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“Use wore off the glamour of traditions:” “A Wheel within a Wheel” by Frances E. Willard

Frances E. Willard is little known now; I only came across her myself recently and only today did I read her wonderful piece of prose about the bicycle called “A Wheel within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.” Who knew that the bike was a political as well as a leisure pursuit?

Willard recounts how she was free and wild and able to grow stuff in her garden and follow “the occupations of the poulterer and the farmer ” because of her “inveterate opposition to staying in the house.” She was what we might call nowadays a “tomboy,” a term which I suspect is no longer politically correct. But everything changed for at the age of sixteen at which point she was entrusted with becoming a young lady: “the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels; my hair was clubbed up with pins,” she had, in other words, to “cop on” probably so that she could find a husband.

“My work then changed from my beloved and breezy outdoor world to the indoor realm of study.” Enter the bicycle! Cycling wasn’t entirely new to her at the age of fifty-three, a time when she was without her mother who’d died and was feeling that her “mental and physical life were out of balance.” She had tested out tricycles – the ones with three wheels – which women were more suited to, presumably because it was near impossible to fall off them.

One fascinating reflection on the bicycle is that it was the means by which people who could never afford either the danger or the cost of a horse could nonetheless experience through “this bright invention […] the swiftness of motion which is perhaps the most fascinating feature of material life, the charm of a wide outlook upon the natural world, and that sense of mastery which is probably the greatest attraction in horseback-riding.” In other words, the bicycle was a safer and more accessible version of the horse. Learning to cycle, difficult and all as it may be, was far easier than learning to control a sentient being with enormous strength and valour.

The bicycle, as Willard presents it to us, is an agent of immutable physics; the laws of nature are set and one must simply learn to cycle – there are no shortcuts; it’s “a pleasure far more enduring” than any afforded by the public-houses. Willard was one of the leaders of the Temperance Movement which sought to encourage (mostly) men to turn from drinking alcohol and pursue other leisurely activities. In an echo of other feminists and ex-feminists (Cassie Jay comes to mind) Willard writes that she has “always held that a boy’s heart is not set in him to do evil any more than a girl’s” but that boys fall into unwholesome ruts more often perhaps because “we have not had the wit and wisdom to provide them with amusements suited to their joyous youth, by means of which they could invest their superabundant animal spirits in ways that should harm no one and help themselves to the best development and the cleanliest ways of living.” Cycling requires us to “keep clear heads and steady hands” and absorbs our energies and focus that might otherwise be devoted to getting drunk.

“A Wheel within A Wheel” shows us Willard’s time in ways that can hardly fail to enlighten us as to how far we’ve come. There was, for instance, a German woman called Bertha von Hillern who performed publicly her mastery of the bicycle. That alone is remarkable enough but how much more noteworthy is it that Willard herself hadn’t the courage to go and see von Hillern perform for fear of “the speech of people,” and that von Hillern was considered by some as “a sort of semi-monster.” Then again, we are talking about a time when women were strongly discouraged from entering a hansom alone. The hansom was the earliest iteration of the motorcar, a two-wheeled cab drawn by a horse, driven by a man. A woman was, in conventional society, expected never to enter one alone, presumably for fear that she might be compromised in some way. However, “in course of time a few women, of stronger individuality than the average, ventured to go unattended; later on, use wore off the glamour of the traditions which said that women must not go alone, and now none but an imbecile would hold herself to any such observance.” These women “of stronger individuality” one might assume, took risks though not likely for the good of others in all cases; nevertheless, society might be said to have benefitted from their temerity – women more often than men since women had the most to gain from breaking with restrictive culture.

Perhaps like survival itself, cycling requires that one “suit [oneself] to the unchanging regulations of gravity, general and specific, as illustrated in [the bicycle.] Strange as the paradox may seem, you will do this best by not trying to do it at all. You must make up what you are pleased to call your mind—make it up speedily, or you will be cast in yonder mud-puddle, and no blame to me and no thanks to yourself.” The immutable laws of nature must therefore by contended with and the experience of cycling is practice enough for one to be able to learn. All the more fortuitous it was then that Willard was encouraged to learn by a woman called “Miss Luther, of my hometown, Evanston.” Her family, though worried that she’d kill herself on a bicycle, gave her their full support once they understood what it meant to her: they “lent to [her] laborious lessons the light of their countenances reconciled.” And her efforts to learn are described with almost esoteric and comic detail. She found she could master it well enough when her assistants (of which there at least five) were standing there at the ready; what eluded determined and after a break from her exertions she “found that in advancing, turning, and descending I was much more at home than when I had last exercised that new intelligence in the muscles which had been the result of repetitions resolutely attempted and practised long.” How wonderful that phrase, “that new intelligence in the muscles”! Such a boon to have reaped the rewards of concentrated effort. And while the world can be like a bicycle – a vice versa – (how many could have claimed so?) we should never be complacent enough to judge others for giving up. The metaphor she employs here is spectacular: “We can easily carp at those who quit the crowded race-course without so much as saying “By your leave”; but “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” The Bible reference comes from Corinthians 10:12 which appears to warn against the comfortable inducement to rest on one’s laurels, to consider something or even all things within one’s easy grasp. It’s here in the Bible where you’ll find that assurance that God won’t challenge you beyond your abilities.

In a word, cycling taught her that “it had to be learned before we could get on well together.”

The reasons why “[she] found a whole philosophy of life in the wooing and the winning of [her] bicycle” are well worth knowing and thinking about. It is enough, for now, to quote this gorgeous paragraph:

“Just as a strong and skilful swimmer takes the waves, so the bicycler must learn to take such waves of mental impression as the passing of a gigantic hay-wagon, the sudden obtrusion of black cattle with wide-branching horns, the rattling pace of high-stepping steeds, or even the swift transit of a railway-train. At first she will be upset by the apparition of the smallest poodle, and not until she has attained a wide experience will she hold herself steady in presence of the critical eyes of a coach-and-four. But all this is a part of that equilibration of thought and action by which we conquer the universe in conquering ourselves.”

Reading this makes me nostalgic for her world, one I never shared with her, not least because of the items which populated it such as “a gigantic hay-wagon” and “black cattle.” The image of “the rattling pace of high-stepping steeds” is worthy of Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Again and again, Willard invites us, never forces us to enrich ourselves by mining the riches of what we do that’s difficult but enriching: “I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning-wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair.” What’s more life-affirming than being shown the value of “the patience that was willing to begin again when the last stroke had failed.” And in her own inimitable style she can miraculously freshen our vision of ourselves and of any reforms we know we ought to undertake: “all they need is a new impetus at the right moment on the right angle, and away they go again as merrily as if they had never threatened to stop at all.” And so it is with cycling.

Willard recounts a philosophical discussion she once had with some friends while out cycling one time. It concerned the utterance someone’s teacher made to a pupil, so impactful that it became a motto: “I heard something nice about you.” Someone else argues that if they were all to adopt such a motto and say only good things about people the world would be very boring. Willard remembered something Coleridge had written: “‘Look for the good in everything that you behold and every person, but do not decline to see the defects if they are there, and to refer to them.”

Willard exhibits an extraordinary sympathy with one of her bicycle teachers (the new profession is quaint beyond saying!) a compassion and even empathy that endears them both to the reader: “She was a fine, brave character, somewhat inclined to a pessimistic view of life because of severe experience at home, which, coming to her at a pitifully early period, when brain and fancy were most impressionable, wrought an injustice to a nature large and generous—one which under happier skies would have blossomed out into a perfect flower of womanhood.”

If there’s one thing to take from reading Willard, perhaps it’s this: “all failure [is] from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel.” She likens the will to a wheel of the mind: “its perpetual motion having been learned when the morning stars sang together.”

There’s much we can enjoy in “A Wheel within a Wheel,” even more we can learn. It’s not just superbly written with uncommon grace and lightness of touch, it’s also evocative of a time that’s gone but which we could, if we really wanted to, revive and cherish once again.