Playing at Monarchy: Sport as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century France
There have been many scholarly studies on the working classes and leisure time in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (in great part the result of improved working conditions and salaries), and on nineteenth-century social theories and programs that often aimed to improve the physical (and by extension, moral) health of the potentially unruly working class body. As regards the latter, repeated efforts from the latter half of the century to make sports an essential part of secondary education, and later of primary education, however, foundered, the primary reasons being lack of resources for equipment and insufficient space. As for workers, they drifted more towards entertainment in their leisure time than toward sports, since improved working conditions did not yet translate into 40-hour workweeks. When sports did become available to the masses, it was a question of organized sports like football and rugby. Until then, however, sport remained an activity for people with the means for purchasing equipment and maintaining memberships in clubs devoted to a particular sport. Robert A. Nye’s chapters on swordsmanship and the duel in Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (1998) offers a good study of the ways in which the dominant class of the nineteenth-century, the bourgeoisie, sought to construct codes of conduct, and hence, of honor, by building on and minimally revising those codes associated with nobility, efforts that held distinct social and political implications. The appropriation of fencing, a gentleman’s sport, played an important role in the construction of this identity. As his title suggests, Corry Cropper’s Playing at Monarchy: Sport as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century France continues this exploration of middle-class identity construction and self-definition through an examination of formerly aristocratic recreations (pastimes that presupposed ample leisure time and the means for occupying that leisure time), and their adoption throughout the nineteenth century by affluent and/or influential members of an upwardly mobile middle class. Conversely, Cropper also discusses the aristocracy’s efforts both to hold onto a symbolically representative historical prestige (as in fencing, which remained essentially a noble sport) and to physically regenerate itself (ostensibly as a social and political force). In addition to fencing, Cropper looks at le jeu de paume (the precursor to tennis), bullfighting, trictrac and chess, hunting, and the restoration of the Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin’s pet project at the end of the century. [End Page 113]
As the title of his book suggests, Cropper initially offers a different approach than that of other works discussing sports in nineteenth-century France in that he views his subject through the literature of the period. The first three chapters analyze the symbolic and political value of the “sports” presented in Prosper Mérimée’s “La Vénus d’Ille” and Balzac’s La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (le jeu de paume), Mérimée’s Carmen (bullfighting), and Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin and Mérimée’s Lokis and “La Partie de trictrac” (trictrac). While the chapter on bullfighting may at first seem problematic in that the sport discussed is not French at all, given Cropper’s desire to unveil the uses of sport as social-political metaphor, he convincingly shows how Mérimée puts bullfighting at the service of a commentary on the political climate in France around 1830. And while most readers would agree that trictrac, like chess, is not a sport at all, Cropper maintains the focus established in the previous chapters on the unsuccessful appropriation of noble recreations by non-nobles. Manuals on trictrac, like those on fencing throughout the century, offered rules that had more to do, in the long run, with proper social conduct than with playing the game, a conduct that ultimately reveals the degree of a player’s accumulated social and cultural capital. However, the examination of these manuals leads to Cropper’s larger discussion of two opposing historical discourses that he finds exemplified in works by Balzac and Mérimée: one that espouses a deterministic world view (Balzac and the social machine), identified by Cropper as representative of a republican historical discourse, and a romantic one that resists a bourgeois mindset that would impose order over the role of chance and chaos in human affairs (Mérimée).
The last three chapters of Cropper’s book are perhaps the most effectively written. “Of Rabbits and Kings: Hunting and Upward Mobility,” as the title states, deals with hunting, a noble diversion discussed in manuals and periodicals devoted to making it accessible to those bourgeois readers with land, financial means, leisure time, and social ambition. Cropper offers three literary responses to the gentrification of the upper middle class through hunting (Balzac’s pro-old regime Adieu, Mérimée’s anti-monarchic Chronique du règne de Charles ix, and Maupassant’s anti-bourgeois “La Parure”), but these works are somewhat overshadowed by the less than literary but fascinating writings of two men: Elzéar Blaze, whose work promotes a democratization of the hunt and Eugène Chapus, whose manuals and periodicals encourage bourgeois imitation and appropriation of aristocratic manners and modes. “Fencing and Aristocratic Resistance during the Third Republic” argues against Robert Nye’s assertion that the upper middle class had taken up fencing and dueling in the construction of male codes of honor appropriate to its class. Fencing (and dueling) during the Third Republic, Cropper contends, stayed a primarily aristocratic sport. Finally, “Olympic Restoration: Coubertin and the European Monarchy” studies the writings and activities of Pierre de Coubertin, the promoter and organizer of the modern Olympic Games. While it is customary to attribute revanchist aims (as nationalist reprisal for the defeat of 1870) to Coubertin’s efforts to restore the Olympics, Cropper argues persuasively that he sought to “‘restore’ the cultural superiority of a defeated aristocracy” (158).
Playing at Monarchy is by no means complete in its study of the attempts by the bourgeoisie to imitate nobility and, conversely, of the efforts of the nobility to maintain its sense of entitlement through sport. For example, Cropper does not discuss horsemanship, and yet, the horse was a powerful symbol of a historical (and “natural,” [End Page 114] it was believed) privilege to lead both at home and on the battlefield. Characteristically, the Jockey Club, established in 1834, began and continues to this day to be a bastion of the titled elite. Finally, the literary works cited are not quite representative of the entire century, with the majority of them coming from the first half. We can only hope that Professor Cropper will continue his fine research on this fascinating subject.