The Wheels of Chance, A Bicycling Idyll
By H.G. Wells
Illustrations by J. Ayton Symington
The Macmillan Company, copyright 1896, 321 pgs.
The Wheels of Chance is the story of an English draper’s assistant—a salesperson who sells cloth to housewives–and his adventures on a 10-day cycling holiday in 1895.
Or, as I like to think of it, it’s the story of how a relatively poor salesperson not only gets a 10-day vacation, but also trades up to a much better bicycle at relatively little cost.
The salesperson, Hoopdriver, is a bicycling novice and so his first adventure is the machine itself. One example should suffice:
“Mr. Hoopdriver…resolved to dismount. He tightened the brake, and the machine stopped dead. He was trying to think what he did with his right leg whilst getting off. He gripped the handles and released the brake, standing on the left pedal and waving his right foot in the air. Then—these things take so long in the telling—he found the machine was falling over to the right. While he was deciding upon a plan of action, gravitation appears to have been busy. He was still irresolute when he found the machine on the ground, himself kneeling upon it, and a vague feeling in his mind that again Providence had dealt harshly with his shin. This happened when he was just level with the heathkeeper. The man in the approaching cart stood up to see the ruins better.”
He soon meets the Young Lady in Grey, an accomplished rider and, to judge by her rationals (a divided skirt or bloomers), a forward-thinking New Woman. She is accompanied by “the other man in brown,” the lower-cased predator of the story.
The villain is little different from the predators of our time or any time, though way less handsy. His story begins when he accompanies the Young Lady as she rides away from a home she finds suffocating. (His wife’s story is pretty much limited to the mention of her existence.)
But the Young Lady, being as perceptive as she is young and naïve, quickly realizes she’s in trouble. As our narrator relates:
“She was pale, divided between fear and anger. She perceived she was in a scrape, and tried in vain to think of a way of escape. Only one tangible thing would keep in her mind, try as she would to ignore it. That was the quite irrelevant fact that his head was singularly like an albino cocoanut.”
Don’t worry, the cocoanut is gone halfway through the book–and so is his bike, as Hoopdriver takes it in the rush to help the Young Lady escape. Instead of a heavy old cushion-tired bike, our hero now rides a lightweight safety with air-filled tires.
But while the pair gives the other man in brown the slip, they can’t escape their former lives. Not because of the rescue party chasing them (though now that the cocoanut is out of the picture, they finally are) and not because the narrator tells you it’s going to happen (though he does), but because neither rider has enough money to sustain the pleasant journey from country inn to country inn.
Yes, even in a fictional romance of latter-day knight errantry, money makes the wheels go ‘round—by hook or crook.
The Wheels of Chance was published in the 1890s, the same decade as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds.
Though Wheels is less known today than Wells’ other books, its publication at the tail-end of the nineteen century couldn’t have been better timed.
Bicycle sales were booming. Bicycle riders traveled far and wide—and pushed for improved roads in Britain and the United States. In 1896, as Carlton Reid mentioned in his excellent 2014 book, Roads Were Not Built For Cars, the League of American Wheelmen was enough of a political force that it “had its own room in the campaign headquarters of the Republican Party.”
Literacy was widespread and attention spans were long. Good thing, too.
The first sentence of
The Wheels of Chance contains 92 words, one parenthetical aside, two opinions set off by long hyphens, an abbreviation nestled within quotation marks and the needless announcement of the beginning of the story.
On the second page the narrator builds up expectations by saying of the protagonist, “Now if you had noticed anything about him, it would have been chiefly to notice how little he was noticeable.” And in case you think, well, he might be a little interesting, the paragraph balloons to 334 words to underscore his invisibility.
In short, the book favors readers who welcome narrative digression. For instance:
“The human nose is, at its best, a needless excrescence. There are those who consider it ornamental, and would regard a face deprived of its assistance with pity or derision; but it is doubtful whether our esteem is dictated so much by a sense of its absolute beauty as by the vitiating effect of a universally prevalent fashion.”
Some might say The Wheels of Chance is a page-turner in the sense that you have to turn pages to read it. Even I might say that. But it’s worth having on the bookshelf.
That’s because it’s a bicycle book of a bicycle time, one of the last documents created in a world without cars, written when roads—the last truly open roads—had room for enthusiastic people in charge of simple machines tracing paths in “voluptuous curves.”
And there is plenty of value in that.
“He did not ride fast, he did not ride straight, an exacting critic might say he did not ride well—but he rode generously, opulently, using the whole road and even nibbling at the footpath. The excitement never flagged. “