Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1896)

Bicycle. Bicycle! I-want-to-ride-my-bicycle-I-want-to-ride-my-bike. Young H G Wells was an enthusiastic cyclist, and based this early comic novel on his own experiences. A Putney draper's assistant (a position Wells once held) called Hoopdriver goes on a cycling holiday. He keeps running into a beautiful young woman, Jessie Milton, who is also cycling about. She has run away from her Surbiton stepmother, and believes a man called Bechamel will help her set up as an independent woman. Of course the fiendish Bechamel has no such intentions, and hopes only to seduce and ruin the toothsome Jessie. Hoopdriver helps her escape him. Smitten himself and hoping to impress her, Hoopdriver subsequently pretends to aristocracy and spins tales of his enormous South African wealth. He comes clean eventually, and they end the story friends—not, interestingly, married, or lovers, since Jessie decides, commendably, that ‘she was going to Live her Own Life, with emphasis.’ But, gracious, these two don't half cover the ground! Wells plotted his story via real places, and you can, if you like, follow it on a map of the Home Counties: CobhamRipley, Guildford, Haslemere, Godalming, Milford, Midhurst, Chichester, Bognor (where Hoopdriver helps Jessie escape the caddish Bechamel), Chichester Harbour, Havant, Botley, the hamlet of Wallenstock, Blandford (where Hoopdriver decides to tell Jessie the truth about himself), Ringwood, Stoney Cross, the Rufus Stone (where the two part ways) and then our hero drives his hoops back north-east through Hampshire and Surrey to Putney. That's quite some journey. In a review of David Herlihy's Bicycle: The History (Yale 2006) Graham Robb notes:
Given the poorer diets and smaller stature of the early 20th-century population, I had always assumed that when people of my grandparents’ generation reminisced about epic bike rides, they had rounded up their mileage so much that the original trip to the next town had turned into a record-breaking expedition. Yet Herlihy’s figures suggest that, when it was ridden by people who were unspoiled by automation and accustomed to continuous, steady effort, the bicycle really was a more powerful machine than it is today, and that feather-light carbon frames and multiple gears are simply the aids that modern cyclists need to keep up with their ancestors.
Reading this novel, you can believe it.

It is a work of unfeigned and rather exhilarating energy: brisk; lively; comic in tone rather than incident (unless you find ‘people falling off bicycles’ inherently amusing; for there's plenty of that here). There's a genuinely droll flavour to the narrative voice, actually funny apprehensions of the indignities of getting flies up your nose as you pedal along, and the humour of the mismatch between humble Hoopdriver and his soaring, pseudo-poetic desires to escape, to be high-born and rich, to win the heart of the beautiful girl, is very well handled, never condescending or facetious. It manages to be warm at the same time as being funny. It gleams with youth: freshness in the very descriptions, hopeful and forward-looking and a tonic to read:
And it was fine, full of a promise of glorious days, a deep blue sky with dazzling piles of white cloud here and there, as though celestial haymakers had been piling the swathes of last night’s clouds into cocks for a coming cartage. There were thrushes in the Richmond Road, and a lark on Putney Heath. The freshness of dew was in the air; dew or the relics of an overnight shower glittered on the leaves and grass. ... He wheeled his machine up Putney Hill, and his heart sang within him. Halfway up, a dissipated-looking black cat rushed home across the road and vanished under a gate. All the big red-brick houses behind the variegated shrubs and trees had their blinds down still, and he would not have changed places with a soul in any one of them for a hundred pounds. [ch 4]
The book gives a strong sense of how unwieldy those early model bikes were: unstable, angular, incapable of freewheeling, and with very poor brakes. And although the novelty of bicycles can no longer strike a 21st-century reader the way it was bound to strike a 1896 one, newness is in the weave of the writing here. It's a modest joy of a book; less ambitious than many Wellsian novels perhaps, but full of life.

We understand, of course, what the bicycle means. The bicycle is freedom. That's true in a literal sense, and just as true in a metaphorical sense. There's been no shortage of social histories of the bike that demonstrate how important the actual mobility provided by this new technology was in terms of freeing up that middle-, lower-middle and working class majority of the people who couldn't afford horses and carriages. Not to labour the point, but that is one of the main themes of Wells's fiction, as it was of his own life: travel mobility literalising social mobility, the ability to make more of your life than being say, just a draper's assistant. The thing with Wells is that social freedom and sexual freedom are strongly associated in his sensibility. The story at the heart of The Wheels of Chance is one to which Wells would retell in many ways: a love-match between an energetic young Wellsian clerk and a beautiful young woman of a different class, and the oddest thing about it here is that this love story doesn't pay out at the end for Hoopdriver. Nonetheless the pleasure Hoopdriver derives from his freedom could not be more clearly signposted as quasi-sexual:
Hoopdriver mounted, and with a stately and cautious restraint in his pace began his great Cycling Tour along the Southern Coast. There is only one phrase to describe his course at this stage, and that is—voluptuous curves. He did not ride fast, he did not ride straight, an exacting critic might say he did not ride well—but he rode generously, opulently, using the whole road. [ch 4]
Voluptuous curves indeed. This is also the mode in which Wells talks about Hoopdriver's feelings for Jessie. His first encounter with her, on the road to Esher, involves a collision eroticised so completely it reads like a bicycular premonition of Ballard's Crash:
The Young Lady in Grey was also riding a bicycle. She was dressed in a beautiful bluish-gray, and the sun behind her drew her outline in gold and left the rest in shadow. Hoopdriver was dimly aware that she was young, rather slender, dark, and with a bright colour and bright eyes. Strange doubts possessed him as to the nature of her nether costume. ... Her handles glittered; a jet of sunlight splashed off her bell blindingly ... the roads converged. She was looking at him. She was flushed, and had very bright eyes. Her red lips fell apart ... At that supreme moment it came across him that he would have done wiser to dismount. He gave a frantic ‘whoop’ and tried to get round, then, as he seemed falling over, he pulled the handles straight again and to the left by an instinctive motion, and shot behind her hind wheel, missing her by a hair’s breadth. The pavement kerb awaited him. He tried to recover, and found himself jumped up on the pavement and riding squarely at a neat wooden paling. He struck this with a terrific impact and shot forward off his saddle into a clumsy entanglement. [ch 5]
Sexy! Those parted red lips, that flushed colour, the clumsy entanglement. Hoopdriver keeps bumping into Jessie all the way to the south coast; realises that the man she is travelling with is not the brother he claims to be, and rescues her from being despoiled by the cad. Then they travel on together, fleeing both Bechemal and Jessie's over-protective stepmother who, with a man friend, has come down to retrieve her. Sex doesn't happen, and yet sex is immanent in everything Hoopdriver does and wants, which is a pretty good description of ‘adolescence’, I'd say; at least, if my own adolescence was anything to go by.

Now, comparing the novel's eroticised biking to Ballard's Crash, as I do there, is, I have to admit, a pretty misleading thing to do. Ballard finds something grotesque and nihilistic, if compelling, in the eroticisation of car-crashes. Wells finds bicycle prangs erotic in a much happier sense: a blame-free occasion for physical propinquity in a culture that otherwise prevents men and women getting too close to one another. And, without overegging my point, there is a hidden-in-plain-view element to the sheer sexiness of cycling. Well-bred women might ride side-saddle, but there's no side-saddle on a bike, where male and female legs are opened, buttocks are raised, thighs pump and thrust. There's a reason why I kicked-off, at the head of this post, with a reference Queen's 1978 ‘Bicycle Race’. When I was a kid I took this to be a pleasant song about how much Freddie M. liked riding his bicycle. Then, later, and indeed rather more belatedly than was entirely compatible with my sense of adult worldly-wiseness, I realised that he was actually singing about his sexual orientation, at a time when the straightforward celebration of it would have been censored out of the pop charts: Bi! (cycle) Bi! (cycle) Bi! (cycle).

If The Wheels of Chance lacks, as a novel, some of the richness and depth of Kipps or Tono-Bungay (despite covering much of the same ground) it's because Hoopdriver never has to grow up; but that seems to me a feature, not a bug. It's a novel that scoots along, maintaining its uprightness by dint of not slowing down, because it knows that slowing down is going to entail losing control and falling over. On!

Sexual desire, in this novel, is a male thing. Both the men desire Jessie, but Jessie doesn't want to have sex with either of them. And of course the mobility enabled by these new ‘bicycle’ machines, was strongly gendered. It's a common observation by social historians that the figure of the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s was characterised, and satirised, as achieving a socially destabilising empowerment by virtue of this new mode of transport. ‘Woman, until recently, was for ages regarded as a dependent being in the family,’ noted The Lady Cyclist in 1896; ‘in social, educational, religious and political matters, and in most outdoor exercises, she was looked upon as almost helpless.’ But the bike changed all that. ‘The tens of thousands of wheelwomen of the country who have demonstrated that their sex are not an inferior portion of the human family in this wonderful form of outdoor sport have rendered untold aid to the cause of equal suffrage, by dispelling the mistaken idea of women’s dependence and helplessness.’ Take that, patriarchy!

In his The Bicycle: Towards a Global History (2015), Paul Smethurst notes that satirists attempted to dissuade women from biking by claiming it would turn them into beefy, hulking quasi-men.

‘But,’ Smethurst notes, ‘the satirists' attempts to portray the New Woman bicyclist as large and energetic, in contrast to her puny male partner, had the effect of destroying the myth that women were helpless in outdoor activities.’ Wells's narrative several times refers to Jessie's dress and manner as ‘rational’, which is 1890s code for what we nowadays might call ‘feminist’; although the narrative toys with our readerly expectations as to the mode of rationality she espouses, and in the event she does not go the full Anne Veronica, and have sex with either of the men who pursue her. She is a fast woman in the literal cycle-assisted sense, but not a fast woman in the sexual sense.

The two senses of the word blur together, nonetheless. Smethurst's account of the rise of the bike argues for speed as the salient, something he equates with a new mode of mastery that is both spatial and sexual. ‘Pedestrian travel is more embodied and place-bound than bicycle mobility, but mastery of space is more limited,’ he suggests. ‘Ground gained step-by-step can be less expansive: there is little sense of speed and motion is absorbed into the surrounding space. … Bicycle mobility has a greater potential for transgression than walking because the cyclist can more readily breach the boundaries of social space.’ [Smethurst, 64]  He concedes that the motor car ‘has displaced the bicycle as a figure of speed’ nowadays, but maintains that bicycling involves the actual penetration of space in a way that the spectator-like experience of driving does not.
As modernity advanced in the West in the late 19th century, the idea of existential spatiality was beginning to supersede attachment to traditional place-bound community, in both theory and practice. … Humans are said to be able to cope with severing ties to traditional place-bound communities through a capacity to objectify the world by setting themselves apart, by creating a gap. While this is sometimes represented in modernism as a negative sense of alienation, bicycle mobility re-engages the subject through narcissistic projection and a mastery of space en passant.
It's a particular kind of machine, in other words. Wells pitches the narcissistic projection (as it were) as comic, and his take on the mastery of space is tied, I am going to argue, as I freewheel down the hill of this post, with a sensibility we would nowadays call cyborg. Not just the fusion of man and machine in the context of modernity, the fusion of male and female, and their respective modes of sexual desiring. I want to ride my bi-cyborg. I want to ride it where I like.


It may look like an odd connection to make, but The Wheels of Chance put me in mind, a little, of Quadrophenia. Wells's book is considerably more genteel that the Who's rock-opera, of course, and its tenor is mild humour rather than teenage angst and exhilaration. But the two texts do at least share a vivid sense of youth, and the possibilities opened up by the energies of youth once they are freed from the stifling conventions of the Capital. Wells's bikes are precursors to Pete Townsend's mopeds; and Hoopdriver's pretensions to a large South African farm—he boasts of his wealth, claims to have shot an attacking lion dead and so on—find a correlative in Quadrophenia's King of the Mods, who is (of course) actually only a bellboy. And there's something else: a reversion at the end to the reality principle. For all that the literal mobility of the bicycle symbolises social and sexual freedom, the tartness underlying Wells's pleasant comedy in The Wheels of Chance derives from the book's knowledge that Hoopdriver is, actually, on the road to neither. He must return at the end to being a draper's assistant in Putney, and he doesn't cop off with Miss Milton.

Running alongside the real-life plausibilities and frustrations of the mimetic in this novel are a series of more properly sciencefictional fantasias predicated I think (although this is never exactly spelled out) on the cyborg potentialities of the bicycle. And to make what I'm arguing here explicit: I am proposing that the human-on-bicycle ought to replace the cyberpunky man-with-robot-arm or woman-with-sunglasses-embedded-in-her-face (or whatever) as the key trope of the cyborg as such. This, on the cusp of Modernity, is where human and machine meld. Not that I'm the first person to suggest this, of course. It was always, for example the ideal manifestation of the Kraftwerkian Mensch-Maschine.

Thinking along these robotictouring-machine lines makes me wonder about The Wheels of Chance's subterranean connection with the coming of the Wellsian Martians, part organic part machine, which was only two years away as The Wheels of Time was published. At the start of chapter 16 we get this whimsical digression:
Some jester, enlarging upon the increase of bald heads and purblind people, has deduced a wonderful future for the children of men. Man, he said, was nowadays a hairless creature by forty or fifty, and for hair we gave him a wig; shrivelled, and we padded him; toothless, and lo! false teeth set in gold. Did he lose a limb, and a fine, new, artificial one was at his disposal; get indigestion, and to hand was artificial digestive fluid or bile or pancreatine, as the case might be. Complexions, too, were replaceable, spectacles superseded an inefficient eye-lens, and imperceptible false diaphragms were thrust into the failing ear. So he went over our anatomies, until, at last, he had conjured up a weird thing of shreds and patches, a simulacrum, an artificial body of a man, with but a doubtful germ of living flesh lurking somewhere in his recesses. To that, he held, we were coming.
Cyborg metatextuality, this; since the ‘jester’ is Wells himself [the reference is to one of his Pall Mall Gazette essays: ‘Thoughts on a Bald Head’ (1895), later collected in Certain Personal Matters (1897)]. After his first day's cycling, Hoopdriver takes a room at a Guildford Inn. He spends the evening ‘supping bravely in the commercial room—a Man among Men’ and chatting with the others about the hot topics of the day: ‘about flying-machines and the possibilities of electricity.’ Finally he stumbles to bed and has a vivid dream, generated out of the day's continuous cycling motion.
After your first day of cycling one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow; you ride down steeples and staircases and over precipices; you hover in horrible suspense over inhabited towns, vainly seeking for a brake your hand cannot find, to save you from a headlong fall; you plunge into weltering rivers, and rush helplessly at monstrous obstacles. Anon Mr. Hoopdriver found himself riding out of the darkness of non-existence, pedalling Ezekiel’s Wheels across the Weald of Surrey, jolting over the hills and smashing villages in his course, while the other man in brown cursed and swore at him and shouted to stop his career. There was the Putney heath-keeper, too, and the man in drab raging at him. He felt an awful fool, a—what was it?—a juggins, ah!—a Juggernaut. The villages went off one after another with a soft, squashing noise. He did not see the Young Lady in Grey, but he knew she was looking at his back. He dared not look round. Where the devil was the brake? It must have fallen off. And the bell? Right in front of him was Guildford. He tried to shout and warn the town to get out of the way, but his voice was gone as well. Nearer, nearer! it was fearful! and in another moment the houses were cracking like nuts and the blood of the inhabitants squirting this way and that. The streets were black with people running. Right under his wheels he saw the Young Lady in Grey. A feeling of horror came upon Mr. Hoopdriver; he flung himself sideways to descend, forgetting how high he was, and forthwith he began falling; falling, falling.

He woke up, turned over, saw the new moon on the window, wondered a little, and went to sleep again.
This Juggernaut fantasia is another striking anticipation of the way the Martians will treat this corner of Surrey. It is often remarked that Wells's Time Machine is actually a sort of bicycle (it has a ‘saddle’); it is not remarked enough, if it ever is at all, that Wells's invading cyborg Martians are also, in effect, cyclists, albeit cyclists who evolved on a planet where the wheel was never invented. Bipedalomechanists, maybe. Wait, no: Tripedalomechanists, of course.

Once you notice it, you start seeing it everywhere. Hoopdriver, pursuing Bechemal and Jessie with a view to rescuing the latter, stops in the heat of a summer's day for refreshment:
They rode on to the foot of the down, and dismounting began to push tediously up that long nearly vertical ascent of blinding white road, Mr. Hoopdriver hesitated. It might take them twenty minutes to mount that. Beyond was empty downland perhaps for miles. He decided to return to the inn and snatch a hasty meal.

At the inn they gave him biscuits and cheese and a misleading pewter measure of sturdy ale, pleasant under the palate, cool in the throat, but leaden in the legs, of a hot afternoon. He felt a man of substance as he emerged in the blinding sunshine, but even by the foot of the down the sun was insisting again that his skull was too small for his brains. The hill had gone steeper, the chalky road blazed like a magnesium light, and his front wheel began an apparently incurable squeaking. He felt as a man from Mars would feel if he were suddenly transferred to this planet, about three times as heavy as he was wont to feel. The two little black figures had vanished over the forehead of the hill.
In a lovely bit of description, Wells says: ‘There was little danger of losing them, for a thin chalky dust lay upon the road, and the track of her tire was milled like a shilling, and his was a chequered ribbon along the way.’ Milled like a shilling: beautiful detail.

It's about money, too; and status, or rather it's about the delicate situation of Jessie's reputation. Her mother hurries down to the South Coast to rescue her; but Hoopdriver has already done this, pretending to be an aristocrat called ‘Carrington’— though when Jessie forgets this name and asks him to remind her, he forgets it too, and calls himself ‘Benson’. He comes clean soon enough, though, and the two cycle inland. But money, or its lack, brings their chaste idyll to an end: “I never thought of money coming in to stop us like this,” said Jessie. “It’s a juiced nuisance,” said Hoopdriver. “Money,” said Jessie. “Is it possible—Surely! Conventionality! May only people of means—Live their own Lives? I never thought ...”

In the course of his rescue-operation Hoopdriver steals caddish Bechamel's bike; a better model than his old second-hand one. And although he worries about the wrongness of this theft, the story ends with him still in possession of it. He paints it grey to disguise it, delighted that he put paid to the other man's sexual predation—‘“I put the ky-bosh on HIS little game,” he remarks. “I DID that”.’ It's as if the (female) object of sexual competition between the two men has been shifted onto the mobile machine; the bicycle, re-painted the colour Hoopdriver associates with his first encounter with Jessie, when she was ‘The Young Lady in Grey’, becomes the novel's objet petit a. The last thing Hoopdriver says in the novel is explaining his new bike to his co-workers at the draper's shop: ‘Yes—swapped him off for a couple of sovs. It’s a juiced good machine.’ ‘Juiced’ is a euphemistic expletive, of course; but It's a juiced good machine is a nicely clockwork-orange note on which to end, the cyborg combination of organic and machinic. And that's the real core of the novel.

The momentum is building to a lengthy extension of my account of this novel, challenging the critical consensus that it is pleasantly lightweight by leaning hard on the ‘sexual cyborg’ angle, perhaps via a reading of Smethurst's salient of new speeds and territorial interpenetration that brings in, oh I don't know, Virilio's cyborg ‘dromology’. But before I tumble down this metaphorical Putney Hill to conceptually crash at the bottom in a cloud of dust, it is time to apply the brakes. The fastest bicycle is only ever as good as its brake-pads, after all. More to the point, The Wheels of Chance very specifically inhabits a speed-up, slow-down shape. The early chapters are full of Hoopdriver's energetic onward-thrusting: his hurrying pursuit of Bechamel and Jessie, his rescue of the latter, and the metaphorical velocity of his increasingly fantastic lies about South Africa: shooting lions, riding giraffes like horses and more. Then, quite sharply, the novel changes tack, and with it the momentum is deliberately bled away. The first brake is Hoopdriver's sudden access of honesty (‘I can’t go on deceiving you’) when he confesses all his lies. Paradoxically this doesn't make Jessie mistrust him: ‘She suddenly broke out in laughter, at the expression of his face. “Of course you are honest,” she said. “How could I ever doubt it? As if I had never pretended! I see it all now.”’ The second brake is the two of them running out of money, which draws a line under their continuing holiday. And the slow-down follows the defusing of romantic possibility between Hoopdriver and Jessie. This novel, we realise, is not the conventional unconventional-love-affair sort of romance. It's something else. And accordingly I squeeze the breaks on my drop-handled aluminium-framed blogpost, and come to a halt.


  1. I seriously think this notion of the bicycle as the fons et origo of cyborg discourse is wonderfully provocative. But I also want to see you write an explicit Wellsian sex scene that begins "Hoopdriver mounted, and with a stately and cautious restraint in his pace began...."

    1. There's surely good money to be made in writing Bicycle Smut. We could start a specialist magazine ... I mean, there probably is one already, but I'm too timid to Google it.

    2. There's an anime called _A Certain Magical Index_ in which the genre demands lots of female nudity, but it's too creepy to have the male main character react other than with embarrassment so active sexuality as such is assigned to the lesbian roommate of one of the straight main characters, who is always trying to convert their friendship into a sexual relationship in a stalkery, abusive way. At any rate she's once asked about it and replies that everyone has things that other people might find questionable but that are OK in their own mind -- such as stealing the girl you like's bicycle seat.

  2. Here's a poem about Scott Eric Kaufman (written years ago):

    Youth needs its cyborg identity
    tap the fingers, keys,
    the mouse runs
    each click a heaping of coal
    burned, somewhere the ice cap shudders
    the CRT glow
    imposing on the body
    every reality in monochrome

    The rockets go up, you see
    Are they acts? What if
    they never came down?
    Hung, sparklelike, webs in air
    Is that system?
    Does it demand
    A fall?

    Looking back
    (the cyborg runs, headless)
    the debris lies there,
    smells of gunpowder
    in the green-glow
    Looking back, tapping,
    For one last unfired