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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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It is worth noting however that Dickens’s only major representation of the circus comes in Hard Times, indeed popular entertainment is absent as a significant motif in all the writer’s middle and late fiction. Such an absence is almost certainly down to Dickens’s concern with more pressing social issues such as sanitary reform and the living conditions of the poor which he presents in detail in Bleak House. Paul Schlike notes that any minor representations of leisure in Dickens’s later novels relate a ‘growing pessimism about the possibilities of finding a place for entertainment in the new social fabric’; amusement and leisure was then relegated in Dickens’s fiction, not simply because it lacked relative importance but because its position within Victorian life became increasingly problematic for the writer.119 But racing cannot simply be categorised along with other forms of entertainment in the Dickens canon, its complicated position within nineteenth-century life is replicated by the complex space it occupied in Dickens’s writing and indeed by his own conceptions of it. The possibility then of Dickens ‘finding a place’ for horse racing within entertainment and indeed within the ‘social fabric’ of the nineteenth century as a whole was made impossible by the ensuing tensions he experienced in it. The contradictory pulls between inherent excitement and entertainment and the moral questionability he saw in gambling presented Dickens with a problem. Consequently representations of horse racing in his fiction were to remain sparse


Schlicke, Dickens and Popular Entertainment, p. 139.

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because his own concept of entertainment in general was at odds with the shifting landscape of mid-nineteenth-century life, but because Dickens could not adequately position horse racing within his own conceptual framework of working-class leisure as a whole.

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Nineteenth-century horse racing was an arena of sporting leisure which, like many aspects of Victorian society, defied any sweeping generalisations. Its cross-class appeal and popularity was matched by the many hegemonic restrictions the sport was subjected to, as horse racing, the racecourse and thoroughbred gambling became a complicated space of varying and complex tensions between the nineteenth-century conceptualisations of class and leisure.

How then to conclude a study of nineteenth-century literature and culture which has taken as its subject such a vastly popular sport and leisure activity yet one which housed such an enormous array of complexities? Firstly a broad overview simply will not suffice. Horse racing as an all-encompassing carnival or an upholder of established class paradigms is too simplistic a model. The racecourse was a complex arena of both carnival excess and strictly implemented social zoning, a space in which tensions ensued between notion of class, disciplined ideas of leisure and capitalist profit making. Similarly both on-course and offcourse gambling on horse racing was an area of conflict. Subjected to class-biased acts intended to restrict underground working-class gambling while leaving the upper and middle classes exempt, betting on horse racing was paradoxically a space which defied hegemonic control as access to racing information for the working classes created an autonomous space of knowledge and discussion.

Secondly, as noted earlier, this study could never, nor was it intended to be, encyclopaedic. Given this there are various avenues of contextual and literary analysis which can be further explored and researched, and result, unsurprisingly in more tensions and complexities revealing themselves. I have consciously steered away from concepts of gender, particularly masculinity preferring to concentrate on the negotiation of class identities and the expression of working-class leisure. However working-class gambling as a communal space

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bonding. When Moore describes the discussions in the King’s Head in Esther Waters they are called ‘gossip’ (EW, p. 219) in an attempt to deny them a place as a legitimate form of leisure. More specifically they are disenfranchised by their association with a traditionally maligned feminine form of interaction. What emerges is an image of working-class gambling which is not only attacked because of its potential to corrupt but also because it constitutes a form of emasculation for the lower orders. Furthermore concepts of disciplined middle-class leisure project a different type of masculinity, one that aligns with the benefits of hard work and the manly disciplines of sport espoused by the likes of Samuel Smiles and Charles Kingsley. For the burgeoning middle classes of the mid and late-nineteenth century horse racing, to be a legitimate form of leisure, had to rise above the profligate and debauched aristocracy traditionally associated with the sport and the degenerative working-class gamblers, and provide, not only an example of the correct form of entertainment, but also the hard-edged masculinity of sporting endeavour that characterised middle-class concepts of manliness.

Gambling in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby has been discussed here as a corruption of the carnival ideal, a site of degeneration which compromises the legitimacy of horse racing as a leisure activity. However the discussion can be taken in another direction as gambling in the novel relates in part to the profligate betting the aristocracy, who leave the racecourse with their ‘brains on fire to the gamming tables’ (NN, p. 617). This again aligns with the corruptive potential of gambling as it impinges on the carnival ideal, but also more specifically relates to the upper classes whose debauched and reckless betting is setting the wrong example of leisure for the lower orders. It is the aristocracy, the more privileged members of society, who have a hand in corrupting the racecourse carnival and compromising horse racing as a legitimate leisure activity.

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character of William Latch in any great detail. He is however, a significant character in the novel, not simply because he is Esther’s husband but because of his status as a self-made bookmaker. The figure of the bookmaker in the nineteenth century is a significant one in terms of class mobility as most were working-class men whose successful businesses meant they became middle class by means of their income. The bookmaker William Davies, known as the ‘Leviathan’, began life as a carpenter but left an estate worth £150,000 on his death in 1879, while Fred Swindell, who also rose from the working class, left his son £146,057 in his will.120 Bookmakers occupied a liminal space in society, existing on the edges of class boundaries, neither able to abandon their working-class origin nor fully integrate themselves into middle-class society. William’s success as a bookmaker in Esther Waters allows himself, Esther and their companions to celebrate his Derby winnings in a socially exclusive restaurant. However he is unable to completely shed his working-class roots as the ‘other guests seem [...] a little terrified’ (EW, p. 236) and the ‘delicate food’ (EW, p. 237) does not ‘afford much satisfaction’ (EW, p. 237). William’s class status, as with his real life contemporaries, is consequently unstable, he exists liminally between the middle and lower orders; a point emphasised as he chooses to ‘don his betting toggery’ (EW, p. 225) at a pub symbolically located on ‘the cross-roads’ (EW, p. 225).

As much as the representations of nineteenth-century horse racing in this study can be further explored and other literary examples of horse racing analysed, what is a staple of the entire period is the sparse treatment of the sport in Victorian literature as a whole. Given horse racing was so vastly popular across the Victorian period it has implications for how we interpret the broader issues of class and leisure which are often so prevalent in nineteenthcentury literature and society. The gap in the sport’s fictional representations is then an


Itzkowitz, ‘Victorian Bookmakers and their Customers’, p. 8.

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negotiated in term of entertainment and amusement by nineteenth-century authors and the society in which they worked. Of course the lack of horse racing’s presence within a novel or indeed a whole fictional canon could simply be authorial choice, and whether such a gap can ever be fully explained is doubtful. However what often appears to compromise horse racing’s position in nineteenth-century literature and indeed in Victorian society more generally, is its association with gambling.

For Dickens gambling corrupted the carnival ideal, undermining the racecourse as a site of innocent enjoyment. Yet there is, throughout his fiction and non-fiction writing, an evident tension, not only between horse racing and gambling, but between the corruptive effects of betting and the genuine excitement it could induce. There is perhaps something of Dickens’s the ‘attraction of repulsion’ in this; fascinated by the active amusement horse racing and gambling could bring but repulsed by it moral degeneration, the writer could not find a literary space in which the conflict could be reconciled.121 Consequently horse racing when it does appear in Dickens’s fiction is confined to the edges of narrative, existing, as it also did in nineteenth-century society generally, between the fascinating and the repulsive, the exciting and the degrading, and ultimately between the legitimate and the corruptive.

Horse racing’s position in George Moore’s Esther Waters has none of the authorial conflict evident in Dickens; the sport and its association with gambling occupy an extended and secure place in the novel because they are clearly defined as corruptive and compulsive.

Yet the novel is still a space of contradictions. The extended scene of Derby discussion in the King’s Head, presenting working-class gambling as a space in which intellectual debate is allowed to flourish and the autonomy of individual ideas are aired, runs in direct conflict to the narrative, Moore’s own intensions and general critical opinion of the novel. What


Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster used this phrase to describe Dickens’s reaction as a boy to the

slums of London, particularly those around St. Giles. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, (Philadelphia:

J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1874), p. 36.   

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cannot be reconciled into narrative, as in Dickens, nor a site in which comprehensive representations of horse racing and its association with the evils of gambling are laid down, but a novel, much like the racecourse space itself, as a complicated site of varying tensions between class and leisure. A site in which horse racing and its corruptive link to gambling is simultaneously highlighted and undermined as the autonomous and communal space of working-class betting materialises, as it did in late-nineteenth-century society, despite the damning narrative drive of the novel and the stereotypical thrust of middle-class opinion and legislation.

What is ultimately revealed by examining nineteenth-century horse racing’s place within both Victorian society and its literature is that it was an intensely complex and unstable one, changing and mutating as nineteenth-century social mores and custom changed themselves. Housing tensions between legitimate notions of amusement, carnival excess, morally corruptive and compulsive gambling and ever more complicated notions of class, horse racing’s position within society was replicated by its contradictory, often absent place in nineteenth-century literature. The gap in the sport’s literary inclusion, although a void which can never be filled by a conclusive answer, is never the less a space representative of Victorian society’s inability to fully comprehend and recognise horse racing’s position within the ever increasing and complex arena of leisure, and indeed of leisure’s own unstable and shifting place within nineteenth-century society as a whole.

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Primary Texts Dickens, Charles, Nicholas Nickleby, (London: Wordsworth, 2000) Dickens, Charles, The Old Curiosity Shop, (London: Everyman, 1995) Dickens, Charles and Collins, Wilkie, ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’, Household Words, 16 (1857) Moore, George, Esther Waters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) Zola, Émile, Nana, George Holden (trans.), (London: Penguin, 1972) Secondary Texts Anonymous, ‘A Glance at Doncaster Races and Racing’, Bentley’s Miscellany, 31 (1852) Anonymous, ‘Aids to Betting’, The Saturday Review, 17 (1864) Anonymous, ‘Derby Scenes’, All Year Round, 16 (1876) Anonymous, ‘Epsom’s New Race Stand’, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 372 (1829) Anonymous, ‘Newmarket and Horse-Racing, The London Journal, 38 (1863) Anonymous, ‘Racing at Newmarket’, The Saturday Review, 47 (1879) Auerbach, Nina, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth, (Cambridge and Massachusetts: Harverd University Press, 1982) Bakhtin, Mikhail, ‘Rabelais and His World’, in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) Bayles, F. H., Atlas and Review of British Race-Courses, (London: Henry Faux, 1903) Bailey, Peter, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1885, (London: Routledge, 1978) Bevan, R. M., The Roodee: 450 Years of Racing in Chester, (Northwich: Cheshire County Publishing, 1989) Black, Robert, Horse-Racing in England, (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893)

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Caillois, Robert, Man, Play, and Games, (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961) Carlisle Journal, 6th July 1839 Cave, Richard, A Study of the Novels of George Moore, (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd., 1978)

Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life (trans. Steven Rendall), (Berkeley:

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