Charles Dickens’ birthday this week, so happy 200th to Boz. If he’s not remembered as one of the great hockey novelists, hockey doesn’t mind, too much. Lots of famous novelists have overlooked the game and they continue to do it in such numbers that hockey takes it as a bit of a badge of honour. Or, at least, it’s what hockey’s used to. If all the novelists suddenly started plotting novels on the ice, hockey isn’t sure it would feel comfortable with all the attention.
Dickens had a lot on his plate, too. There’s that. Also, hockey was still just getting it together at the time that Dickens was doing his novel-writing — which is to say for most of the 19th-century. Not to say that it was unknown in Dickensian Britain: as Swedish hockey historians Patrick Houda and Dr. Carl Giden have exhaustively catalogued, hockey-like stick-and-ball games were rampant throughout the British Isles, on and off the ice, pre-, post-, and during Dickens’ lifetime.
It’s not as if the game entirely escaped his notice. There’s a passing reference, first, in the short story “The Election For Beadle” from Sketches by Boz (1836):
He is just one of the careless, good-for-nothing,
happy fellows, who float, cork-like, on the surface,
for the world to play at hockey with: knocked here,
and there, and everywhere: now to the right, then to
the left, again up in the air, and anon to the bottom,
but always reappearing, and bounding with the stream
buoyantly and merrily along.
Not bad, so far as it goes — though whatever ice there was in this bright little passage seems to have melted down to the flow below. What is worth a note: the name of the candidate described is Bung, which also happens to be a word for the large cork stopper used to fill the mouth of a cask — a convenient stand-in for a puck before there was such a thing. In 1853, in fact, on the pond at Windsor Castle, Albert, the Prince Consort, played goal in a game in which a bung was used — with Queen Victoria watching from the sideline.
Second: in January of 1887, Dickens’ weekly journal All The Year Round featured a discursive dispatch on the pleasures of the blades, both on the frozen marshes of the Fens in eastern England and on London rivers and ponds. Highlights of “On The Ice” would include news that in places of “more continuous and reliable frost, as in Canada, that frost is also accompanied by a weight of snow which bars the great stretches of ice to skaters, and drives the latter to their sheltered rinks.”
Be warned, though:
Rink skating may be an art or a pastime;
but it cannot be called a sport, as open-air
skating may fairly claim to be, any more than
chasing a tame deer round the area of the
Hippodrome, with whatever flourish of horns
or baying of dogs, can be called hunting.
Dickens goes on to lament the fact that the rise of skating must surely mean the demise of “the old-fashioned art of sliding.” Both Samuel Pepys (in 1662) and Jonathan Swift (in 1711) had peeves with skaters, which Dickens duly quotes, before he gets to this:
Still, it is pleasant for a mere casual skater to
find himself or herself, without going far from
home, among the pushing, cheerful crowd on
the Serpentine or the Round Pound. How quickly
the exhilarating feeling takes hold of people!
We only came for an hour, and we stop two; we
will snatch a hasty meal and be on the ice again.
The moon is at its full; what about a torchlight
procession and hockey on the ice? Visions of all
kinds of fun seem to present themselves to the
imagination; and the comes a drop of rain, and
then a drizzle, and then a thorough downpour,
and we struggle through the slush, and mud, and
general ‘débâcle’ to hail a passing omnibus.
* Patrick Houda’s and Dr. Carl Giden’s voluminous research on stick-and-ball games is available online to members of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) at www.sihrhockey.org/new/p_timeline.cfm#time. Curious non-members can inquire using the e-mail form at www.sihrhockey.org/p_contact.cfm, selecting “Hockey Timeline” for a subject line.