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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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Esther Waters is the most detailed and comprehensive representation of horse racing in nineteenth-century literature. That it is labelled simply as an anti-gambling polemic by modern critics, Victorian reviewers and indeed by the novel’s own author does the text a huge disservice. Its rich and nuanced descriptions of the racecourse draw on complexities within nineteenth-century horse racing itself and relay a complicated space in which class, carnival and leisure are in continual and ever changing conflict. Similarly Nana, in the novel’s extended descriptions of Longchamp racecourse, details the same complex space through its own naturalistic language. What emerges from the horse-racing representations of both texts is a symbolic depiction of the racecourse as a site of contradictions; a space in which the complex relationship between rigorously implemented social zoning and sanctioned carnival release causes the ‘form of the ground’ to be lost as the racecourse itself is unable to fully enforce hegemonic control over its own spatial organisation and infrastructure.

However the significance of horse racing in Esther Waters, and indeed I would argue the significance of the novel in the pantheon of Victorian literature, lies in its presentation of working-class gambling. The novel itself houses tensions between Moore’s own antigambling schemata and narrative drive, and the more positive aspects of working-class betting made apparent by the lengthy descriptive passages within the text. In detailing the

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its own narrative direction, providing a representative undercurrent which runs counter not only to the novel’s more obvious plot lines and intentions, but also against one-dimensional nineteenth-century conceptualisations of working-class gambling and those who participated in it. In his autobiography Confessions of a Young Man Moore recalls questioning his former housemaid in order to determine the ‘depth of animalism’ she had sunk to, concluding brutally, that she was ‘very nearly a dog’.94 Commenting on this Richard Cave calls it ‘remarkable’ that the writer was still able to produce in Esther Waters a novel of ‘sensitive and compassionate understanding’ towards the heroines predicament and the plight of the poor in general.95 While agreeing with these comments I would suggest it is equally if not more remarkable, given the writer’s obvious antipathy towards gambling and his plans for the narrative, that Esther Waters is still a novel which sensitively and compassionately relays the significance gambling played in the lives of the late-nineteenth-century working class.


George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man, (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972), p. 108.

Cave, A Study of the Novels of George Moore, p. 70.

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Horse racing can hardly be described as a major theme in Charles Dickens’s novels, indeed fictional representations of the sport are limited to brief accounts in his early work and sporadic treatment in his periodical writings; but as the central literary figure of the early and mid-nineteenth century any representations of horse racing within Dickens’s writing however brief are worthy of attention. However Dickens’s canonical status is not the only reason for his inclusion. Horse racing’s popularity across the nineteenth century and the sport’s status as a medium for working-class leisure and carnival release would suggest it was the ideal space in which to challenge the consuming might of industrialisation, a particularly salient point of contention for the writer. Furthermore given Dickens’s own attendance at meetings, the championing of working-class leisure and recreation in both his fiction and non-fiction and his avocation of carnival as means of leisure and amusement in Hard Times, the absence of a substantial representation of horseracing is at the very least a void in need of exploration and at most an inexplicable gap worthy of significant critical attention.96 This chapter will examine the only two representations of horse racing in Dickens’s fictional canon, which feature in Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, along with ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’ which he co-wrote with Wilkie Collins. What emerges is the image of the racecourse carnival corrupted by gambling. Horse racing consequently moves away from the sanctioned and eulogised amusement of the circus in


Dickens attended the 1857 Doncaster St. Ledger meeting with Wilkie Collins at least once, which he described in letters to John Forster. He also attending the Derby meeting often enough to note the excessive consumption taking place: ‘so many Fortnum and Mason hamper so much ice and champagne’ as he put it, and was at Epsom in 1862 and 1863 noting the extremely wet weather of the latter meeting: ‘Last year it was iced champagne, claret-cup, and silk overcoats; now, it ought to be hot brandy-and-water, foot-baths and flannels’.

Charles Dickens, ‘Epsom’, Household Words, 3 (1851), pp. 241-246, p. 245; Charles Dickens, ‘The Dirty Derby’, All Year Round, 9 (1863), pp. 369-370, p. 370.

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betting. However Dickens’s response to gambling, particularly working-class gambling, is not so easily categorised as might first appear. Evidence from his letters and the significant non-fiction article ‘Betting-Shops’ suggests an inherent tension between gambling’s moral questionability and the pull of genuine excitement and entertainment it could provide.

Consequently horse racing cannot be confidently positioned within the Dickens canon, not least because its representations are sparse, confined to two of his early, often critically overlooked novels and one co-authored short story, but moreover because it occupies a complex space in the writer’s own conceptualisation of leisure.

Dickens’s concern with the wider application of working-class leisure and the need to provide legitimate amusement for the lower orders emerges in both his fiction and his periodical writing. His two-part essay ‘The Amusements of the People’ written for the first volume of Household Words in 1850 is one of his most significant and in which he forcefully declares: ‘we believe these people have a right to be amused’.97 Dickens saw leisure and amusement not simply as a by-product of increasing spare time but as an actual right of the working classes.98 Such a right finds expression in Dickens’s fiction primarily in the form of Hard Times. It is a novel which explicitly highlights the need for working-class leisure, using the carnival of the circus to rally against the consuming power of industrialisation and materialism, and the Gradgrindian philosophy of ‘nothing but facts’.99 In one of the mostquoted extracts from the novel Dickens sums up these sentiments: ‘people must be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow, [...] they can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a


Charles Dickens, ‘The Amusements of the People’, Household Words, 1 (1850), pp. 57-60, p. 58.

Similar sentiments occur in his frequent debate of the Sunday question and the temperance movement. See Charles Dickens, ‘The Great Baby’, Household Words, 3 (1851), pp. 1-4; Charles Dickens, ‘The Sunday Screw’, Household Words, 3 (1851), p. 289-292.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times, (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 9.

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free from the overbearing paternal concern of the middle classes and expressed in the words of the circus master – the director of carnival entertainment – it becomes representative of the carnival rights of the working class. And yet racing’s unmistakable carnival atmosphere goes unexplored in the vast majority of Dickens’s fiction.

The only representation of horseracing in Dickens’s major fiction occurs early in his canon in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), consequently Dickens is dealing with the period of pre-enclosure in which entrance was free and the carnival in the centre of the course was at its height. Nicholas Nickleby describes the Manchester racecourse of Hurst Park and the way in which the scene is presented is especially interesting in terms of how Dickens views the racecourse as a site of legitimate leisure. First we are given a panoramic view of the carnival, providing a positive scene of amusement, followed by a depiction of more specific detail, one in which the carnival becomes corrupted. I place the two descriptions together to give a better sense of the shift

from positive to negative:

The little race-course at Hampton was in the full tide and height of its gaiety;

the day as dazzling as day could be; the sun high in the cloudless sky, and shining in its fullest splendour. Every gaudy colour that fluttered in the air from carriage seat and garish tent top, shone out in its gaudiest hues. Old dingy flags grew new again, faded gilding was re-burnished, stained rotten canvas looked a snowy white, the very beggars’ rags were freshened up, and sentiment quite forgot its charity in its fervent admiration of poverty so picturesque. It was one of those scenes of life and animation, caught in its very brightest and freshest moments, which can scarcely fail to please.101 Here, a little knot gathered round a pea and thimble table to watch the plucking of some unhappy greenhorn; and there, another proprietor with his confederates in various disguises—one man in spectacles; another, with an eyeglass and a stylish hat. […] These would be hanging on the outskirts of a wide circle of people assembled round some itinerant juggler, opposed, in his turn, by a noisy band of music, or the classic game of 'Ring the Bull,' while ventriloquists holding dialogues with wooden dolls, and fortune-telling


Dickens, Hard Time, p. 45.

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, (London: Wordsworth, 2000), p. 609. All further references will be given in the body of the text as NN.

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First we have the carnival from afar, a ‘scene of life and animation’ in which amusement and enjoyment is bright and fresh. It is a picturesque, ‘dazzling’ scene of leisure, a space in which the working classes exercise their right to be amused in an atmosphere which can ‘scarcely fail to please’. This is however an almost utopian depiction, as the ‘cloudless sky’ and ‘snowy white’ of the tent tops present an unrealistic purity. Furthermore the reality of the scene is glossed over, ‘old flags’ become ‘new again’ and ‘faded gilding’ is ‘re-burnished’ as the tired and worn actuality of the carnival is transformed into an idealised portrayal of leisure. Even the clothes of the beggars are ‘freshened up’ as the scene becomes one of ‘poverty so picturesque’. Of course to temporarily upturn social reality is partly the function of the carnival, but this idealistic representation does not function simply to present the suspension of social hierarchies, when viewed in tandem with the description which follows it highlight how the carnival of the racecourse becomes corrupted by gambling.

All the accompaniments of the racecourse carnival are in the second description, the ‘itinerate juggler, ‘a noisy band of music’, a game of ‘Ring the Bull’, a ‘ventriloquist’, and a ‘fortunetelling women’ but, as the description becomes more focused, the reality is a carnival corrupted. The singular picturesque scene of the first quotation, the ‘one object of interest’, gives way to a multitude of gambling and excess, no longer is it a scene which can ‘scarcely fail to please’ but one in which pickpockets flourish, music is a noisy distraction, drinking tents are full and the cries of ‘real babies’ are stifled. The carnival of the racecourse, rather than ‘shining in its fullest splendour’, becomes a space which houses ‘a motley assemblage of feasting, laughing, talking, begging, gambling, and mummery’. The whole scene of the

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of the word ‘mummery’ becomes especially pertinent here as its sighting in the second quotation shifts the word’s usage from meaning simply to dress for a carnival, to the more depreciative definition of a ridiculous and false ceremony. The racecourse carnival, as the second description shows, becomes a ridiculous corruption of true carnival values.

Significantly this is a scene corrupted by gambling and degraded by the underhand activities of the ‘pea and thimble’ operators who entrap some ‘unhappy greenhorn’ with elaborate disguises. It is the sight of such gambling booths on the racecourse which seriously compromised horse racing as a sight of legitimate leisure and entertainment for Dickens.

Describing a fair in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Coronation in June 1838 Dickens


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