t was a time we can scarcely imagine, the late 1890s. Whereas steam trains ran on their own timetables to predetermined destinations, and horses with carts just ate and shit day after day regardless of whether you used them or not, and automobiles were an experimental dream, there were… bicycles! Now ordinary people, shop clerks and unhappy daughters, could easily take to the roads and travel where and when they wanted, an absolute freedom so rare in the class-conscious, socially-locked Victorian era. And just as the bicycles themselves were undergoing evolutionary changes, trikes and penny farthings and the like, so was society coming to grips with this new form of personal transportation, one that could be kept in a garden shed and open up all of England to one’s holidays.
And so it is with young Mr. Hoopdriver (I love that name, and for the life of me, I don’t recall if we ever learn his first name), a young drapers assistant in a narrow life who is now going to South England on a cycling holiday. Oh, he’s all ready – he has the necessary costume, the equipment, and even the barked and brushed legs from his crash-filled training. Bicycles of the time were tricky things to ride (his weighs forty-three pounds), and the impression we get is that Mr. Hoopdriver is just not that good at it.
So he makes his way across the sunny English countryside, taking in its rural beauty, a thing alien to his usual London suburbs. And while riding, he comes across a young girl, the “Young Lady in Grey”, traveling with her “brother”. But regardless of the intentions of the characters, fate continues to tangle their paths, and soon Hoopdriver realizes that this fellow is not her brother at all but rather a cad intent on eloping with her. We even see his caddishness at full mast when he tells the naïve Jessie Milton that she’s come too far to turn back, that she is his, that it’s all over. Enter knight-errant Hoopdriver, who whisks her away by moonlight and tells her stories of his life in Africa (all false, of course). And so here we have it, the young clerk and the misguided socialite. Love conquers all, right? Certainly Hoopdriver will raise his station to meet her, and she will sacrifice hers to become the author she dreams of being.
And that’s why I really loved this book. Not to spoil it, but in a realistic setting, this never happens. Hoopdriver speaks of going back to school and bettering himself, but that will take six years and his enthusiasm is already sliding away. And Jessie, for all her talk of independence, is still under the firm control of her stepmother. Like the film The Purple Rose of Cairo, we are firmly reminded as to why life isn’t a movie or a book, what happens to dreams, and the unlikelihood of happily-ever-afters.
The Wheels of Chance was a great story, one of social change, mobility, and the limitations still very much in place in these systems. It also is wonderful in its view of youth and dreams. I really enjoyed it, and would strongly recommend it. You can pick this one up from Project Gutenberg right HERE.