The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

H. G. Wells, (First published 1896)

Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll

The «golden age » of the bicycle spanned the decade of the 1890s, the capstone of the Victorian era and the decade that preceded the first mass-produced automobiles.  The new “safety” bicycle, with wheels of equal size, replaced the more dangerous high-wheel or penny farthing which had dominated the bicycle craze for two decades.  The safety opened up the world of personal mobility to far wider range of people than the high-wheel had allowed.  All of the sudden, adventuresome older people and less athletic men and women could ride a bicycle.

The new machine, though expensive, initially, captured the imagination of a range of people, including frustrated young women who dreamed of  freedom from the constraints of Victorian England and of diminutive retail sales clerks who spent six days a week serving customers.  This sets the scene for H.G. Wells’ novel whose central protagonist is the bicycle, probably one of the first works of fiction to feature the new “contraption.”

Wells’ protagonist is a young, “Walter Mitty,” drapery clerk bound by the constraints of a tight work schedule and a desperate need to break out of his humdrum routine.  As the story opens young Mr. “Hoopdriver” (yes, Wells is playing with words here) is forced to commit to his annual vacation, a first-ever solo bicycle tour, before he has completed his course on how to ride a bicycle (indeed, the bicycle “class” was popular during the 1880s and ‘90s; Mark Twain took a week’s worth of lessons on how to ride a high-wheel and concluded by advising the reader of his essay, “Taming the Bicycle,”  “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”)

Hoopdriver’s vacation turns into a real adventure when repeated chance encounters on the road bring him face to face with a “Young Lady in Grey,” as she is first presented to us.  The young lady is an accomplished cyclist while Hoopdriver is clearly a novice.  Embarrassed when he crashes in front of the young woman, he is shocked, literally, to see that she is wearing “rationals,” the original bloomers or pedal pushers for women cyclists!

I don’t want to give the story away as the book is available to you in paperback format ( should you be interested.  But suffice it to say that Wells took a break from his science fiction writing to compose both a mystery and Victorian love story on a bicycle tour.  Certainly this has to be one of the first fictional literary works featuring the bicycle and pointing out the role that it might play in liberating the “new woman” from the social bounds that constrained her.  Wells provides us with an open-ended close to his story.   So your imagination needs to pick up where he leaves off.

(For more on the literary theme of freedom, discovery and emancipation for young women that permeates Wells’ novel see Rick’s essay on Emile Zola’s book Paris, written during those same years.