Sport & Masculinity in Victorian Popular Culture


A review of Marked Men: Sport and Masculinity in Victorian Popular Culture, 1866-1904, by Shannon Rose Smith.

Shannon Smith’s dissertation breaks new ground at the intersection of gender, literature, Victoriana, art history, and sports history. Marked Men: Sport and Masculinity in Victorian Popular Culture is an analysis of British popular literature’s paradoxical embrace with and critique of the increasingly organized world of sport during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These representations of sportsmen (the emphasis is important) are set within the changing urban and industrial landscape of Victorian London, and allow readers an opportunity to examine critically the changes in middle-class masculinity which occurred during this period. These various literary and artistic contemporary constructions of sportsmen, as shown by Smith, retain their power in popular culture today.

Smith’s approach is original. Rather than focus on representations of sportsmen aimed at highbrow audiences, her work echoes that of Bourdieu in studying “low” art forms: in particular, populist newspapers, literary magazines, and theatre, all of which were created  to please the mass market rather than the limited readership of “legitimate” culture. What is examined by Smith, therefore, is accurately representative of the values of the Victorian “middle class,” itself a constructed category as much as a social strata which was rapidly growing by 1850. Smith’s work, while ostensibly a literature thesis, is molded considerably by gender history — inclusive of Roberta Park and John Tosh — and reflects cultural-historical approaches to sport, particularly those of Mike Huggins, Michael Oriard, and Steven Pope.

The first two chapters offer readers a primer to the subjects of mid- to late- nineteenth-century Victorian “manliness,” and the increasing development of a metropolitan sporting culture during the period. Chapter 1 introduces us to contemporary debates surrounding the benefits and risks of sport. Smith discusses discourses on health and manliness from the period, including those of William Landels, Charles Kingsley, and Donald Walker, which helped to mould the supportive tone of other supporters of physical exercise and “muscular Christianity” (pp. 50-53). Just as Chapter 1 delineates the initial parameters of nineteenth-century primary sources, Chapter 2 outlines Smith’s own theoretical conclusions on previous scholarly work. She argues for the use of a variety of media beyond (though certainly not excluding) the basic press accounts of sport in determining what sport meant to middle-class Victorians.

Chapter 3 takes us back to the traditional newspaper sources, and offers a highly original examination of the 1869 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. Smith specifically uses the 1869 meeting to elaborate upon identity, style, sporting imagery and the creation of competing masculine narratives for members of the Oxford and Cambridge teams. The race occurred at the cusp of an explosion of newspaper coverage on what were perceived to be major sporting events, and 1869 was the last of nine consecutive victories by Oxford University in the competition.

The glut of coverage in papers such as the Times and The Sporting Life, however, did not just praise the prowess of the “Dark Blues”; it also rhapsodized on the courage and heart of Cambridge’s team, establishing the rowers as the spiritual kin of imperial heroes such as Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and other martial figures from antiquity. Singled out for praise was John Still, a late substitute who was placed into the Cambridge team after the ill P.H. Mellor was forced to withdraw, whose physicality was vigorously talked up by the press as an anathema to Mellor. A rumor that Mellor had died highlighted the other swirling controversy of contemporary races: a letter written to the Times in 1867 from F.C. Skey, then president of the Royal College of Surgeons, which highlighted the health risks of the race. Science, then, had contradictory advice on the subject of sport and manliness.

The corpus of literature itself had an ambiguous attitude to sporting manliness, one which adapted to changing circumstances within middle-class urban environments. The rest of Smith’s dissertation examines these various aspects of masculinity in flux, both within the comic theatre of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, as well as in the detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur Morrison. Chapter 4 deals with Boucicault, specifically his sporting melodramas Flying Scud; or, a Four-Legged Fortune (1866) and Formosa, the Most Beautiful; or, The Railroad to Ruin (1869).

Boucicault was popular amongst Victorian audiences, and his work can be considered a reliable guide towards understanding the preoccupations of those who would have watched his plays. Smith argues that Flying Scud, which follows the gambling adventures of horse trainer Tom Meredith and retired jockey Nat Gosling, argues the adaptable continuity of pre-industrial sporting manliness and values as a defense against the corrupt nature of modern urban sport, as personified by villain Grindley Goodge. Formosa goes one length further. Featuring as its centerpiece a staging of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, Formosa posits that sporting teamwork represents a means of combating the city’s vices and corrupt morals.

But while Boucicault believed that sport’s moral code taught men how to negotiate an increasingly corrupt urban landscape, Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur Morrison were far more cynical about professional sport’s ability to disconnect itself from the world around it. By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, Smith argues that the consensus had shifted on sporting masculinity: rather than rising above the values of the period, it was increasingly seen as a construct of it. Chapter 5 specifically examines two detective stories: Morrison’s “The Loss of Sammy Crockett” (1894) and Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Three Students” (1904), featuring his ubiquitous hero, Sherlock Holmes.

In Morrison’s story, professional pedestrian Sammy Crockett, unlike other sporting heroes, is no Adonis: the landlord of the Hare and Hounds public house notes how Crockett’s body is moulded almost strictly for financial gain, with all of his strength based in his legs, and not his arms. Little wonder, then, that Crockett proves unable to fight off kidnappers. In “The Adventures of Three Students,” it is the moral failings of sportsmen that are deconstructed: Giles Gilchrist, a star athlete at a nameless Oxbridge college, steals an exam paper. Holmes’s ability to solve the case is based upon clues in Gilchrist’s physique. In both stories, manly physicality is a weakness.

These characters represent failures of what Smith refers to as the environment of the “sporting pastoral,” a sort of body politic that includes both urban and rural space, and is typically centered at pubs, schools, or other institutions that were the centre of day-to-day sporting cultures. In Chapter 6, however, technology is in the crosshairs, in two more works by Morrison, and one more by Conan Doyle. In Morrison’s “The Case of Mr. Foggatt” (1894) and “The Affair of the ‘Avalanche Bicycle and Tyre Co. Limited’” (1897), as well as Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” (1904). In all three stories, cyclists — continually excited by speed — are seen as undermining the established order of manliness in participating in an activity that feeds man’s primal energy.

To conclude her dissertation, however, Smith returns to the imagery of the Boat Race; in particular, its use in a recent video by British boy band Take That. This discussion refers back to a point made in the introduction: that the iconography of the Victorian sportsman continues to be used to this very day; and, aside from rearticulating a Corinthian spirit at a time when sport is considered highly compromised by its corporate associations, such discussions also prove that the gender norms of sport are constantly being reinterpreted for new generations. Smith’s excellent work, then, helps us to utilize an interdisciplinary inquiry towards establishing the myriad ways in which sport continues to be recontextualized, inclusive of its past traditions.

Matthew L. McDowell
Moray House School of Education
University of Edinburgh

Primary Sources

Ed. Andrew Parkin, Selected Plays of Dion Boucicault. Gerrards Cross: Collins Smythe Limited, 1987.
The Sporting Life
The Strand
The Times
The Windsor Magazine

Dissertation Information

Queen’s University at Kingston. 2012. 332 pp. Primary Advisors: Maggie Berg and Mary Louise Adams.


Image: A cartoon by Vanity Fair cartoonist, Leslie Ward (1851-1922), of the late Victorian sporting polymath, Charles Burgess Fry. April 19, 1894. Wikimedia Commons.

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