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  • The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports and Games
  • Iain C. Adams
Anderson, Nancy F. The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports and Games. Victorian Life and Times Series. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2010. Pp. xxi+213. Notes, illustrations, glossary, and index. $44.95

Sport in Britain during the Victorian and Edwardian Eras has been the subject of considerable study by historians as this period was viewed as one of significant transformation leading to today’s “sporting global village.” As an established Victorian social historian, Nancy Fix Anderson appraises the development of sport during the Victorian period and demonstrates how it mirrored and influenced the evolution of that society. She explores the way in which Victorian society developed so that being a Victorian in 1837 was significantly different from being a Victorian in 1901 and how these differences were paralleled in sport. Anderson works from the supposition that two “seemingly quite opposing belief systems, utilitarianism and evangelicalism, reinforced each other to produce a coherent ‘Victorian’ value system” (p. 26) that included sport. She traces the relationship between the utilitarian and evangelical movements and sport, from their active opposition to it, through their embracement of it, to how the movements were undermined by it.

Anderson sets the scene with a chapter on English sport from pre-industrial times through to the early nineteenth century. This has been lucidly broken down into separate sections on groups of activities, such as the blood sports of cockfighting, bull-baiting and ratting, and specific domains that would influence sports’ evolution, for example politics and the nascent sporting press. The section on cricket contains a valiant effort to explain the game to non-cricketers although “an inning consists of 10 of the 11 players batting until the last one is out” (p. 10) gives the impression that one player does not get his hands on the willow. This would have partially undermined the effectiveness of the belief that it was “better . . . for an adolescent boy to hold a cricket bat than private body parts” (p. 50).

The book utilizes sport as a prism to examine separate issues and developments in society such as lessening class segregation, gender roles and expectations, and the development of Empire. This is coherently achieved through dividing the rest of the book into seven themed chapters, including “The Remaking of Sporting Cultures in Early-Victorian England,” “Sports in the Victorian Public Schools and Universities,” “The New Sporting Woman,” and “Sports and the Imperial Mission.” Considering the overarching nature of the book, the rather brief conclusion of a one-page sub-section entitled “Sports at the End of Victoria’s Reign” could have been significantly expanded to draw together and critically reflect upon the arguments from each chapter and to provide a synopsis of the impacts of Victorian sport today. For example, how much of the abandonment of Victorian standards [End Page 139] of moral behavior was an unintended result of their modernization of sports; as Anderson points out earlier, the Victorians re-shaped and developed sport into rational recreation that proselytized their distinctive ethos until it permeated every level of society and was central to British culture. However, she identifies that due to the nature of the development of sport, the very values that were being encouraged were undermined and subverted.

Anderson draws extensively from nineteenth-century sources to explain the cultural importance and implications of specific actions and events whilst placing sport into its evolving cultural context. These resources include a wide range of newspapers, periodicals, and books that results in her ideas being supported by intriguing details: for example, fathers paying their sons £1 a run and £5 a wicket in the annual Eton versus Harrow cricket match because of the importance of success in a match that had become a prestigious highlight of London’s sporting calendar. Her primary material is supported by standard works such as Birley, Brailsford, Guttmann, Holt, Huggins, Mangan, Mason, and Vamplew.

The strongest chapter, as befitting an established researcher of women in the Victorian period, is devoted to the development of the “new sporting woman” as a revolutionary social group. Again she explains how sport both reflected and was a causal factor in major social changes...


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pp. 139-140
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