Victorian Romances A-wheel, Part One

Daisy, Daisy,
Give me your answer do,
I’m half crazy,
All for the love of you,
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet on the seat,
Of a bicycle made for two.

Daisy Bell, first written by Harry Darce in 1892

‘There is something about a tandem, if it steers easily, which softens the iron-bound laws of custom.’

The Leeds Express, 1898

Many young men and women living in Victorian Britain seized on the bicycle as a means of finding love and romance. Much cycling literature in this period tells of the possibilities cycling opened up to young would-be couples, and in particular those from middle class backgrounds.

File:Daisybell.jpg

Middle class courtship in this period was a carefully controlled, slow moving process, in which the woman’s family had a lot of clout in choosing who and who wasn’t a suitable match. The first step, of a man ‘calling’ on a woman was one which could only take place at the woman’s invitation. Courtship advanced by subtle gradations, with couples first speaking, then walking out together, and finally keeping company once their mutual attraction had been confirmed. ‘Chaperones’- middle-aged and elderly ladies, would often accompany the couple whilst they were courting to ensure that nothing untoward took place.

In the face of such structures it is perhaps not surprising that many young men and women seized on the bicycle as a means of escaping the conventions of middle-class society. The bicycle took them away from stuffy drawing rooms and carefully monitored conversation into environments which contained no such constraints. As one writer explained,

‘The chief merit of the bicycle in the eyes of the young is that it dispenses with the chaperon. It imparts open air freedom and freshness to a life heretofore cribbed, crabbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy (a voice for conservative opinion in this period), and have ridden triumphantly over her prostrate body.’

An article in the Huddersfield Chronicle from 1896 gives some idea about what might have gone on when young groups of men and women went cycling together. The piece commented how,

‘Cycling parties are often got up, and the ride is still young when the cyclists tend to sort themselves into couples, each couple usually consisting of a lad and a lass. And soon the mental as well as the physical effect of the ride commences its influence. The exhilarating exercise gives a sense of well-being, and tends to lessen restraint and convention of manner; the beautiful and unaccustomed scenery, the rushing through wooded tracts and sunlit meadows, is extremely conductive to a fatal form of sentimentality, and often before the cyclometer reaches ten miles Jack is speaking ‘sweet nothings’ to Jill who is too happy and light-hearted to snub or repel him.’

The article’s conclusion certainly suggests that the events on a cycle ride could speed up the courting process.

‘Then, too, there are many punctures done on purpose, which necessitates a tete a tete walk home- for surely no gentleman would allow a lady to walk home by herself- in the gloaming, or nuts may be lost (or carried in the pocket); and the stars are peeping before the weary, worn and travel stained couple arrive home full of anathemas upon their misfortune, but in reality, probably, if not engaged, often on the brink of engagement.’

Of course the writer may have over-exaggerated the case. The cartoon below which appeared in the Windsor Magazine suggests for a much longer courting process.

Bicycle rides were also places where men and women could meet for the first time. Punctured tyres could leave women stranded by the side of the road, and in need of some gallant soul to provide them with assistance. This was a period when women were not expected to have much mechanical knowledge- the greasy hands, oiled clothes and a sweaty face which often accompany bike repairs could all be seen as markedly, ‘un-womanly’. This meant few women ever learnt how to mend tyres or repair their bicycles, and as such were dependent of men’s help. As was said by one lady member of the Tottenham Cycling Club,

‘I doubt very much if many ladies mend their own tyres. I confess I should have to look for a mere man in such case, and would welcome his assistance, as I don’t feel anxious to learnt how to do it, having no fondness for pinching my fingers.’

Meetings between men and women whose bicycle’s had broken down do seem to have occurred, and sometimes led to something more. One article in the Stanley gazette commented that,

‘Two or three girls we know of found, ‘friends in need’ (whilst cycling), which later turned out to be friends indeed, for they married those girls.’

Part of the attraction of cycling for single men may indeed have been little fantasies about such events occurring. H.G. Wells’ short cycling story, A Perfect Gentleman on Wheels, involves the main character meeting a, ‘very pretty girl’ at the side of a road who had punctured her tyre. Wells commented that,

‘Now this is the secret desire of all lone men who do down into the country on wheels. The proffered help, the charming talk, the idyllic incident. Who knows what delightful developments?’

Who knows indeed?