Wheels Of Chance, HG Wells (1896)

Hoopdriver’s quest for sun, sea and Sussex provides an illuminating entertainment

JM Dent and Sons 0460019147 paperback 197pp £2.50

In this picturesque comedy, Wells captures that brief moment when the bicycle was king of the road, and a tool of liberation. His hero, Hoopdriver escapes a life of tedium as a draper’s apprentice in Putney to holiday awheel. Following the course of what would later be known as the A3, he masters his machine, shows off his cycling outfit and by a mixture of haplessness and guile rescues a maiden.

The book is as charming an entertainment today as it was when the prolific author sent it to his publishers. But there is much here of deeper interest. Like Hoopdriver, Wells had worked in the foothills of late Victorian retail, and was an enthusiastic cyclist. As a result, the picture he paints of is full of the vivid colour of a gifted observer with intimate knowledge of his subjects.

Hoopdriver is full of despair at his condition – long, tedious hours spent bowing and scraping for scant reward and with little chance of advance. He obtains an ecstatic release from workaday boredom, however, from his wobbling progress in the direction of the South Downs on empty roads and before onlookers who marvel at his machine.

Wells also sheds fascinating light the state of the roasds, the emerging roadside hotels, the position of women and, the arguments surrounding ‘rational dress’ for women.

The narrative follows just five days of Hoopdriver’s annual leave and closes with his return to work. By then, however, his bicycle appears to have initiated a journey of expectation that might yet rescue the protagonist from his predicament. It is intriguing to note that the bicycles’ metaphorical role as an agent of transformation is as enduring as the diamond framed ‘safety’ on which Hoopdriver took to the road.

TD Feb 11

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