"The worst curse of human life is the detestable necessity of taking exercise." I Say No
"He had a thoroughly English love of the sea and of all that belongs to
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EXERCISE IN GENERAL
the above quotation and the anti-athletic views in some of his novels, Collins
throughout most of his life seems to accept the need for and sometimes even
likes the idea of exercise. Thus in
1852 he writes to his best friend, Charles Ward,
"In bed at 1/2 past 10 - up at 7 - ten mile walk every day - What do
you think of that for W.W.C., of late-hours-and-no-exercise-notoriety?
I am in a state of the rudest health and hardest fat, already!" (PF
16 September 1852). And in 1857,
soon after his accident while climbing Carrock Fell, "My
sprained ancle [sic] has prevented me from taking exercise, and want
of exercise has ended in the return of some of my old bilious miseries" (PF
11 October 1857). This is followed
by "I have always been accustomed to plenty of exercise, and the
enforced cessation of all bodily activity has sadly affected my health and
spirits." (PF December 1857). Even
twenty years later he writes "When this work is done, the exercise begins -
or there is no health for me" (PF 11 January 1879).
In his later
years he can still look on exercise as a desirable thing: "After working
hard, I had gone out to get a natural Turkish Bath by the nearest
approach to brisk exercise that I can accomplish." (31 March 1882); and
"Forgive me if I begin and end in these few dull lines.
I have a merciless enemy who has been trying to kill me for years past,
and whose name is Gout. I am still a
prisoner in my room - so weakened by the terrible remedies employed that I
cannot write for long together. Air
and exercise are the two luxuries that I have to enjoy in a few days more."
(PF 17 February 1883); although later on "The doctor hunts me with
unlimited directions relating to exercise and fresh air." (PF 29 October
every fairly fine day I am obliged to get what air and exercise I can before
sundown" (PF 11 December 1886). In
the following year, he advises Harry Quilter "Don't work! In that state of
your head, it is a risk, and you will not do yourself justice. If
the cause is congestion - exercise and perspiration are the remedies - a walk, a
bath, a rub-down. But if nerves are
to blame - I dare not advise. In the
matter of nerves, every man is a law unto himself." (PF 7 April 1887).
to work, Collins writes "With my habits it is terrible work writing,
without my customary exercise." (PF 28 December 1887); and the following
year "I was driven out by the Doctor [Frank Beard]. The strain of my work,
this time, still makes itself felt after the work is done - and the remedies are
air and (moderate) exercise. To be followed by the sea, I suppose, when I can
stand the infernal noise and vibration of railway travelling." (PF 6 June
1888). But as his health declines
more seriously, Collins describes the "revolt of the liver as the
consequence of want of exercise" (PF 5 October 1888) and shortly after
"You have done well to leave London. For
the last four days, choking fogs and bone-shivering damps. To day I have got out
for the first time since last week - and today my wretched nerves are the better
from a little exercise" (PF 1 January 1889).
The last reference is shortly before his fatal stroke in June "When
the pen is laid down, enter the doctor: "Go out! Why are you not getting
air and exercise." He is quite right about air and exercise, and out I go. In
a wholesome state of fatigue, I return..." (PF 20 May 1889).
his health is poor, Collins seems to regard 'taking the air' as a reasonable
substitute for exercise. Thus by the
1860s he writes to William Frith "By slow, slow degrees I am getting
better. I can manage a ride in a
carriage, with my miserable feet propped up on the front seat. As
soon as these said feet will bear a little more exertion, I hope they will carry
me into your studio." (PF 3 March 1863); and to Gregson, his dentist,
"Between the necessity of working, the necessity of resting, and the
necessity of getting a certain daily dose of fresh air in a carriage - I have
literally not had half an hour to spare since I last had the pleasure of seeing
you." (PF 8 July 1868). On 1
June 1877 he writes two letters: "I am
just getting well enough to be helped into a carriage to take the air - and when
I am brought home again, I am so weak that I generally fall asleep."; and
"I have but a poor report to send you of myself. The
miserable English spring of this year has been marked (in my calendar) by
another attack of rheumatic gout. I
am only now able to get into a carriage with help, and to take the air in that
way as a means of restoring my strength."
However, the air loses its attractions by the 1880s when "I am told
to "drive out" - but I won't. An
"airing in a carriage" is (to me) such a depressing proceeding that I
am ready to burst out crying when I only think of it." (PF 22 June 1881).
TWO 'R'S - RUNNING AND ROWING
TWO 'R'S - RUNNING AND ROWING
unlikely that Collins ever indulged in running although he does record in a
letter to his mother from the coast at Southsea "rowing in the
"dingy" till my arms are almost off whenever the weather permits"
Zack in Hide and Seek, Collins seems
to admire that
boxing, rowing, and other athletic exercises had done wonders towards bringing
his naturally vigorous, upright frame to the perfection of healthy muscular
condition. Tall and strong as he
was, there was nothing stiff or ungainly in his movements, he trod easily and
lightly, with a certain youthful suppleness and hardy grace in all his actions,
which set off his fine bodily formation to the best advantage."
admitting his own needs for exercise, Collins reserved his main criticism of the
prevailing cult of athleticism for Man and
Wife (1870). Here Sir Patrick
the skill in rowing, the swiftness in running, the admirable capacity and
endurance in other physical exercises, which he [Geoffrey Delamayn] has
attained, by a strenuous cultivation in this kind that has excluded any
similarly strenuous cultivation in other kinds - will these physical attainments
help him to win a purely moral victory over his own selfishness and his own
cruelty? They won't even help him to
see that it is selfishness, and that it is cruelty.
The essential principle of his rowing and racing (a harmless principle
enough, if you can be sure of applying it to rowing and racing only) has taught
him to take every advantage of another man that his superior strength and
superior cunning can suggest."
the surgeon, subsequently confronts Delamayn with
is a Physical objection to the present rage for muscular exercises of all sorts,
which is quite as strong, in its way, as the Moral objection.
You have stated the consequences as they may affect the mind. I
can state the consequences as they do affect the body [...] From my own
experience. I can tell you, as a
medical man, that a proportion, and not by any means a small one, of the young
men who are now putting themselves to violent athletic tests of their strength
and endurance, are taking that course to the serious and permanent injury of
their own health. The public who
attend rowing-matches, foot-races, and other exhibitions of that sort, see
nothing but the successful results of muscular training.
Fathers and mothers at home see the failures.
There are households in England - miserable households, to be counted,
Sir Patrick, by more than ones and twos - in which there are young men who have
to thank the strain laid on their constitutions by the popular physical displays
of the present time, for being broken men, and invalided men, for the rest of
is vindicated with Delamayn's ultimate collapse at the end of the foot-race when
swerved on the path. His trainer
dashed water over him. He rallied,
and ran another step or two - swerved again - staggered - lifted his arm to his
mouth with a hoarse cry of rage - fastened his own teeth in his flesh like a
wild beast - and fell senseless on the course. [...] There the conquered athlete
lay: outwardly an inert mass of strength, formidable to look at, even in its
fall; inwardly, a weaker creature, in all that constitutes vital force, than the
fly that buzzed on the window-pane."
paralysis might have found him out thirty years hence. His rowing and his
running, for the last four years, are alone answerable for what has happened
to-day. [...] Delamayn is far from
being the first man who has dropped at foot-racing, under the cruel stress laid
on the vital organs."
demise was written after Collins's usual careful research.
He had written to Joseph Parkinson, a journalist and social reformer,
What is the average length of time occupied in training for a boat-race? Also,
for running races, and leaping races?
In these two latter cases - the running and the leaping - does the University
student in Athletics come into contact with a low order of man acting as trainer
or instructor? In this matter of
rowing, I understand him to be trained and instructed by his equals in the
university. Is this the case with
other athletic accomplishments? In
other words, does physical education, in any of its branches, lead to degrading
social associations, by necessitating a low order of professional instructor?
If I suppose a young man of three or four and twenty to have trained for the
university boat-race - to have also trained (later in the same year) for
athletic sports - and to be in course of training (for the third time) for the
next year's anniversary boat‑race ‑ would such excess of training be
amply sufficient to account for his breaking down, and dying, under the effects
of the third in this series of trainings? Again,
would this be an exaggerated case to take? and would a smaller number of
trainings be sufficient to justify the break-down?
Can you furnish me with any slang expressions of the Muscular School (like the
"three belts of muscle", for instance) which would be likely to be
spoken, at a country house, in a mixed assembly of Ladies and Gentlemen? (PF 17
In his youth,
walking was probably Collins's main physical activity.
This was exemplified in Rambles
Beyond Railways, his walking tour of Cornwall in 1850, the route of which
covered 234 miles. Early in this
"pedestrian tour" he writes
exhort you, that first and oldest-established of all conveyances, your own legs!
[...] you may physic yourself
by Nature's own simple prescription, walking in fresh air."
In the third chapter he
uncompromisingly I say it, therefore walk, and be merry; walk, and be healthy;
walk, and be your own master! - walk, to enjoy, to observe, to improve, as no
riders can! - walk, and you are the best peripatetic impersonation of genuine
holiday enjoyment that is to be met with on the surface of this work-a-day
In 1855 he writes to his
best friend, Charles Ward, from Folkestone "We have just
been out for a walk and have been driven back wet through by a squall rather
before our usual time of returning [...]
I am, in real truth, at work (beginning a new speculation) in the morning - In
the afternoon we are taking prodigious walks and climbing inaccessible places."
(PF 20 August 1855).
career probably came to an end after his journey to the Lake District with
Dickens when he badly sprained his ankle after a reluctant ascent of Carrock
Fell in the mist. Collins was quite
content to rest in the front room of the Ship Inn at Allonby while the energetic
Dickens as described in 'The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices' (1857) was out
"While Francis Goodchild [Dickens] was
wandering hither and thither, storing his mind with perpetual observation of men
and things, and sincerely believing himself to be the laziest creature in
existence all the time - how did Thomas Idle [Collins], crippled and confined to
the house, contrive to get through the hours of the day?
Prone on the sofa, Thomas made no attempt to get through the hours, but
passively allowed the hours to get through him. Where other men in
his situation would have read books and improved their minds, Thomas slept and
rested his body."
occasionally one of Wilkie's youthful entertainments.
He writes to Holman Hunt "I
hear you took up the noble art of skating, last frost.
If there is any more ice this winter, let us meet, and tumble in company.
The whole secret of skating consists in not being afraid of perpetual
sprawling at full length. When
Charley and I learnt, as lads, we had a bottle of "opodeldoc" -
stripped after a morning's practise [sic] - and anointed each others' bruises by
the fireside. Thirty tumbles apiece,
was our morning's average, in learning the "outside edge" and
"the three". (PF 2 February 1861).
However, a few years later he reassures his mother "You will see in
your newspaper tomorrow morning an account of a terrible accident on the ice in
the Regent's Park. Here is a line to
tell you that I have not had any time for skating - and shall not have any time
for skating. Also, that Charley is
equally busy - and that he told me, the last time I saw him, that he thought
himself too old for skating. So don't
be afraid that your sons - whatever else may happen to them - will tumble
through the ice and be drowned." (PF 15 January 1867)
Skating is by
and large absent from the novels, except in The
New Magdalen where
is a glorious winter's day. The sky
is clear, the frost is hard, the ice bears for skating." and
"The ladies in their rich winter dresses, the smart nursery maids, the
lovely children, the ever moving crowd skating on the ice of the Round Pond; it
was all so exhilarating."
another youthful Collins activity. In
the early 1840s he writes to his mother "Tell Charlie I am riding upon a
splendid black mare ... as fast as the wind yet withal as gentle as a
lamb." (PF 1841-43); but ten years later during one of his bouts of illness
"Half an hour's walking or riding is as much as I can safely manage."
(PF 14 March 1855).
hero of Basil (1852) admits
have contracted a bad habit of writing at night - I read almost incessantly in
the day time. It is only because I
am fond of riding, that I am ever willing to interrupt my studies, and ever
ready to go out at all."
don't like your leaving me in this sudden manner.
There's something so strange and dreary about it.
Why not try riding, if you want more exercise; all the horses in the
stables are at your disposal." (Armadale
Woman in White (1860), Marian Halcombe records that
Percival cared for no exercise but riding, and the Count (except when he was
polite enough to be my escort) cared for no exercise at all."
Riding is an
integral part of the plot of 'Miss Mina and the Groom' (1878) where the heroine
of the house, my one diversion, always welcome and always fresh, was
the General, before his accident, "was
noted as one of the most daring and most accomplished riders in our county. He
had always delighted in riding young and high-spirited horses; and the habit
remained with him after he had quitted the active duties of his profession in
'The Dream Woman' (1855) Percy Fairbank narrates that
delight in riding, and we enjoy the breezy spring morning and the fair and
fertile English landscape surrounding us on every side. While
the hunt prospers, we follow the hunt. But
when a check occurs - when time passes and patience is sorely tried; when the
bewildered dogs run hither and thither, and strong language falls from the lips
of exasperated sportsmen - we fail to take any further interest in the
proceedings. We turn our horses'
heads in the direction of a grassy lane, delightfully shaded by trees. We
trot merrily along the lane, and find ourselves on an open common. We
gallop across the common, and follow the windings of a second lane. We
cross a brook, we pass through a village, we emerge into pastoral solitude among
the hills. The horses toss their
heads, and neigh to each other, and enjoy it as much as we do."
Armadale's opinion of hunting is rather more critical when he states "I
could enjoy a ride on horseback without galloping after a wretched stinking fox
or a distracted little hare."
became one of Collins's main outdoor recreations.
His regular sailing companions were Edward Pigott, Henry Bullar and
Charles Ward. Both Collins and his
doctor were convinced that the sea breezes were good for his health.
Collins's first major trips were with Pigott to the Scilly Isles in 1855
and Cherbourg in 1856. He sailed
from Broadstairs in 1858 and the early 1860s, and from Great Yarmouth in 1864.
In his later years, he sailed off Ramsgate during the 1870s.
himself a good sailor although he has the inebriated Zack in Hide and Seek
nautically and lamentably associated with white basins, whirling waves, and
misery of mortal stomachs wailing in emetic despair."
is unlikely that Wilkie ever played cricket himself but in Basil
(1852), Ralph "then, at college, became illustrious among rowers and
Frank Softly in A Rogue's Life (1856) describes how he "learned
to play at cricket"; whilst in The Dead Secret (1857)
"Doctor Chennery was, in a physical point of view, a credit to the Establishment to which he was attached. He stood six feet two in his shooting-shoes; he weighed fifteen stone; he was the best bowler in the Long Beckley cricket-club."
There is a brief
mention in 'A Shockingly Rude Article' (1858): "I married a man the other
day for the third time. Man in my
parish. Capital cricketer when he
was young enough to run."
Mr. Ronald in The Fallen Leaves (1879) seemed less fortunate:
"His mind began to wander strangely; he was not angry or frightened or distressed. Instead of thinking of what had just happened, he was thinking of his young days when he had been a cricket-player. One special game revived in his memory, at which he had been struck on the head by the ball. "Just the same feeling," he reflected vacantly, with his hat off, and his hand on his forehead. "Dazed and giddy - just the same feeling!"
But for the longest
and most humorous description, we have to remember Thomas Idle, the persona
adopted by Wilkie in 'The Lazy tour of Two Idle Apprentices'.
"So, again, with the second disaster. While Thomas was lazy, he was a model of health. His first attempt at active exertion and his first suffering from severe illness are connected together by the intimate relations of cause and effect. Shortly after leaving school, he accompanied a party of friends to a cricket-field, in his natural and appropriate character of spectator only. On the ground it was discovered that the players fell short of the required number, and facile Thomas was persuaded to assist in making up the complement. At a certain appointed time, he was roused from peaceful slumber in a dry ditch, and placed before three wickets with a bat in his hand. Opposite to him, behind three more wickets, stood one of his bosom friends, filling the situation (as he was informed) of bowler. No words can describe Mr. Idle's horror and amazement, when he saw this young man - on ordinary occasions, the meekest and mildest of human beings - suddenly contract his eye-brows, compress his lips, assume the aspect of an infuriated savage, run back a few steps, then run forward, and, without the slightest previous provocation, hurl a detestably hard ball with all his might straight at Thomas's legs. Stimulated to preternatural activity of body and sharpness of eye by the instinct of self-preservation, Mr. Idle contrived, by jumping deftly aside at the right moment, and by using his bat (ridiculously narrow as it was for the purpose) as a shield, to preserve his life and limbs from the dastardly attack that had been made on both, to leave the full force of the deadly missile to strike his wicket instead of his leg; and to end the Innings, so far as his side was concerned, by being immediately bowled out. Grateful for his escape, he was about to return to the dry ditch, when he was peremptorily stopped, and told that the other side was 'going in,' and that he was expected to 'field.' His conception of the whole art and mystery of 'fielding,' may be summed up in the three words of serious advice which he privately administered to himself on that trying occasion - avoid the ball. Fortified by this sound and salutary principle, he took his own course, impervious alike to ridicule and abuse. Whenever the ball came near him, he thought of his shins, and got out of the way immediately. 'Catch it!' 'Stop it!' 'Pitch it up!' were cries that passed by him like the idle wind that he regarded not. He ducked under it, he jumped over it, he whisked himself away from it on either side. Never once, through the whole innings did he and the ball come together on anything approaching to intimate terms. The unnatural activity of body which was necessarily called forth for the accomplishment of this result threw Thomas Idle, for the first time in his life, into a perspiration. The perspiration, in consequence of his want of practice in the management of that particular result of bodily activity, was suddenly checked; the inevitable chill succeeded; and that, in its turn, was followed by a fever. For the first time since his birth, Mr. Idle found himself confined to his bed for many weeks together, wasted and worn by a long illness, of which his own disastrous muscular exertion had been the sole first cause."
Olympic in Collins's time was the Olympic Theatre in Wych Street where the
Aldwych now is. Here were staged
several of his plays including The Woman
in White (1871-72) and The Moonstone
(1877). However, for the Paralympics,
Miserrimus Dexter from The Law and the
Lady (1875) would make a very likely medals candidate when
was off on his furious wheels - half man, half chair - flying like a whirlwind
to the other end of the room. Even this exercise was not violent enough for him
in his present mood. In an instant
he was down on the floor, poised on his hands, and looking in the distance like
a monstrous frog. Hopping down the
room, he overthrew, one after another, all the smaller and lighter chairs as he
passed them; arrived at the end, he turned, surveyed the prostrate chairs,
encouraged himself with a scream of triumph, and leaped rapidly over chair after
chair on his hands - his limbless body now thrown back from the shoulders, and
now thrown forward to keep the balance - in a manner at once wonderful and
horrible to behold. "Dexter's
Leap-frog!" he cried, cheerfully, perching himself with his birdlike
lightness on the last of the prostrate chairs when he had reached the further
end of the room. "I'm pretty active, Mrs. Valeria, considering I'm a
is often assumed that because of his fierce attack on athleticism in Man
and Wife, Collins was against all forms of exercise.
It seems, however, that throughout most of his life he recognised its
need and even enjoyed various forms of physical activity in his youth.
With the infirmities of age it became a tedious necessity for which
taking the air became the best substitute. Perhaps
we can do no better than conclude with Hartright's description of Professor
Pesca in The Woman in White:
us distinguished, as a nation, by our love of athletic exercises, the little
man, in the innocence of his heart, devoted himself impromptu to all our English
sports and pastimes whenever he had the opportunity of joining them; firmly
persuaded that he could adopt our national amusements of the field by an effort
of will precisely as he had adopted our national gaiters and our national white
The PF dates
refer to The Public Face of Wilkie
Collins: The Collected Letters (Pickering & Chatto, London 2005, Baker,
W., Gasson, A., Law, G., and Lewis, P.) where most of the references are
annotated in full.
quotations from Collins's works may be found from searching the etexts on James
Rusk's pages at http://www.digitalpixels.org/jr/wc/.
All material in these pages is © copyright Andrew Gasson 1998-2022