Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Young Lady Makes an Decision

For reasons obscure even to myself, I have started to collect old postcards of people with their bicycles. There are hundreds and thousands of these, dating from a time when a bicycle was a prestigious possession, one that indicated independence, modernity, fashion. People had their photographs taken in studios, with a backdrop, or outside, standing with their machine. The photograph taken would often by printed on a postcard, which the subject could keep, or send to a friend. Occasionally the cards are adapted with some form of seasonal greeting.

Many of these date from years when the postal service in Britain was at its highest point of excellence, with three or four deliveries and collections a day. In some of my postcards, people are using a card to announce a safe arrival, or arrange a ride together, confident that the addressee would have it in their hands later the same day.

But look at this young lady. I think her dress dates the card around 1910 (for obvious reasons, the card was not stamped and addressed, but must have been put in an envelope and sent). She isn't wearing the mutton-leg sleeves of earlier Edwardian fashion, but a short jacket, double skirt, high-necked blouse, white gloves, and a large straw hat with a band. She stands, slim and erect, beside her bicycle, looking to the photographer's left. As often with these images, the bicycle looks as though it may be brand new.

On the reverse, the message that must have thrilled the recipient when he opened the envelope: 'I have decided to sleep with you tonight'. Nothing else. No, 'Dear ****', no 'love', no signature: she just announces the decision she has come to, without any fuss. What a story! How Lawrentian! It is easy to imagine their discussions, their meetings, how she would go away and think about it, how they knew what they would do if she did. He doesn't have to be told where (one will, I imagine, be cycling to meet the other for their tryst).

The photographer was 'Parr', based at Hamstead Marshall, near Newbury. The social history of cycling stresses, as in H G Wells' novels, the bicycle as creating social mixing. It reputedly rescued deepest Norfolk from generations of catastrophic inbreeding. But rarely is the bicycle as an instrument of personal, sexual liberation so directly caught.

I hope they were happy. The young lady had courage and passion. How strange that the passional moment of a lost life survives, and is so eloquent.
has some really fine old photographs of late 19th century cyclists.

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