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  • "The Mansion of Bliss," or the Place of Play in Victorian Life and Literature
  • Ira Bruce Nadel (bio)

In nineteenth-century historical sources we find numerous discussions of children at work but rarely of children at play.1 Social histories of the period between the passage of the first Reform Bill (1832) and the death of Queen Victoria (1901) emphasize labor and toil for the young as well as the old. Carlyle vividly described the situation in Past and Present (1843):

Life was never a May-game for men: in all times the lot of the dumb millions born to toil was defaced with manifold sufferings, injustices, heavy burdens, avoidable and unavoidable; not play at all, but hard work that made the sinews sore, and the heart sore.2

Ruskin denigrated the usefulness of play and stressed its immoral character some twenty years after Carlyle: "Men will be taught that an existence of play, sustained by the blood of other creatures, is a good existence for gnats and jellyfish;but not for men."3 Edmund Gosse in Father and Son (1907) illustrated the partial accuracy of the common presumption that Victorian children neglected play when he admitted that he "had not the faintest idea how to 'play' " with his first playmate. "I had never learned, had never heard of any 'games,' " he confessed.4 Nathaniel Hawthorne summarized the frame of mind that seemed to dominate Victorian attitudes toward play when he wrote in his English Notebooks that "the English do not appear to have a turn for amusing themselves."5

But despite these published opinions, Victorians created a thriving industry out of play activities and popular entertainments. Madame Tussaud's waxworks, for example, which opened in 1835, received extraordinary coverage in the press and drew immense crowds. Panoramas depicting unobstructed views of London from [End Page 18] atop St. Paul's, cycloramas recreating the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and dioramas producing movement and perspective in scenes like the "Burning of York Minster" were remarkably successful attractions for children and adults alike.

On a larger scale, the pleasure gardens, beginning with Vauxhall and Ranelagh and culminating in the notorious Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea, flourished as centers of entertainment and extravaganza, providing elaborate spectacles such as a depiction of the Battle of Waterloo or a view of Venice from the Grand Canal amidst fireworks and acrobatics. The circus, music hall, zoological garden, and cricket match all attracted massive followings. The railway excursion, guided tour, and vacation became institutions.

It is on a smaller scale that concern for the educational and moral aspects of leisure activities becomes apparent, in the numerous children's games and amusements designed to release play from its stigma as a frivolous pastime. Through the use of games as an educational device, one fundamental principle of Victorian life clearly emerged: the importance of competition. Learning to compete became a justification, whereas play as a trifling pastime has been condemned.

Play for the Victorians became the means to teach the very qualities that best characterized Victorian behavior, or at least its ideal: industry, competitiveness, probity, determination, and judgment. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian sociologist and psychologist, explicitly described one major element of the Victorian sense of play in Principles of Psychology when he explained the contribution of play to the moral character of the age:

No matter what the game, the satisfaction is in achieving victory—in getting the better of an antagonist. This love of conquest, so dominant in all creatures because it is the correlative of success in the struggle for existence, gets gratification from a victory at chess in the absence of ruder victories.6

Play taught the Victorians, individually and collectively, the importance or rules, the basic code that defines and establishes every [End Page 19] game. In an increasingly complex world, the Victorians felt the need to create an existence that was manageable, self-contained, and regulated.7 The existence of rules thus gave instantaneous meaning. The irony, however—an irony the Victorians soon realized—was that rules were not absolutes, as Alice learned when she stumbled down the rabbit hole.

The literature and games of the period trace an evolution in the concept of play. In...


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