Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
As a practicing archer with a keen interest in the history of the sport it has struck me that the importance of archery to the development of Eliot's final novel Daniel Deronda (1876) has not been properly appreciated. It provides the context for Gwendolen Harleth's fateful encounter with Grand-court, first at the Brackenshaw archery meeting where she strikes three successive golds (central hits), and subsequently at the archery ball, where he singles her out as a dance partner. Later, it is in the course of the roving archery match at Cardell Chase that she discovers the existence of his mistress and illegitimate children. There is an obvious contrast between the archery contest - a healthy, outdoor, English pastime - which marks the culmination of Book One, and the morally dubious, unhealthily enclosed and foreign game of roulette with which the novel opens, although it is a contrast which George Eliot exploits to ironic effect, given the moral distinction between the two men whose attention Gwendolen attracts on the two occasions. That archery should provide the setting for the meeting of the aristocratic Grandcourt and the middle-class Gwendolen is itself historically appropriate to the period of the 1860s in which the novel is set. In the eighteenth century, archery had been an aristocratic sport but throughout the nineteenth century clubs were increasingly formed by the expanding bourgeoisie. Originally dominated by men, women first took part in a public contest at the second Grand National Archery Meeting held at York in 1845, and by the end of the century the number of female archers far exceeded their male counterparts.
It was a commonplace of the period to regard the archery club and its social activities as something of a marriage market, much like the tennis club in the present century. Any author of the period might easily have chosen the archery contest as a feature of a plot along those lines, but George Eliot in several ways shows a special knowledge of the subject which also strongly suggests a real familiarity with the sport. The roving archery match at Cardell Chase is a case in point. This is a form of field archery in which the shooters walk over the countryside aiming toward natural marks, a tussock of grass, a tree, stone or whatever the archer nearest with his arrow selects as the next target, and so on. Roving has been pursued since Shakespeare's time (and before) and was the type of archery familiar to the bowmen of London's Finsbury Fields. It continued to be practised thereafter by archery adepts but was unfamiliar or unknown to those occasional archers who attended a country house meeting or even the regular club shooters, who invariably shot at the normal round targets of straw at fixed distances. Eliot's particular understanding and 'insider' knowledge is emphasized by the following quotation: 'This roving archery was prettier than the stationary game, but success in shooting at variable marks was less favoured by practice, and the hits were distributed amongst the volunteer archers otherwise than they would have been in target-shooting' (Chapter 14). The match also provides a neat mechanism for enabling Gwendolen to meet Lydia Glasher informally in private and learn the secrets of Grandcourt's life. Furthermore there is a reference to 'clout-shooting' in chapter ten which again speaks of inside knowledge but in this case the detail is irrelevant to the story and is not mentioned again. The uninitiated reader would be unclear what was meant without reference to a dictionary. This incidental aside by Lord Brackenshaw to Gascoigne is however a clue to the probable origin of Eliot's special understanding of archery, since clout-shooting is the particular method favoured by the Woodmen of Arden. Founded in 1785 by the fourth Earl of Aylesford the society thrives to this day and still meets at the ground near Meriden which is also graced by the elegant Forest Hall (built 1788) which accommodates the members and their equipment. In distant times archers would shoot at the 'clout', a cloth, pegged to the ground, but the Woodmen's mark is a black-centred white target two feet seven inches in diameter placed at an angle of about forty-five degrees. The archer takes his stand, up to twelve score yards distance, loo sing his arrow at a high elevation to drop it onto the target.