- Swimming with Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale: Sport, Health and Exercise in Eighteenth-Century England by Julia Allen
This delightful volume is neither a biography nor a cultural history of sport. Its modest goal, admirably executed, is to provide a survey—in effect, a compilation—of some of the most interesting primary sources concerning the topics of the book’s subtitle. In a sequence of fascinating chapters on boxing, running, skating, swimming, coach travel, and other similar topics, Allen presents a vivid and highly engaging set of materials that fleshes out the lives of eighteenth-century bodies. While she draws extensively on biographical materials concerning Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson (Thrale was an enthusiastic swimmer and rider, a self-described “water-spaniel” who made sure her daughters got much more exercise than was common for girls in this period), the story of these two friends and the kinds of exercise they enjoyed provides more of an organizing principle than a true purpose, a choice that lets Allen include a wider range of primary-source material than the biographical premise would otherwise have allowed.
Ever since anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote about “techniques of the body” in the context of swimming, anthropologists and sociologists have attended to the complex webs of meaning that accrete around such practices, an [End Page 835] approach exemplified in a book like Loīs Wacquant’s account of an inner-city Chicago boxing gym, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (Oxford UP, 2006). Allen’s book does not provide that kind of conceptual or theoretical account of the topics at hand, but it would very usefully supplement that kind of reading in a graduate course on eighteenth-century bodies; in particular, it gives a rich and copious primary-source bibliography that will enliven the imagination of readers who have grown mildly weary of abstraction. From the joys of Cricket: An Heroic Poem to a London Magazine description of a hairdresser opening up a woman’s “head,” pulling aside the false hair caulked with pins and powder and pomatum and applying the comb to the real hair with the consequence that “swarms of animalculas” are set “running about in the utmost consternation,” there is something to amuse or illuminate on every page. I was particularly delighted to learn from Allen’s commentary on Broughton’s boxing academy (the same advertisement given in full as a footnote in Tom Jones) that the “Mufflers” provided to “secure [students] from the Inconveniency of black Eyes, broken Jaws, and bloody Noses” are not headgear—mufflers were the name for boxing gloves during this period. It is a passage I have taught half a dozen times, and Allen’s discussion will certainly inform my subsequent treatment of it in class.
It seems to me right that students in graduate programs in English literature, say, are first and foremost trained to develop interpretations grounded in verbal details of texts more or less canonical, or that historians should be trained to analyze evidence and mobilize it in support of persuasive hypotheses, with each discipline insisting on the need for self-awareness about methodology, both in terms of how arguments are formulated and what kinds of argument are best supported by the proceedings of any given discipline. Part of what draws scholars of literature and history to British eighteenth-century studies, though, is not merely the literary richness of works by Swift, Fielding, Richardson, Burney, Johnson et al., or the intricacies of political or social history in an age of nascent empire, but also the vivid strangeness—the mixture of the foreign and the familiar—in the ordinary life of the period. This book offers a salutary reminder of why we might immerse ourselves in primary sources that may have less of literary distinction or world-historical significance than certain other archives, but that are nonetheless both telling and captivating in the portrait they paint of one very important aspect of eighteenth-century life. The volume is full of arresting and often very...