engagement is denied in favour of the passive arena of chance.

The idea of activity was an integral part of Dickens’s vision of working-class leisure.

Commenting on a Manchester art exhibition in 1857 in a letter to William Charles Macready, Dickens remarked in relation to the working classes: ‘they want more amusement, and particularly (as it strikes me) something in motion, though it were only a twisting fountain.


Robert Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), p. 12.

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consequence’.113 Although slightly ungenerous to the working-class intellect the idea of an active form of entertainment was crucial in moving them away from the drudgery of industrial life. Horse racing then becomes a complex form of leisure for Dickens, one that involves both the pull of action and the counter weight of passivity. The action of the racecourse, its carnival and the actual horserace is countered by the lack of available working-class information when placing a bet, resulting in the inert void of ‘slang intelligence’.

However for Dickens there was, or at least there could be, an active excitement to gambling, something that is evident in a letter to John Forster describing the 1857 St. Ledger

meeting he attended and used as a setting for ‘The Lazy Tour’:

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Told in the third person in an attempt to dissociate himself from the moral questionability of gambling Dickens is compelled to dismiss the experience with words such as ‘facetiously’ and ‘coincidence’, and end the letter describing the ‘orrors’ which betting to excess can


The Letters of Charles Dickens, (ed.) Walter Dexter, (London: Nonesuch Edition, 1938), Vol. 2, p. 867.

The Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume Three, 1842-1843, (ed.) Madeline House, Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 450. The letter bears remarkable similarities to a description in ‘The Lazy Tour’ and is evidence of Dickens’s input into the racing scenes of that text. I print the description form ‘The Lazy Tour’ here to highlight such similarities: ‘Saturday. Mr. Idle wishes to know at breakfast, what were those dreadful groanings in his bedroom doorway in the night? Mr. Goodchild answers, Nightmare. Mr. Idle repels the calumny, and calls the waiter. The Angel is very sorry—had intended to explain;

but you see, gentlemen, there was a gentleman dined down-stairs with two more, and he had lost a deal of money, and he would drink a deal of wine, and in the night he ‘took the horrors,’ and got up; and as his friends could do nothing with him he laid himself down and groaned at Mr. Idle’s door. ‘And he DID groan there,’ Mr.

Idle says; ‘and you will please to imagine me inside, “taking the horrors” too!’’ (LT, p. 413).

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is also a ‘wonderful’ experience and picking three winners is indeed enough to make your hair stand on end. Significantly lack of any detailed knowledge about horse racing does not prohibit such excitement. Despite ‘facetiously’ picking the three horses and never ‘having heard or thought’ of them before, the excitement of their subsequent victories is not diminished. What is crucial to recognise here is that the passive gambling of the working classes as described in ‘Betting-Shops’ can still provide excitement, as a lack of knowledge does not prohibit its existence as an active means of amusement. It is clear that Dickens recognises the racecourse, horse racing and gambling as having the potential to amuse and entertain in an active release from the drudgery of industrial work, but he also sees the moral reality and consequences, the potential for an addictive compulsion to develop. There is a tension for Dickens which goes beyond the simple conflict between the uninformed aleatory gambling of the working classes and the excitement of the racecourse carnival, and extends to a tension, drawn on from his own experience, between an exciting, predominantly harmless amusement and that same amusement’s moral legitimacy.

If we return to ‘The Lazy Tour’ these contradictory tensions reveal themselves within the text. The 1857 St. Ledger meeting described in the story was attended by both Dickens and Collins and was witness to a well documented moment of racing scandal. The filly, Blink Bonny, had won both the Derby and the Oaks that season and was 5-4 favourite for the St.

Ledger; however under instructions from the bookmaker John Jackson her jockey John Charlton deliberately lost the race. Two days later at the same meeting Blink Bonny won the Park Hill Stakes in a faster time than the St. Ledger had been run, a riot ensued and the

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By including a description of what became known as the ‘Blink Bonny riot’ Dickens foregrounds the reality of moral degradation which gambling encourages; the sport and the honour of the horses, the ‘honest creatures’ (OCS, p. 157) are corrupted by the desire to make money. 117 As with the letter to John Forster there is an attempt at dissociation, the riot is observed ‘from a pleasant distance’ as Dickens again removes himself from the scene to avoid a complete emersion in the moral depravity of the scandal. But also like the Forster letter this is again played out against evident fascination and excitement; despite it being a ‘rough proceeding’ it is, like racing and gambling itself, very much ‘animating to see’, an active and enthralling amusement evident both in the fascination of the actual scene and its inclusion within the text itself. In another letter to John Forsters he sums up the 1857 St Ledger meeting in less ambiguous terms stating, with specific reference to gambling: ‘I vow to God that I can see nothing in it but cruelty, covetousness, calculation, insensibility, and low wickedness’.118 There is none of the excitement of the previous letter here, nor any of the excitement of the ‘Blink Bonny riot’, simply the corruptive qualities of gambling. Yet the


www.nhrm.co.uk/archive/blinkbonny, (accessed 18th June 2013), para. 5; Richardson, The English Turf, p.

187; George Hodgman, Sixty Years on the Turf: The Life and Times of George Hodgman, (ed.) Charles R.

Warren, (London: Grant Richards, 1901), pp. 91-97.

Reports from the press relaying the incident are similar to the description given by Dickens in ‘The Lazy Tour indicating not only the accuracy of this representation but also his focus and fascination on the violence and reaction caused by the scandal. The Preston Guardian reports a similar mob mentality: ‘When Charlton returned to the enclosure he was saluted with mingled cheers and hisses, and as he dismounted he was violently hooted and hustled. It was with much difficulty that he could force his way into the stand. [...] The weighing stand, however, was besieged by a clamorous mob; the police were almost incapable of restraining the violence of the crowd’. The Preston Guardian, September 26th 1857, p. 23.

Theodore Andrea Cook, A History of the English Turf, (London: Virtue and Co., 1901), Vol. III, p. 468 The Letter of Charles Dickens, (ed.) Madeline House, p. 447.

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which forces its inclusion in ‘The Lazy Tour’ and causes a tension between the ‘cruelty’ of the corruption of an ‘honest’ horse – the champion fill Blink Bonny – and the carnival festivities, and the evident fascination of the scene. Gambling in its ‘covetousness’ and ‘calculation’ is quite clearly a point of moral contention for Dickens, yet the scandal caused by such gambling and ‘low wickedness’ is nevertheless ‘animating to see’, it is an active form of excitement and entertainment. Although the ‘insensibility’ of gambling – its link to both compulsion and a lack of information for the working classes – are primary concerns for Dickens, what the inclusion of the Blink Bonny scandal highlights is that the moral degradation, and all the passive aspect of betting are countered by the potential for excitement and fascination. The ‘rough proceedings’ of racing and gambling, however morally questionable, have the ability to enthral and amuse, they always have the potential to be ‘animating to see’.

Dickens’s response to the 1857 St. Ledger meeting he attended, and to horse racing in general, was a complex one, clearly uncomfortable with the moral degeneration he saw in gambling yet strangely attracted to its fascinating and exciting potential and racing’s own place as an active spectacle, his position was one riddled with tensions. Horse racing for Dickens was a complex space of leisure in which there were various pulls towards the active and the passive; it was not simply a site of carnival release nor an arena irreparably tainted by gambling and ‘low wickedness’, but rather a space of contradiction which housed both the legitimate demands of working-class leisure and the degenerative compulsions of betting.

This partly answers the questions as to why there is significant lack of representations of horse racing in Dickens’s fiction. Unlike the circus which features so prominently in Hard Times it was not an innocent working-class amusement and it could not, as Paul Schlike has suggested of other forms of entertainment for Dickens, be a simple representation of a

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commercialism. The result is that horse racing occupies a complicated space in Dickens’s fiction; its presence, on the margins of his narrative, is liminal both in its positioning and in its complex conceptualization in the writer’s mind, an unstable and contradictory status which ultimately means the sport cannot be reconciled into a significant fictional representation.

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