“The Hate That Changed”: Cycling Romance and the Aestheticization of Women Cyclists – Victorian Periodicals Review – article

“The Hate That Changed”: Cycling Romance and the Aestheticization of Women Cyclists

Eva Chen | Victorian Periodicals Review

2019-10-22

“””Cycling romance, a new subgenre of the short story, proliferated in the pages of cycling and family magazines during the bicycle craze of the mid-1890s.1 As the Queen wrote on January 8, 1898, “”””Bicycling stories are becoming quite the thing now,”””” and “”””one can scarcely take up a magazine without coming across a story in which the ubiquitous bicycle figures in a more or less prominent fashion.””””2 These stories, varying in length from three to ten pages, typically feature middle-class women who meet and marry ideal men as a result of their cycling. As a crucial thematic device, cycling drives the narrative forward to its denouement: a happy marriage. Since cycling invariably took place outdoors and exposed women to the excitement as well as the dangers of expanded mobility, cycling romance celebrates values that seem to depart from the domestic love stories—what Margaret Beetham calls “”””larmoyanty love-tales””””—typically featured in Victorian family and women’s magazines.3 Indeed, women’s cycling was a subject of great controversy in the 1890s that gave rise to intense conservative objections.4 By foregrounding women’s cycling and all its latent controversies, cycling romance depicts a modern, potentially transgressive femininity that is restless with domesticity and yearns for fun and greater freedom. Ultimately, however, this new femininity is tamed and subsumed under a heteronormative framework of romance and consumerism. Cycling romance appeared exclusively in mass magazines—like Lady Cyclist, the Wheelwoman, and the Strand—that blossomed in the 1890s and relied increasingly on advertising and circulation rather than subscription. The bicycle was one of the biggest sources of advertising revenue for these magazines.5 At prices ranging from £10 to £30 for new models in the UK and $100 to $150 in the U.S. in 1895, the bicycle was the first expensive, durable luxury item to advertise heavily in mass periodicals, giving [End Page 489] these publications a “”””measure of recognition”””” as a new major medium of advertising.6 This “”””symbiotic relationship”””” between the bicycle and magazines accentuated a new periodical format that integrated advertisements with editorial contents in a shared discourse of consumption.7 In the more commercialized, ad-packed, product-centered cycling magazines, editorial materials blurred with the bicycle ads as magazine editors “”””actively solicited and commissioned”””” articles to boost and promote the ads.8 During the height of the craze after middle-class women took up the bicycle, women’s cycling magazines further emphasized fashion, consumption, and visual stimulation. Bicycling literature published in these mass magazines broadly consists of bicycle ads and posters, informational reports and comments, manuals, etiquette advice, and cycling stories. While the reports and manuals seek a measure of realism, the bicycle ads emphasize fantasy, glamor, and beguiling pleasure.9 Cycling romance navigates the middle ground between realism and fantasy. By setting women’s bicycling against a background of real socio-cultural problems and obstacles, these stories resonate with the readers’ real-life concerns. At the same time, their fictional nature offers imaginative pleasure that stretches the limits of what is acceptable. While the stories register conservative anxieties about mannish, menacing women cyclists, they alleviate such fears by emphasizing fashion, elegance, and middle-class status. Ultimately the stories become an integral part of the magazines’ overall discourse of consumption by showing how the bicycle enhances, rather than detracts from, a woman’s elegant femininity and chance for happiness and romance. Cycling broadens women’s mobility, but these new opportunities are ultimately subsumed under the reassuring rhetoric of heterosexual romance and the new discourse of fashionable consumption. Scholarship on fin de siècle women’s cycling has often stressed the bicycle’s image as a machine of social emancipation for the New Woman in her struggles against patriarchal norms.10 Patricia Marks’s Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers, for instance, offers an informative study on how the bicycle changed conventions of courtship and chaperonage, brought about reforms in women’s dress and women’s exercise, and generally helped to transform traditional definitions of femininity as helpless and physically infirm.11 This paper takes a different approach by examining…”””

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