- The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports and Games, and: Cricket, Literature and Culture: Symbolising the Nation, Destabilising Empire
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht declared in his In Praise of Athletic Beauty (2006) that, “in global academia, sports’ as a social or a cultural phenomenon is at best a marginal topic” ([The Press of Harvard University], 21). If academics declare themselves to be sports fans, the reception by colleagues, Gumbrecht observes, “is difficult to distinguish from a narcissistic type of condescension” (21). Gumbrecht offers possible explanations, but they do not alter the fact that in the academy today sports and athletics have little status as academic subjects. Nancy Fix Anderson and Anthony Bateman resist this trend with books that analyze sports as important social and political phenomena.
Anderson’s The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports and Games is part of the Victorian Life and Times series edited by Sally Mitchell. Anderson’s primary aim is to explain how the Victorians “reshaped their traditional sports, eliminating some while modernizing others, and created new sports, with their games so penetrating all layers of their society, that the English became known throughout the world as a sports-playing nation” (xv). The first chapter, “English Sports before the Victorians,” gives an information-filled history of field sports, water sports, lawn sports, pedestrianism, and blood sports in pre-industrial England. In the second chapter she explains why sports were marginalized in the early Victorian years; besides discussing urbanization, railway expansion, and economic changes, she also proposes that utilitarianism and evangelicalism were the “greatest force[s] shaping the sporting life in early-Victorian England” (25–26). These two movements changed the sporting landscape by creating the Victorian ethos that sought to limit the practice of “time-wasting, sin-inducing” activities like sports (47). In chapter 3 she moves to the mid-Victorian period and considers the ways in which sports were used in the public schools and universities as a “means of controlling unruly boys, maintaining order, and building character” (49). The obsession with order so important to the mid-Victorians is incarnated in her fourth chapter as “Rational Recreation and Muscular Christianity.” The Victorians came to believe that “sports could be tools to help further their goal of establishing a rational, orderly, productive, and sinless society” (67). Chapter 5, “The Sporting Revolution,” spans the time from the mid-Victorian period to the fin de siècle. It connects sports to money, class, and literature. Sports became big business, The Football Association established the FA Cup to create an important sporting venue for working-class men, and the increase in working-class literacy prompted an increased market for sporting periodicals and multi-volume sporting publications as arcane as the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes (1885–1920).
Throughout, Anderson focuses on how the Victorians “were able to use sports to promote their distinctive bourgeois ethos, even as sports subverted those values” (xv). In her last two chapters, “The New Sporting Woman” and “Sports and the Imperial Mission,” she argues that the New Woman’s entrance into “the sporting fray . . . both reflected and caused larger social changes in women’s lives” (113). The [End Page 121] final chapter reports the ways in which the Victorians used sports to help spread their definition of Englishness to indigenous colonized populations while these populations in turn used English sports as a significant means of resisting English imperialism. This played out as the nineteenth century saw a terrific surge in interest in traditional Celtic games as a way to oppose English hegemony in the British Isles, and the native peoples of India and Australia learned to play cricket in a way that would allow them, at least symbolically, to defeat the English.
Given the ambitious scale of Anderson’s narrative, her attempts to inventory her account are sometimes not quite confident. A three-page chronology of events in the history of...