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Two-wheeled Sensibility: Sensory Engagement with Place in British, American and French Cycling Narratives, 1880–1914

Sensibilité sur deux roues : l’engagement spatial sensoriel dans des récits cyclistes britanniques, américains et français, 1880-1914
Una Brogan


Les textes écrits dans la première ère du vélo suggèrent un engagement nouveau et paradoxal avec l’espace. D’un côté, le vélo est une technologie qui a offert une grande mobilité personnelle, tout en encourageant un engagement multi-sensoriel avec l’environnement. De l’autre, les récits qui mettent en scène des cyclistes témoignent d’une mécanisation du corps et des sens qui a contribué à une expérience visuelle du paysage, fondée sur un effet de distanciation, inauguré par l’usage du train. C’est la combinaison unique de ces deux registres qui définit l’esthétique cycliste à la fin du siècle.

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1After a century of industrialisation, and on the cusp of the car era, turn-of-the-century cyclists discovered a fresh way of moving through and experiencing space. Many critics have turned their attention to the impact of trains and other mechanised means of transportation on perception and mediation of one’s surroundings (Schivelbusch; Desportes; Beaumont), yet the bicycle’s role in shaping our understanding of place has been largely neglected. This is perhaps due to its liminal status and the difficulty of categorising it simply as a vehicle or purely as an extension of the body’s innate capacity for movement. Yet despite its resistance to classification, one thing is certain: the technology of the bicycle—like the train, car and airplane—actively shapes our interaction with place. As the above critics have argued, technologies of transport construct specific landscapes and to a large extent dictate the way we perceive and interact with our surroundings. It is for this reason that bicycles and other vehicles may rightly be considered as aesthetic as well as locomotive devices. The writers we shall examine describe a multi-sensory, embodied experience of cycling. By listening to their accounts, and drawing on the work of several critics, we shall reflect on the ways in which such an aesthetic challenged the visual, panoramic paradigm established by the railways at the mid-century. Moreover, we shall consider how the bicycle countered or contributed to emerging modes of mobility and tourism in the 20th century.

  • 1l’espace est un lieu pratiqué’. All translations from French are my own.

2The bicycle provided the very possibility for engagement by giving its riders the means to explore unknown localities. Freed from the rapid, restrictive and collective mobility imposed by railways, cyclists rejoiced in the new capacities the bicycle provided, as British author J. W. Allen recounts in his 1909 Wheel Magic: ‘I had blessed the machine that enabled me to find and to see: I had even thought of it as a means whereby every dweller in cities might reach the beauty of the world outside’ (Allen 13). Allen’s two infinitives ‘to find and to see’ draw attention to both sides of cyclists’ new interaction with space. Firstly, they are able to find, since the bicycle opens up the in-between spaces negated by the train’s rapid transit through them. Michel de Certeau’s distinction between space and place—‘space is a practiced place’ (de Certeau 173)1—provides a useful way to conceptualise the cyclists’ movement in contrast to that of the train or car. It is the crossings and movements of people (or more specifically, bodies) within a ‘place’ that transform it into a ‘space’. The cyclist thus animates space by being present and moving through it, much in the way a walker would. The bicycle’s efficiency and speed, on the other hand, allow the cyclist to reach many more numerous and varied places than a pedestrian could in the same space of time. Allen’s second infinitive, ‘to see’, reminds us that the bicycle makes localities visible by providing access to them. Indeed, the bicycle was the first form of individual transportation that allowed the ‘tourist gaze’ (Urry 1990) to reach places beyond the railway network.

  • 2affranchis dans notre corps plus rapide, dans nos sens plus délicats, dans nos oreilles qui savent (...)
  • 3ce corps à corps avec l’espace’.
  • 4désir d’une expérience spatiale qui engagerait pleinement le corps’.
  • 5Tous les sens contribuent à l’expérience rythmique… Le propre de l’engagement est donc d’engager l (...)

3It is not only vision but also the other senses which were stimulated by cycling. In his début novel Voici des ailes (1898) Maurice Leblanc’s hero Pascal proclaims to Madeleine that, thanks to the bicycle, they are: ‘liberated in our quickened bodies, in our sharpened senses, in our ears that can hear and our eyes that can see’ (Leblanc 124).2 The American W. S. Beekman reflected on the changes that occurred in his own sensory organs on learning to ride a bike in his autobiographical Cycle Gleanings (1894): ‘Once possessing a machine, see the effect. The entire system is stimulated, the mind strengthened, purified and quickened . . . One can never forget the sensations experienced during the time acquiring the art of riding’ (Beekman 3). As Leblanc and Beekman describe it, the human-bicycle assemblage seems to make possible a new sensory engagement with one’s surroundings. The machine gives us access to, heightens and optimises the senses’ interaction with external stimuli, permitting what Marc Augé calls ‘a bodily connection with space’ (Augé 2008, 30).3 Marc Desportes has noted that a ‘desire for a spatial experience that would fully engage the body’ was expressed by writers and artists at the turn of the century (Desportes 199).4 Quoting Goethe, Desportes argues that spaces must be moved through to be appreciated: ‘All the senses contribute to rhythmic experience... Engagement is therefore characterised by an engagement of the body, not only because travelling requires moving the body, but also because the body provides its own set of kinaesthetic information’ (Desportes 174–75).5 Although Desportes overlooks cycling in his aesthetic survey of modern transportation technologies, his remarks on the fin-de-siècle yearning for an embodied experience of space reflect the reality of those discovering the new technology of the bicycle at this time.

  • 6échappant aux totalisations imaginaires de l’œil’ ; ‘Ces praticiens jouent des espaces qui ne se v (...)

4Justin Spinney’s ethnographic research on 21st–century cyclists in London reveals how cycling was and remains a multisensory and bodily experience. He argues that ‘in an embodied experience such as cycling . . . vision is shown to be re-embodied alongside the other senses as part of a multi-sensory construction of the experiences and meanings of place’ (Spinney 41). The cyclist enjoys a sensorily rich experience of place that shares much in common with the perspective of the pedestrian, relying not only on vision but also on hearing, smell and touch. De Certeau argues that the walker ‘escapes from the imaginary totalisations of the eye’ through a bodily and ‘blind’ connection with space; they ‘play with spaces that can’t be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as the bodily contact of two lovers’ (De Certeau 141–42).6 The importance of senses other than vision to early cyclists is testified to by several authors within our corpus who joyfully recount their night-time rides. Deprived of visual signals, they seem to gain a heightened, visceral experience of place. J. W. Allen claims: ‘At night we see the world as it is: vast, phantasmal, nebulous, dark. The sun makes it difficult to believe in the absolutely invisible. At night we know better . . . One realises the immensity of things and how unimportant humanity is, even on its own planet’ (Allen 91). H. G. Wells’s heroes in The Wheels of Chance discover the exhilarating experience of cycling at night, when the road—which had been an aggressive visual and tactile presence in the day—becomes principally an aural (albeit silent) element in the nocturnal scene: ‘The road that was a mere rutted white dust, hot underfoot, blinding to the eye, is now a soft grey silence, with the glitter of a crystal grain set starlike in its silver here and there. . . . And in silence under [the moon’s] benign influence, under the benediction of her light, rode our two wanderers side by side through the transfigured and transfiguring night’ (Wells 1946, 96). For a lone woman cyclist, darkness and its guarantee of invisibility could reassure rather than alarm, as Dorothy Richardson’s heroine Miriam recounts in The Tunnel (1919): ‘Stronger than fear, was the comfort of the dense darkness. Her own darkness by right of riding through the day. Leaning upon the velvety blackness she pushed on’ (Richardson 233). Here the night is given solidity; Miriam feels she is touching it as she progresses. These descriptions of nocturnal outings highlight the fact that from a cyclist’s perspective, vision ‘no longer works in isolation from the other senses’ (Spinney 34). Just as the cyclist’s multisensory engagement with space may allow a re-definition of the non-places of automobility in a 21st–century context, in late Victorian Britain such a practise must certainly have encouraged the emergence of renewed relation to space in the wake of the profound changes worked on the landscape by railways. The very possibility of journeying at night was a reminder of the flexibility and novelty of a vehicle that was not restricted by timetables of any kind.

  • 7C’étaient [des] regards, doux, affectueux, imprégnés de respect et de gratitude’.
  • 8Ce n’est plus une chose, Madeleine, ce n’est plus une petite bête d’acier ; non, écoutez... c’est (...)
  • 9Elle ne cache rien, ses mouvements sont apparents, l’effort chez elle se voit et se comprend ; ell (...)
  • 10la promenade à bicyclette du matin, si délicieuse, lui apparaît sous son véritable jour, comme une (...)

5From being a sensory tool, the bicycle may become a sensual one. In Leblanc’s Voici des ailes, two couples separate and reform with new partners during a cycle tour. These sexually liberated cyclists credit their bicycles with having shown them how to recognise their desires, in spite of social conventions. Indeed, the bicycle itself becomes sexualised in Leblanc’s narrative, such as in a passage where Pascal, leaning against a tree, lovingly contemplates the machine: ‘With soft, affectionate looks, filled with respect and gratitude’,7 before admitting ‘It’s no longer a thing, Madeleine, it’s no longer a little steel beast; no, it’s a friend’ (Leblanc 117).8 Indeed, Pascal draws inspiration from the open and ‘sincere’ nature of the bicycle’s mechanism to argue for a more frank approach to bodies and sexuality: ‘It hides nothing, its movements are visible, you can see and understand its working; it proclaims its goal, it says it wants to go quickly, silently and lightly’ (Leblanc 26).9 In a more satirical vein, Alfred Jarry’s Le Surmâle (1902) tells the story of Marcueil, who undertakes two consecutive and interconnected challenges: to race a bicycle against a steam train in a 10,000 mile race and to have sex a record number of times in 24 hours. In this case the machine awakes in the cyclist a hyper-awareness of his own body that leads him to want to test and push its limits. In a further example from French literature, a collection entitled Contes modernes. Pédalons! (1892), written under the pseudonym Jehan de la Pédale, recounts a series of humorous and erotic tales linked to bicycling. Although often associated with hidden or illicit affairs, the bicycle was also celebrated as a marriage maker, since it allowed young people to meet and socialise, bringing a further meaning of ‘engagement’ to mind. Indeed, in Zola’s Paris (1897), the central couple’s bicycle ride in the woods marks the beginning of their future marriage, as Pierre recognises: ‘the delightful morning bicycle ride revealed itself to him in its true light, as a morning of betrothal, deep in the joyful forest, the complicit forest’ (Zola 241).10 H. G. Wells similarly links cycling to the fleeting romances of his heroes in The Wheels of Chance (1895) and The History of Mr Polly (1910). In his New Woman novel Ann Veronica (1913), the cycling heroine first recognises desire and love through an awareness of her own body: ‘the sense of her body was a deep delight, a realisation of a gentle warmth and strength and elastic firmness’ (Wells 1962, 266). It is this bodily awareness—perhaps encouraged by the fact she is a cyclist—which will lead her to confess her love to her future husband. These examples from literature reveal the bicycle’s precocious link to sexuality, something that suggests that it is a technology that goes beyond the dominant visual paradigm in order to reconnect its users with their body and its sensations.

6In spite of the connection the bicycle may help establish to our bodies and desires, it is important to recall the industrial context of the emergence of this new form of transport. In his classic study on railways, Wolfgang Schivelbusch argued that the spread of train travel in the mid-1850s led to the emergence of a ‘mechanised’ subject, whose perceptions were actively shaped by this means of locomotion (Schivelbusch 55). Marc Desportes extends this argument, applying Schivelbusch’s concept of ‘panoramic vision’ to later forms of travel such as the airplane and the car. John Urry gives another interpretation by arguing that the twentieth century has been dominated by ‘automobility’, or spontaneous, personal and disembodied mobility, as epitomised by the car and, later, the mobile telephone and the computer (Urry 2004). When we come to consider the much overlooked bicycle in the light of these theories, it becomes clear that the cyclist has a common lineage with the railway traveller or car driver. Indeed, the above descriptions of the ways in which the machine influences the senses already give a sense of the mechanisation the bicycle can operate upon the body. Edward Thomas bears witness to a strange sense of disembodiment while cycling in In Pursuit of Spring (1913):

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. It was as easy as riding in a cart, and more satisfying to a restless man. At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. (Thomas 116–17)

7This otherworldly portrait of a cyclist’s movement may be contrasted with W. S. Beekman’s more matter-of-fact description of a cyclist equipped with a camera, which nonetheless seems to encapsulate the same symptoms of disembodiment:

An individual starting out with a twenty-five pound machine, a light cyclometer, a small bicycle clock, and a compact camera is indeed a most wonderful example of the world’s progressiveness . . . The plate has caught and retained the fitful shadows, the pose of the stately tree, the droop of the blossoms as they are wafted gently to and fro by the summer breeze. (Beekman 10–11)

8Beekman’s cyborg cyclist seems to have a machine for every function that the body and mind previously fulfilled, and so to no longer need his legs to walk, his eyes to see or his intelligence and memory to tell him the time and distance covered. These depictions appear to foreshadow the subject of automobility as John Urry describes him: ‘The car is a room in which the senses are impoverished . . . The driver’s body is itself fragmented and disciplined to the machine . . . The body of the car provides an extension of the human body, surrounding the fragile, soft and vulnerable human skin with a new steel skin’ (Urry 2004, 31). H. G. Wells reflected on the mechanisation of the body in his novel War of the Worlds (1898), in which the Martians have mastered this process and are able to wipe out humans as a result:

Yet though they wore no clothing, it was in the other artificial additions to their bodily resources that their great superiority over man lay. We men, with our bicycles and road-skates, our Lilienthal soaring-machine, our guns and sticks and so forth, are just in the beginning of the evolution that the Martians have worked out. They have become practically mere brains, wearing different bodies according to their needs just as men wear suits of clothing and take a bicycle in a hurry or an umbrella in the wet. (Wells 2012, 134–35)

9While the narrator derides the futility of human attempts when compared with the deadly fighting machines constructed by the Martians, he nonetheless recognises that a technology such as the bicycle is part of the same drive to mechanise and improve the limited capacities of the body, creating disembodied, fragile subjects in the process.

  • 11ce sont des textes disséminés sur le parcours qui disent le paysage et en explicitent les secrètes (...)

10From this point of view, cycling may be seen as part of the modern drive to optimise human mobility. The argument can be extended further when we consider the effect that the bicycle had on the landscape. We have seen how cycling helped revive spaces neglected by the railway, but it may also be considered as part of the drive to tame, master and appropriate space which theorists such as Schivelbusch, Desportes, Augé and Zack Furness have reflected on in connection with transportation technologies. Indeed, modern infrastructures of mobility such as tarred roads, touring maps, guides and road signs were first installed for the use of cyclists. These installations paved the way for what would become the car driver’s textual and superficial engagement with landscape, as characterised by Augé: ‘texts scattered along the route speak the landscape and explain its hidden beauties . . . The traveller is to a certain extent dispensed from stopping and even from looking’ (Augé 1992, 121).11 Zack Furness, one of the few theorists to have considered the bicycle as part of the complex tale of modern transportation technologies, argues that bicycling along with photography ‘framed and fixed the landscape in mutually reinforcing ways’ and terms the bicycle ‘a landscaping machine’, that allowed city dwellers to construct a distancing, tourist gaze (Furness 41). As such, the bicycle, along with the car, may have contributed to the impoverishment of the senses by replacing sensory engagement with purely visual (textual or photographic) interaction with the environment.

  • 12les lieux vécus sont comme des présences d’absences.

11Nonetheless, the energy powering the bicycle remains that of the human body. Unlike the train passenger or car driver, the cyclist’s body is not encaged and the machine is reliant on human strength for forward movement. In addition, the cyclist may stop and become a pedestrian at will. The unique hybrid between corporeal and mechanical means of locomotion offered by the bicycle therefore offers a mode of engagement which may be located somewhere between the close attention of the walker and the instantaneous, visual satisfaction of the car driver. By allowing access to the in-between spaces forgotten by the railways, the bicycle encourages a more spontaneous interaction with objects discovered along the way, as J. W. Allen points out: ‘To set out to visit, aforethought, some object of interest discovered in a guidebook or gazetteer, is quite a different matter . . . But to come upon the thing unawares may be to come suddenly to a point where present and past are one. The whole fabric of the medieval church rises before us as we stand by the old font or broken canopy’ (Allen 10–11). Allen’s description here brings to mind De Certeau’s definition of lived spaces as ‘the presences of diverse absences’, in which layers of the past, though no longer visible, persist (De Certeau 1988, 107).12 Indeed, this unexpected encounter with the history of places is central to the modern aesthetic of mobility and tourism, which the car has largely inherited from the bicycle. The speed and subjective mobility offered by the bicycle gave its first users access to a means of locomotion that privileged the senses whilst providing the means for them to be continuously and unexpectedly stimulated, as W. S. Beekman neatly sums up: ‘What is more pleasing to the senses than the delicate odor of sweet flowers?... And it is only a machine that will so quietly carry you along among such situations; coming so rapidly and silently upon them that they are not wafted away by the vibration of the air before you reach them’ (Beekman 14). Thus, cycling is characterised as much by its mechanical side as its bodily or natural aspect. It is perhaps in the hybridisation of these two seemingly opposed registers that the cycling aesthetic may be located, as Beekman notes:

The language of Nature is to be heard throughout all the length and breadth, and is not drowned out by the rapid whirl of the resilient tires. One can hear it in the delicate swish of the individual blades of grass, the rustling of the leaves, the humming of the insects, the bowing of the boughs, the singing of the birds, and the purring tones of the babbling brooks. One and all keep up an ever-changing accompaniment to the rapid and cheerful click of the endless sprocket-chain. (Beekman 44)

12Here, the noises the cyclist hears (inaccessible to the passenger of a train or car) and through which he interprets his environment are a symphony of sounds produced by animals and plants, and the pleasing whirl and click of the mechanised parts of the bicycle. Neither drowns out the other, and both are complemented by the presence of contrasting elements in the cyclist’s soundscape.

13Turn-of-the-century cyclists performed resistance to binary corporeal/mechanical classification. On the one hand, they rediscovered the importance of the senses in the wake of the train and in contrast to the emerging automobile. On the other hand, the bicycle laid the basis for a modern approach to travel based on mechanism, speed, discovery, spontaneity and subjectivity. This particular synthesis of the body’s capacity for sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell and the machine’s speed made possible a unique aesthetics based on the combination of these two registers. The bicycle offered a rare means of reviving landscapes and cityscapes wracked by industrialisation, promoting an animated, embodied and modern experience of place.

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Allen, J. W. Wheel Magic; or, Revolutions of an Impressionist. London: J. Lane, 1909.

Augé, Marc. Non Lieux: Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité. Paris : Seuil, 1992.

Augé, Marc. Éloge de la bicyclette. Paris : Payot & Rivages, 2008.

Beekman, W. S, & Eric Allan. Cycle Gleanings: Or, Wheels and Wheeling for Business and Pleasure, and the Study of Nature. Boston: Skinner, Bartlett & Co., 1894.

Beaumont, Matthew, and Michael J. Freeman, The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space, and the Machine Ensemble. Oxford; New York : Peter Lang, 2007.

De Certeau, Michel. L’invention du quotidien 1. Arts de faire. 1980. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley : U of California P, 1988.

Desportes, Marc. Paysages en mouvement : transports et perception de l’espace, xviiiexxe siècle. Paris : Gallimard, 2005.

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1l’espace est un lieu pratiqué’. All translations from French are my own.

2affranchis dans notre corps plus rapide, dans nos sens plus délicats, dans nos oreilles qui savent entendre et dans nos yeux qui savent voir’.

3ce corps à corps avec l’espace’.

4désir d’une expérience spatiale qui engagerait pleinement le corps’.

5Tous les sens contribuent à l’expérience rythmique… Le propre de l’engagement est donc d’engager le corps, non pas seulement parce que le déplacement consiste en un mouvement de celui-ci, mais aussi parce que ce même corps apporte son lot d’informations, notamment kinesthésiques’.

6échappant aux totalisations imaginaires de l’œil’ ; ‘Ces praticiens jouent des espaces qui ne se voient pas ; ils en ont une connaissance aussi aveugle que dans le corps à corps amoureux.’

7C’étaient [des] regards, doux, affectueux, imprégnés de respect et de gratitude’.

8Ce n’est plus une chose, Madeleine, ce n’est plus une petite bête d’acier ; non, écoutez... c’est une amie’.

9Elle ne cache rien, ses mouvements sont apparents, l’effort chez elle se voit et se comprend ; elle proclame son but, elle dit qu’elle veut aller vite, silencieusement et légèrement’.

10la promenade à bicyclette du matin, si délicieuse, lui apparaît sous son véritable jour, comme une matinée de fiançailles, au sein de la forêt heureuse, de la forêt complice’.

11ce sont des textes disséminés sur le parcours qui disent le paysage et en explicitent les secrètes beautés […] Le voyageur est en quelque sorte dispensé d’arrêt et même de regard’.

12les lieux vécus sont comme des présences d’absences.

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Una Brogan, « Two-wheeled Sensibility: Sensory Engagement with Place in British, American and French Cycling Narratives, 1880–1914 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 83 Printemps | 2016, mis en ligne le 31 mai 2016, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2611

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Una Brogan

Una Brogan is a PhD candidate at Université Paris 7-Diderot, where she is researching the bicycle in British and French literature in the period 1880-1914. Originally from Northern Ireland, she completed degrees in French, history, literary translation and comparative literature at Oxford, Warwick and Paris IV-Sorbonne universities before embarking on her thesis under the supervision of Prof. Sara Thornton. She has recently written a chapter on bicycles in Proust for an edited collection, Texts on Two Wheels: Bicycles in Literature and on Screen, which will be published in 2016 by University of Nebraska Press.

Una Brogan est doctorante contractuelle à l’Université Paris 7-Diderot, où elle mène ses recherches sur le vélo dans les littératures britannique et française de 1880 à 1914, sous la direction de Prof. Sara Thornton. Originaire d’Irlande du nord, elle est diplômée des universités d’Oxford, de Warwick et de Paris IV-Sorbonne. Elle a rédigé un chapitre sur le vélo dans l’œuvre de Proust pour un livre qui s’intitule Texts on Two Wheels: Bicycles in Literature and on Screen, qui paraîtra chez University of Nebraska Press en 2016.

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