Englishwomen And Sport by Frances E. Slaughter

In all ages of the world's history, women have taken part in the out-door recreations in which men have ever delighted, the extent to which they have joined in these health-giving exercises being regulated, by the amount of freedom and independence allowed to the sex, by the unwritten laws of the spirit of the age. In a consideration of the subject that is rather suggestive than attempting to deal with the matter in any final sense, we can perhaps trace in the easiest way the position held by women in the world of sport, at different epochs of our history, by seeing how the subject was regarded by the authors of the period.

In the romances of the middle ages—to go no further back in our researches—sport for all divisions of the upper classes of society was regarded with a favourable eye. The nobles, the superior clergy, and the dames of high degree had their deeds of prowess in the field extolled by the literary lights of the time. For a noble not to care for hunting was considered nothing less than a disgrace, while the clergy were expected to require the relaxation of the chase, and to them was given the right to hunt in their own parks and enclosures. Of this privilege they seem to have availed themselves to some purpose, as at the time of the Reformation the see of Norwich is said to have possessed no less than thirteen deer parks. The wives of the nobles and those who ruled over the religious houses for women, seem to have had an almost equal amount of liberty in sharing in these recreations, and in organising hunts for themselves. The doings of these gay dames—for the religious habit seems to have made but little difference—are extolled by the poets, and if the feats recorded of them are true, they must not only have been accomplished horsewomen but very keen and determined huntresses. On many occasions, we are told, they organised hunting parties, "winding the horn, rousing the game and pursuing it by themselves." Nor, in spite of what it is the fashion of the present time to say of that period of our history, do the stay-at-home embroidery-loving dames come in for the same share of praise at the hands of the old writers.

In hawking especially women were proficient, and one scribe even tells us that they excelled their husbands and brothers in the knowledge and exercise of the art of falconry, from which, however, he deduces the ungallant conclusion that the pastime was to be regarded as "frivolous and effeminate."

At the time of the great revival of letters, the art of falconry was at the height of its popularity, and both in England and in other countries of Europe it was the rule for women of noble birth to train, handle, and fly their own hawks. It was the seventeenth century which saw the decay of this sport as a royal and aristocratic amusement, for though in the early years of the age it was still the most popular form of recreation in the field, by the time the following century had dawned it was all but extinct.

After this, during the eighteenth century, there is no doubt that the prowess of women in the field suffered an eclipse, and the few bold spirits who from time to time broke through the trammels that restrained their less enterprising sisters, were regarded with a certain amount of suspicion and distrust. To come to the days when the writings of Sir Walter Scott opened up a new field of enchantment to his readers, we know that his creation of Di Vernon needed excuse at the hands of the author for her sport-loving tastes, as the presumption was against her being a true specimen of the "womanly" woman, in the best sense of the word.

Whyte Melville, entirely devoted to the chase as he was himself, is yet doubtful of the place of his heroines in the hunting field, and in his well-known novel, Kate Coventry, he seems to consider it a reasonable condition on the part of the man Kate is about to marry, that she should give up hunting when she becomes his bride. In the pages of Surtees, which give such a vivid picture of the fox-hunter's life in the first half of the century, the woman who hunts is nearly always an adventuress, while in the social sketches of Trollope sport has no place in the life of his otherwise charming heroines.

But gradually and surely women once more made good their position in the realm of sport, one of the early books to take a decided line in this matter being, I believe, a little-known novel entitled A Matched Pair. In this book which was published anonymously, a young man and woman who have kindred tastes, are brought together through their common love of hunting, and an amusing instance of the prevailing spirit, is given at their wedding breakfast. When the hour is drawing near for the departure of the bride and bridegroom, news is brought to the latter that the M.F.H. of the country has met with an accident, which will keep him from the saddle for the remainder of the season. The lady of course is told the news, and she receives the suggestion that their honeymoon should be given up, in order that her husband may stay and hunt the hounds, with the most obliging readiness. This incident I give from memory, as it is now many years since I have seen the book. The strangest thing about the incident, perhaps is, that such a truly sporting couple should not have delayed their marriage till the end of the hunting season.

It is during the last ten years that women have come to be reckoned as a power in the land, in the matter of sport, and it is now a matter of course for the novelists of the day to make their leading women-characters of almost all classes, join in some one or more form of out-door recreation. Vivid pictures of the hunting-field, the banks of the salmon river, the croquet lawn and the golf links, show the love of the nineteenth century maid and matron for the healthy out-door exercise, which has given to the younger generation a physique that would have been regarded with wondering awe, not unmixed with disapproval, by their gentle and delicate great-grandmothers.

In a bird's-eye view, too, of the course of our history, we may note that at the time of the absence of the great body of the nobles in the Holy Land in the days of the Crusades, the women, so many of whom had been left in charge of the castles and lands of their lords, came very prominently forward in the domain of sport, as well as in the social life of the period. On the return of the warriors, this liberty seems in some degree to have been curtailed, and whether this is to be attributed to any undue exercise of freedom during their time of independence, or to the fact of the minds of their lords and masters having been effected by the Oriental ideas as to the conduct of women, does not seem very clear.

The restraint however was but temporary, and when the highest place in the land was filled by a woman, and "Queen Bess" ruled her subjects with a judicious determination none could gainsay, her humbler sisters shared in the reflected glory of her fame. Elizabeth herself, as we all know, was an ardent sportswoman, and took the keenest delight in a run with hounds, or a trial of skill with the cross-bow, long after she had passed the age, at which even modern Dianas are wont to retire from an active share in the fatigues of the hunting-field.

The reign of Queen Anne on the other hand, although the Sovereign herself and the members of her court were lovers of the chase, seems to have had a distinctly depressing effect on the independent position of women. It was not till the present century, when our beloved Queen by her conduct on the throne, and in her private life, gave such a stimulus to the position of her sex, that women came forward to take their share in the sports, as well as in the more serious duties of our national life, in a way that was new in the world's history.

That the young Queen whose every act was eagerly copied by her girl subjects, could have ridden after hounds as she did in the early years of her reign, without having many followers, is not to be supposed. Thus indirectly—for Victoria's early succession to the duties of a sovereign left her but little time for the enjoyment of the lighter side of life—Her Majesty's example has probably had not a little to do with the increased love of sport among the women of the present day.

In the history of sport, therefore, as in other departments of our life as a nation, the name of Victoria will be remembered as the great benefactor of women, by having given them larger, truer conceptions of life, and by opening to them spheres of usefulness and pleasure which the deadening influence of the eighteenth century, seemed to have closed to them for ever.