Victorian Intellectuals Awheel

‘Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.’

H.G. Wells

Many writers at the turn of the century made good use of the bicycle, using it as a means of resting wearied brains as they searched for adventure, stimulation and relaxation. H.G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, was a keen cyclist, and his 1896 book The Wheels of Chance described the adventures of a draper’s assistant from London on his ten day cycling tour.

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Cover to Wells’ The Wheels of Chance 

Wells himself spent three unhappy years as a draper’s assistant, and he put these and his own cycling experiences into the main character of Hoopdriver, whose cycling holiday represents freedom, escape and adventure. As Hoopdriver cycling in the countryside contemplates,

‘Here was quiet and greenery, and one mucked about as the desire took one, without a soul to see, and here was no wailing of ‘Sayn’, no folding of remnants, no voice to shout, ‘Hoopdriver forward!’

Wells captures many of the joys of cycling when Hoopdriver realises,

‘There were miles of this- scores of miles of this before him, pinewood and oak forest, purple, heathery moorland and grassy down, lush meadows where shining rivers wound their lazy way, villages with square-towered, flint churches, and rambling, cheap and hearty inns, clean, white country towns, long downhill stretches, where one might ride at one’s ease (overlooking a jolt or two) and far away, at the end of it all- the sea.’

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H.G. Wells with his wife Jane (source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/bitsandbins/)

Amongst the ranks of literary cyclists could also be found Arthur Conan Doyle, who advised,

‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope seems hardly worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a good spin down the road, without anything but thought for the ride you are taking.’

All very sensible. Not so sensible was the riding style of George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, novelist and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. After taking to the bicycle at the age of 29, Shaw developed his own distinctive riding style. In his biography of Shaw, Michael Holroyd describes how,

‘For someone physically timid, Shaw’s experiments by bicycle were extraordinary. He would raise his feet to the handlebars and simply toboggan down steep places. Many of his falls, from which we would prance away shouting, ‘I am not hurt’, with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism.’

After four years of cycling he could claim, ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.’

George Bernard Shaw- Nobel Prize winner in Literature, questionable cyclist.

However, not all of Shaw’s accidents came as a result of his own unique approach to bicycle riding. In 1895 he went on a cycling trip around Monmouthshire in Wales with Bertrand Russell and Sidney Webb. Given the former was a leading philosopher and mathematician who would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the latter an economist and co-founding member of LSE, you would not have expected bicycle riding to have posed the group too great a challenge.

However, it appears Russell remained ignorant of Conan Doyle’s advice to go, ‘without anything but thought for the ride you are taking’. Shaw describes how,

‘We three rode on our bicycles down a steep hill on our way to Tintern Abbey. Russell is rather absent-minded, and he is presently occupied with a work on non-Euclidian space. He suddenly woke up from a fit of mathematical absorption, and jumped off his machine to read a signpost.’

As it was reported in the Sheffield Independent,

‘The consequences may be imagined. G.B.S. was just behind him, and there was a ‘terrific smash’ and the great critic and Fabian was hurled, ‘five yards through space (Euclidian) and landed impartially on several parts of himself.’

Bertrand Russell

Fortunately Bertrand Russell remained unhurt. Shaw demonstrated some his famed resilience by recovering and cycling home. However, this was only after,

‘Lying flat on his back on the roadway for a while, and defending himself against all proposals to poison him with brandy’. Shaw attributed his escape to his clothing and his, ‘splendid quality of bone and muscle’ resulting from a vegetarian diet.

The lesson? Renowned philosophers and Nobel Prize winners don’t make for great cycling companions.

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