As Wench Pat noted in her blog last week, most writers write a good many words that don’t make the final cut, and are edited/deleted/discarded along the way. For those of us who are History Nerds (you know who you are!) as well as writers, the e-trashcan is also filled with lots of historical facts and scraps that we come across during research that just can’t be squeezed comfortably into a plot or foisted onto our hapless characters. While sometimes these research-leftovers only need a bit of time to percolate in the imagination before they become usable, others will always be fascinating but hopeless curiosities, and no more.
And as an example, I offer smock races.
A fixture of country fairs and holidays in the 17th-early 19th century throughout Great Britain, smock races turn up again and again in bawdy ballads and prints of the time, and I have to admit a certain weird fascination for them. The idea was simple enough: sturdy country lasses competed in a footrace along a set course, the prize being a smock of fine linen. Just as athletic men were wrestling, boxing, and shooting in organized contests to display their physical prowess, healthy young women could do the same in the smock race. Competition was limited to the young and unwed, and often restricted to virgins as well, though the connection between being fleet of foot and pure of body eludes me.
Smocks, or shifts, were the basic all-purpose undergarment of the time for women of every class, worn beneath stays and gowns for day and often also to bed at night. (Left, a modern woman wearing a replica 18th c. smock.) The smocks offered as prizes were usually of high quality Holland linen, and trimmed with lace or ribbons. Some mentioned in advertisments for the races were valued as high as fifteen shillings, making them desirable indeed to young women who worked hard for their livings. The prize smock was often displayed hanging from a nearby flag-pole or tree-branch, to be admired as an incentive, as well as to inspire all kinds of titillating, bawdy jests, because, of course, underwear humor never goes out of style. (I see Paris, I see France….)
From all reports, the competition was fierce, attracting large crowds to cheer along the race-course. There don’t seem to have been any real rules or restrictions, and the barefoot women freely tripped and elbowed their rivals, knocking one another down into the dust. The more out-of-control the race, the more the audiences roared their approval, and the more celebrated the eventual victor became, waving her prize over her head as she was carried about on the shoulders of young men. Local gentry came to watch as well, sitting on their horses or in carriages, and they were not above taking part in the heavy wagering that usually accompanied the races. In other words, epic combat at its best. (The engraving, right, An Holland Smock to run for, by any Woman born in this County: the best Woman in three Heats by John Collet includes a sailor in the tree peeping at the prize-smock, plus lots of jolly drunken behavior by all parties as the young women sprint by -- except for the one tripped by a dog.)
Irish poet and cleric James Ward (1691-1736) described The Smock Race at Finglas, a village near Dublin, in 1718. To start, the “arbiter” announced the prizes:
'Ye virgins that intend to try the race,
The swiftest wins a smock enriched with lace:
A Cabrick kerchief shall the next adorn,
And Kidden Gloves shall by the third be worn.'
This said, he high in the air displayed each prize:
All viewing the waving smock with longing eyes.
Clearly Ward likes the girls, and spends line after line describing their charms, including “Fair Oonah, pride of the neighboring mill” whose “rosy cheeks with modest blushes glow/At once her innocence and beauty show.”
And, like every supposedly impartial sports commentator, Ward has his favorite, too:
Tall as a pine, majestic Nora stood,
Her youthful veins were swelled with sprightly blood,
Inured to toils, in wholesome gardens bred,
Exact in every limb and formed for speed.
But oh, what cruel fate attacks poor Nora! Though she’s far ahead in the race, suddenly the tie holding her skirt around her waist breaks (and remember that this is an era without drawers, as is evident in Thomas Rowlandson drawing of a smock race, left)
Quick stopped the maid, nor would, to win the race,
Expose her hidden Charms to vulgar gaze;
But while to tie the treacherous knot she stayed,
Her glad rivals pass the weeping maid.
So thanks to a “wardrobe malfunction”, Oonah snags the winner’s smock. She also wins the hottest guy in the village, too, the “loveliest swain” who is so taken with Oonah’s victory that later than night they, ahem, celebrate together:
No jarring Settlement their bliss annoys,
No liscence needed to defer their joys,
Oonah e’er morn the sweets of wedlock tried,
The smock she won a virgin, wore a bride.
How can a mere gold medal compete with that?
There are two ways to view at smock races, especially looking backward from our supposedly-more-enlightened time. They could be a rare early example of a Title IX-worthy event for women, with athleticism admired and rewarded. That the women were also young and attractive, their hair flying out behind them as they ran and their skirts flying up over their bare legs, was not their fault, much like the bikini-clad competitors in beach volleyball today.
Or smock races could be seen as one prolonged snarky joke, a chance for men to ogle pretty girls in an activity that wasn’t at all lady-like. Here were girls with their stays loosely laced and their sleeves pushed up and their legs and feet bare, all flushed and sweaty and breathing hard from . . . exertion as they competed with one another for fancy lingerie, like the ultimate Victoria’s Secret fantasy, or at least the running life-guards that introduced Baywatch. In addition was the fervent, thrilling hope among the male audience that one (or more!) of the competitors would fall down and inadvertently reveal those “hidden Charms.” (Certainly that's the case in the engraving above, A Smock Race at Tottenham Court Fair by J. Pitts, where the largely male crowd seems to be behaving about as badly as they can, including, in the background, tossing one poor woman up into the air.)
All of which probably explains why there aren’t any smock races in historical romances, at least not that I’ve come across. But what do you think? Do smock races sound like empowering sports for women, or one more excuse for Thomas Rowlandson to draw buxom wenches with self-destructing clothes? Can you imagine a well-bred heroine jumping into the working-class fray, or a hero admiring her all the more for doing so? Or perhaps a noble hero falling into first-sight-love when the lowly miller's daughter races by like Diana herself?