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The extent to which the multifaceted concept of play structures the Victorian sense of self, indeed, the Victorian experience of modernity, has never been fully explored. From the sportive logic underlying Darwin’s theory of natural selection, through the middle-class faith in rational recreation and autotelic amusements, to the political efficacy of holidays in the promotion of national identity, popular debates raged in the nineteenth century about the meaning and value of play as a central component of human experience. A totalizing concept, unsettling and exhilarating, play appeared, in the eyes of many Victorians, to have swallowed the world whole. Modern life seemed truly in play, caught in a network of proliferating, contradictory rhetorics of play, from which no exit appeared. This essay maps the unsettled world inside the concept of play, paints a new portrait of Victorian modernity.