Sandow’s Magazine (US), April 1903
The Pugilist in Fiction.
By P. G. WODEHOUSE.
THERE are two novels in the library of pugilistic fiction which stand alone, Dr. Conan Doyle’s “Rodney Stone” and Bernard Shaw’s “Cashel Byron’s Profession.” In most books the hero is a pugilist because he is a hero. In these two he is a hero because he is a pugilist. Probably everybody who takes an interest in sport has read “Rodney Stone,” and has revelled in the fight between Berks and Boy Jim in the coachhouse, and the great battle on Crawley Downs between the smith and the West-countryman. He has waited in suspense with Sir Charles Tregellis when the last minutes are flying past, and still his man has not put in an appearance; and a thrill has run through him as the crowd swirls and eddies, and an old black hat flickers up from their midst, and falls in the centre of the ring. It is a great scene, that. However often one may have read the book, and however much one may be prepared for the surprise, that magnificent climax comes as fresh as ever. “Rodney Stone” is an epic of the ring.
“Cashel Byron’s Profession” is perhaps less well-known. Mr. Shaw has chosen for his hero the best type of professional pugilist, a gentleman born, clever at few things, but as straight as a die, and possessing a genius for fighting. In his preface the author makes a few remarks on the subject of pugilistic genius. By genius he means something higher than mere skill. Many boxers are skillful, but not one in a thousand possesses that peculiar gift, amounting almost to divination, which enables him to foretell his opponent’s actions, and reduce the art of timing to a second nature. Jem Belcher is the best instance of genius in the history of the ring. Mace was a genius. So was Sayers. So perhaps were John Jackson and Mendoza. But Belcher was the greatest of them all, and possibly it is Belcher who has been the author’s model for Cashel Byron. And I should be inclined to say that Mr. Shaw had heard of the Tipton Slasher when he created William Paradise, his hero’s opponent.
Cashel runs away from school, and goes to Melbourne, where he meets Ned Skene, the retired champion of the world. This is the beginning of his career in the ring. He retires in the end unbeaten. “Cashel Byron’s Profession” differs from “Rodney Stone” in two important particulars. In the first place, there is far less actual description in Mr. Shaw’s book. Conan Doyle loves to follow a fight from start to finish, round by round, omitting details that might offend, and emphasizing only the finer features of the battle. Bernard Shaw treats the subject in a less partisan spirit, while of straightforward description there is only one passage, the glove-fight between Cashel and William Paradise at the Agricultural Hall. In the second place, “Cashel Byron’s Profession” is full of that quaint humour for which its author is celebrated. In “Rodney Stone” the hero, Boy Jim, is evidently an object of admiration to his literary parent, but Mr. Shaw gives one the impression of laughing in his sleeve at Cashel Byron. This, however, may be purely a matter of style.
Nobody can help liking Cashel Byron. His frank self-confidence would win over the keenest opponent of the manly art. His speech at the soiree in chapter six shows him at his best. He sees a picture of St. George alighting from his horse to fight an enemy on foot, and it offends his professional eye. “There’s a posture for a man to fight in!” he says. “His weight isn’t resting on his legs; one touch of a child’s finger would upset him. You can all see he’s as weak and nervous as a cat, and that he doesn’t know how to fight. And why does he give you that idea? Just because he’s all strain and stretch; because he isn’t at his ease; because he carries the weight of his body as awkwardly as one of the ladies here would carry a hod of bricks. If the painter of that picture had known his business, he would never have sent his man up to the scratch in such a figure and condition as that.” As the artist himself was among the audience, this address naturally created something of a sensation. It is Cashel, too, who observes that a champion is a lonely man, and who “was afraid of nothing except burglars, big dogs, doctors, dentists, and street-crossings. When an accident through any of these occurred, he would read the report of it very seriously to Lydia, and preserved the newspaper for quite two days as a document in favour of his favourite assertion that the only place a man was safe in was the prize-ring.” On another occasion he rises at a dinner party, during dinner, in order to show one of the guests, an eminent bishop, how to break a burglar’s back in the act of grappling with him.
And yet, in spite of the fact that in “Cashel Byron’s Profession” he presents the best drawn pugilist in fiction, Mr. Shaw, in the preface to the book, expresses a hope that the effect of the story may be to eliminate from modern fiction the element of what he calls “romantic fisticuffs.” Perish the thought! Many novels are only worth reading for the scene where the hero, “with a half smile on his handsome face,” shows what he really can do, and to quote Mr. Shaw’s own words in their original blank verse:—
to the left,
Cross-counters like a hundredweight of bricks.
That is an extract from “The Admirable Bashville,” a dramatic and shameless burlesque of his own novel by Mr. Shaw himself. The following passage testifies to his merits as a romantic bard:—
time was lost
In getting to the business of the day,
The Dutchman led at once and seemed to land
On Byron’s dice-box; but the seaman’s reach,
Too short for execution at long shots,
Did not get fairly home upon the ivory,
And Byron had the best of the exchange.
These two books, as I have said, stand alone. But the name of the novels in which pugilism plays a part is legion. Charles Dickens himself drew a boxer in “Dombey and Son,” but a poor, weak-kneed caricature of his class he was. The Chicken was his name. The great Henry Pearce was also called the Chicken. But there the resemblance stops. Dickens’s Chicken cannot by any stretch of imagination be taken to represent his profession as a whole. Some few of the scum of the boxing world may have been like him, but not many, while the best, and even the average pugilist, was a different man altogether.
Kenelm Chillingly represents the art in Bulwer Lytton’s works, but his science is not that of the present time, and it is doubtful if he could have stood up for long before a boxer of to-day. Personally, I would back the Public School middle-weight champion (to exclude professionals altogether) of this or any other year against him to the fullest extent of my attenuated purse. There is a certain blow yclept the funny punch, which would, I fancy, upset Kenelm badly.
With “Rodney Stone” must, of course, be classed the short story “The Master of Croxley,” a fine specimen of Conan Doyle’s descriptive style in matters of the ring. In the novel, strength and dogged endurance in the person of Jack Harrison triumph over science as exemplified by Crab Wilson; but in the short story, the Master—a tough, hard-hitting fighter of the old school—falls before the quickness of the young doctor, Montgomery, who brings off a dramatic knock-out blow in the nick of time.
There is an excellent fight in “The Witch’s Head,” by Rider Haggard, between one Jeremy Jones and a Boer giant called Van Zyl. Jeremy’s only hope is to avoid the Dutchman’s blows, that gentleman being able to tap a large hole in the wooden panel of a wagon with the utmost ease. He therefore confines himself to long-range fighting. But in the end the Dutchman closes with him, and attempts to strangle him. Jeremy, however, remembering an old wrestling trick, tries it, with the result that Van Zyl flies over his shoulder and cripples himself for life, and all is joy and peace.
Two of Mr. Jacobs’s best short stories, “The Peacemaker” and “The Bully of the Cavendish,” deal with fighting. In the latter mention is made of a certain Sinker Pitt, a professor of the art, who when in need of practice used to improve on the conventional ball-punching by going the round of the public-houses dressed as a Methodist clergyman and insulting hot-tempered sailor-men. A prizefighter also appears in “A Harbour of Refuge,” no less a celebrity than the Battersea Bruiser, eulogistically described by his commanding officer as a man who “could be champion of England, if he would only take the trouble to train.” And yet the Bruiser, instead of being flattered, offers to “put sich a ’ed on ’im that when he wants to blow his nose he’ll have to get a glass to see where to go to.” Such is human gratitude.
To conclude, Mr. Bernard Shaw observes sadly that the popular English novel is nothing less than a gospel of pugilism. And why not? All fights are good reading, and if the hero invariably wins, well, what does it matter? The villain is, as a rule, a most disreputable character, and fully deserves all he gets. And the hero, whatever his faults, is certainly entitled to an occasional treat. Let the good work go forward!