A Wheel Within A Wheel, Frances E Willard (1895)

How a 53-year-old American suffragette learned to ride a bicycle against her own, and societies’ expectations, on the eve of the twentieth century

Fleming H Revel 1 55707 449 7 Paberback 75pp republished by Applewood Books

The idea today that learning to ride a bicycle is an improbable challenge – even for those in advanced middle aged – is hard to appreciate. In this modest tome, however, Williard explains, in near pedal-by-pedal detail – how she accomplished the task, over three months, practicing for quarter of an hour a day.

She clearly intended the book to serve as an inspiration to other women to follow her wheels: for their health; for the adventure cycling brings; and, for the joy of mastering a difficult process. At this distance, however, much more is evident from her words.

Women’s clothing was clearly an issue – she described the impracticality of crinoline, hoops and restrictive corsets; as well as itemising her own cycling uniform, ‘a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception’.

There was prejudice, too. Many men, according to Willard, clearly thought that acquiring the skill of cycling was beyond the mental and physical wit of a woman. Her satisfaction as dispelling such ideas – particularly given her age – is considerable.

This is not a shrill polemic that finds men responsible for all the world’s woes, however. More than anything, it is a paean in praise of pedalpushing. Consider the inherent democracy of cycling, for example: ‘Happily there is now another locomotive contrivance which is no flatterer, and which peasant and prince must master if they do this at all, by the democratic route of honest hard work’. Or, the bicycles’ role in promoting a good state of mind: ‘When the wheel of the mind went well, then the rubber wheel hummed merrily’.

Grainy, black-and-white pictures of Willard bestriding ‘Gladys’, her bicycle provide an added dimension to her tale.

The prose style is from an age when writers were expected to serve readers up with a decently filling dish, no matter how stodgy that made the narrative. But the unfamiliar flavours and textures of this treatise are worth chewing over, if only for a fleeting flavour of the unprecedented liberation that bicycles brought in their infancy.

PS Mar 09

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