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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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This part of the amusements of the people, on the occasion of the Coronation, is particularly worthy of notice […]. […] There were no thimble-rig men, who are plentiful at racecourses, as at Epsom, where only gold can be staked; no gambling tents, roulette tables, hazard booths, or dice shops.102 The ‘amusements of the people’ are not compromised by the corruptive qualities of gambling, there are ‘no thimble-rig men […] no gambling tents, roulette tables, hazard booths, or dice shops’ which are a conspicuous sight at the racecourse. At the Coronation celebrations such gambling booths are notable only by their absence and as such the ‘amusements of the people’ remain legitimate. It is ‘particularly worthy of notice’ that the second racecourse description in Nicholas Nickleby begins with an extended description of the underhand tactic of the thimble-rig men from which the corruption of the carnival follows. The problem with horse racing as a medium of legitimate leisure for Dickens is its inevitable association with morally questionable gambling, consequently its representation in Nicholas Nickleby becomes one of corruption, a ‘mummery’ of the carnival ideal.


Charles Dickens, ‘The Queen’s Coronation’, Examiner, 1st July 1838, p. 403.

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picturesque scene turned sour by gambling:

As the morning wore on, the tents assumed a gayer and more brilliant appearance, and long lines of carriages came rolling softly on the turf. Men who had lounged about all night in smock-frocks and leather leggings, came out in silken vests and hats and plumes, as jugglers or mountebanks; or in gorgeous liveries as soft-spoken servants at gambling booths; or in sturdy yeoman dress as decoys at unlawful games. Black-eyed gipsy girls, hooded in showy handkerchiefs, sallied forth to tell fortunes, and pale slender women with consumptive faces lingered upon the footsteps of ventriloquists and conjurors, and counted the sixpences with anxious eyes long before they were gained. As many of the children as could be kept within bounds, were stowed away, with all the other signs of dirt and poverty, among the donkeys, carts, and horses [...]. The dancing-dogs, the stilts, the little lady and the tall man, and all the other attractions, with organs out of number and bands innumerable, emerged from the holes and corners in which they had passed the night, and flourished boldly in the sun.103 As the fair in the centre of the course springs to life, with the ‘jugglers’ and ‘mountebanks’, ‘the stilts’, the dancing-dogs’ and ‘bands innumerable’, the racecourse becomes a scene of carnival enjoyment. However like the panoramic description of the carnival in Nicholas Nickleby this is again an idealised scene of leisure, as the tents take on a ‘gayer and more brilliant appearance’, ‘signs of dirt and poverty’ are ‘stowed away’, and everything appears to flourish ‘boldly in the sun’. As in Nicholas Nickleby undercutting this description is the corruptive influence of the ‘gambling booths’; hinted at with the men employed as decoys for ‘unlawful games’ and the symbolic degradation of the ‘black-eyed gipsy girls’ and ‘slender women with consumptive faces’, the carnival again becomes an ideal which has been corrupted. Later when Nell is observing the scene the corruptive effect of gambling on horseracing is foregrounded: ‘The child, sitting down with the old man close behind it, had been thinking how strange it was that horses who were such fine honest creatures should seem to make vagabonds of all the men they drew about them’ (OCS, p. 157). Although, ironically, it is the ‘fine honest’ horse who have this corrupting effect, the strangeness which


Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, (London: Everyman, 1995), p. 156. All further references will be given in the body of the text as OCS.

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like the racecourse carnival, also corrupted themselves. Both the horses and the carnival are passive implements of betting, in their ideal form they are ‘fine honest creatures’ and spaces of legitimate amusement which ‘flourish boldly in the sun’. The reality however is that, like Dickens’s idealised representations, they become inevitably corrupted by the ‘vagabonds’ who use them as a means of gambling. The ‘strange’ image of gambling’s influence on racing and its carnival for Nell is indicative of the conflict in Dickens’s own representation of horse racing, that is the problematic space of the racecourse carnival as a site of legitimate leisure given its inevitable corruption by gambling.

The only other significant description of horse racing in Dickens’s fiction comes in ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’. Published in Household Words in October 1857 the short story was written in conjunction with Wilkie Collins and contains an extended description of the 1857 Doncaster St Ledger meeting which Collins and Dickens attended together. Like Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop gambling is presented as a corruption of horse racing and the racecourse carnival. Obsessive gamblers in ‘The Lazy Tour’ are described repeatedly as ‘lunatics’ and their inevitable losses relayed with a tone of dread: ‘Money-losses very great. As usual, nobody seems to have won; but, large losses and many losers are unquestionable facts’.104 This is not a site of festive celebration but a space of obsessive gambling in which ‘faces in the Betting Rooms [are] very long’ (LT, p. 412).

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the racecourse and the roads leading to it are depicted, particularly in relation to the use of

space in Esther Waters, and how this impacts of notions of leisure:


Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’, Household Words, 16 (1857), pp. 409-416, p. 412. All further references will be given in the body of the text as LT. Although ‘The Lazy Tour’ was co-written the descriptions of the St. Ledger meeting and the gambling which ensues mirror those found in Dickens’s letters. A letter to John Forster, which will be discussed later, detailing an account of Dickens’s fortunes on race day closely resemble a description in ‘The Lazy Tour’. Consequently it is reasonable to conclude that the majority of the horse-racing descriptions in the text are by Dickens himself.

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Movement around the town is restricted as the gambling hoards blocks the streets of Doncaster, ‘crowding’ the pavements, the road, and ‘outside the Betting Rooms’. If we return to de Certeau’s idea that walking creates a ‘space of enunciation’ then gambling in this description silences and restricts, it corrupts its surrounding environment by limiting autonomous movement.105 More significantly gambling is no longer the autonomous space of the working class in which intellectual idea are allowed to flourish, as we see in Esther Waters, but rather a corruptive pastime which afflicts ‘all degrees of men’, their incessant betting confining them into a space of compulsion. By Monday evening in Doncaster the crowds of gamblers cause ‘a complete choke and stoppage of the thoroughfare outside the Betting Rooms’(LT, p. 410); a complete silencing and restriction by the compulsion to bet. In Nicholas Nickleby there is a specific contrast between freedom and restriction which aligns with the different representations of the racecourse carnival. Before the corruptive influence of gambling is described the carnival is ‘one of those scenes of life and animation’ (NN, p.

609) suggesting unrestricted movement and freedom. When the focus turns specifically to the betting booths such animation is lost as a ‘little knot’ (NN, p. 609) gathers around the pea and thimble table. In both Nicholas Nickleby and ‘The Lazy Tour’ gambling denies carnival release; freedom of movement becomes restricted and tied down, enunciation is silenced by the compulsion to bet, and the idealised racecourse carnival is corrupted.

The representation of the racecourse carnival in Dickens’s fiction once corrupted by gambling can longer be a site of legitimate amusement; the freedom from social paradigms and the release from the everyday drudgery of working-class life it provides mutates into a


 de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 98. 

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study Dickens and Popular Entertainment, suggests that Dickens was ‘concerned with the replacement of traditional kinds of leisure activity by new forms and, more centrally, with changing attitudes to entertainment’.106 Moreover the implication is that Dickens was attached to entertainment which was ‘rooted in the traditions of the past’, that is he was more concerned with the communal values of leisure rather than its commercial success.107 It is tempting to view his attitude to horse racing through the same critical lens as the scenes from Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop show an idealised and crucially traditional form of carnival on unenclosed racecourses. Both novels are set in the pre-railway era and therefore such meetings were primarily local affairs for the amusements of the neighbouring aristocracy and the working class community alike. From this perspective the traditional values of the carnival in Dickens’s fictional representations which become soiled by horse racing’s association with gambling parallel the sports shift from a local and crucially communal leisure activity to a site of commercial enterprise. However this standpoint is somewhat reductive as it ignores the changing nature of horse racing and gambling for the working classes across the nineteenth century, and also rather simplifies Dickens’s own complex response to both these things, something which becomes more apparent in his nonfiction writing. 108


Paul Schlicke, Dickens and Popular Entertainment, (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 2002), p. 6.

Schlicke, Dickens and Popular Entertainment, p. 7.

Dickens’s own periodical writing about horse racing and gambling are somewhat sparse, comprising of minor descriptive passages about his experience of race meetings. However many of the articles relating to horse racing which featured in Household Words and All Year Round, and which were not written by Dickens himself, relay the same corruptive effects of gambling as found in Dickens’s own fiction. And, as Harry Stone has pointed out, Dickens maintained strict control of the content of both these periodicals. Harry Stone, ‘Dickens “conducts” Household Words’, Dickensian, 64 (1968), pp. 71-85. As we have seen in Chapter One the article ‘Derby Dregs’ by Joseph Charles Parkinson details the debauchery at the centre of the Epsom course on Derby day. Parkinson, ‘Derby Dregs’, pp. 487-489. In ‘The Roughs’ Guide’ by the same author the writer parodies sporting publication and gambling advertisements, highlighting the hypocrisy of turning a blind eye to advertisements of gambling in the press while making betting houses illegal. The thrust of the article is to lampoon interest in gambling showing it to be a reductive and untimely corruptive pastime. Joseph Charles Parkinson, ‘The Roughs’ Guide’, All Year Round, 14 (1865), pp. 492-496. In Andrew Halliday’s ‘My Two Derbies’ gambling, as corruptive of the racecourse carnival, is condemned. Andrew Halliday, ‘My Two Derbies’, All Year Round, 13 (1865), pp. 490-494. In ‘The Sporting World’ G. A. Sala specifically remarks that

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the rise in off-course working-class gambling perpetuated by the increasing number of available betting rooms. It is worth analysing in detail as it reveals many of the problems the writer had with horse racing and gambling, not least the notion that it was altogether corruptive to the young: ‘the rapid youth of England, with its slang intelligence perpetually broad awake and its weather eye continually open, will walk in and deliver up its money, like the helpless Innocent that it is’.109 Gambling was corrupting the ‘innocent youth of England’ in much the same way it corrupted the racecourse carnival, the numerous betting shops providing ample means for them to feed their ‘hapless’ compulsions. The corruptive influences of betting for Dickens have no redeeming features; the ‘slang intelligence’ does not suggest a community of intellectual debate nor a studious hobby, as found in Esther

Waters, but rather a pastime which denies any advantageous intellectual growth:

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Like the ‘poor creatures’ in the Runciman article discussed in Chapter Two Dickens depicts those frequenting the betting shops – primarily the working class – as ignorant of all the intricacies of horse racing.111 The narrator’s own lack of knowledge is indicative of the ‘slang intelligence’ of the working-class gambler, betting solely on the ‘proper names’ of the horses without any prior knowledge or ‘connextion’ to their form. It is important to note however the context in which Dickens was writing in order to judge accurately his response to this


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