World Book Day provides the perfect excuse to look again at the raft of literature about the great game of cricket, in this instance at the unexpected places where the game crops up in works that are not, in fact, about cricket (other than incidentally).

Given that there are books on the game itself from the mid-1700s onwards (indeed, the first Laws were laid down in 1744), it is perhaps not surprising to find playing cricket mentioned in a novel of 1803.

What is surprising is that it comes courtesy of the great chronicler of Georgian manners and society, Jane Austen.  In the first few pages of Northanger Abbey, Austen fleshes out the character of heroine Catherine Morland as a young girl observing that she was ‘fond of all boys’ play, and greatly preferred cricket, not merely to dolls but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy.’

Quite what those ‘more heroic enjoyments’ might be is hinted at a page or two later when Catherine is said to ‘prefer cricket, baseball [!!] riding on horseback and running about the countryside’ to books.

In an article for the 2023 Wisden, sports writer Emma John has fun with the Austen cricket connection, suggesting that ‘Morland was the most autobiographical of Austen’s characters – and the suggestion lingers that Jane was recalling youthful ventures of her own with bat and ball.’

We’re not sure in 1803 is the earliest mention in a non-sporting story of cricket but until someone can show evidence of an earlier sighting, we’ll stick with that. It is, surely, one of the first mentions of girls playing the game.

Certainly, it was some sixty years later that American author Louisa M Alcott makes similar observations about the March sisters in Little Women

Beth shows ‘intense interest in some exciting cricket match’ and Amy is described as ‘smiling as she watched Laurie and John playing cricket with the boys.’  There are half a dozen references to the game in Little Women but the girls are always observers rather than participants as Ms Morland apparently had been.  We do have to be careful monitoring Ms Alcott’s mentions of the game as there are even more frequent inclusions of the similarly named insect – as in ‘the cricket on the hearth.’

Closer to home, the character that became the archetype of Edwardian dandified villainy was surely E W Hornung’s ‘Raffles’ – indeed, his regular (and regularly successful) forays into cricket such as the Gentlemen v Players matches (no prizes for guessing which side Raffles graces) reinforce his gentlemanly persona.  Hornung was brother-in-law to First-Class cricketer and occasional novel writer Arthur Conan Doyle who didn’t introduce his beloved game into any of Sherlock Holmes’s cases but did write a cricket short story called ‘Spedegue’s Dropper’ which is pure hokum.

There are a few cricket fiction books in the Wynne Thomas Library at Trent Bridge, at least one of which is a sub-Conan Doyle Holmes pastiche in which the great man ‘saves’ The Oval Ashes Test.

Raffles was supposed to have been (loosely) based on Geroge Ives, a member – along with Conan Doyle, Hornung, PG Wodehouse and Trent Bridge’s own John Collis Snaith – of the Authors XI.

One of the most famous – and certainly one of the most anthologised – cricket episodes in a book that is not primarily about the game is The Cricket Match in England Their England by AG MacDonell, published in 1933 but set in the 1920s.  Most of the book is gently satirical about England between the wars as seen by MacDonell’s hero Donald but it ventures into broad comedy with his description of a nomad XI playing a local village side.  Shades of JM Barrie’s chaotic and dedicatedly inept Allahakbarries comes to mind when reading this chapter again.

A village cricket match of great weight is central to the plot of L P Hartley’s classic The Go-Between, a novel of class and social mores set in late Victorian Norfolk. Leo, the young hero revisits his days as guest of a grand family, including the summer highlight – a cricket match in which he takes a crucial catch. 

Such derring-do tales – though much less literary than Hartley’s books – were the stock-in-trade of the Boy’s Own Paper (the great WG wrote for the Paper on occasions).  Though history records that the BOP tried to be inclusive – welcoming women contributors and girls as readers – there does not appear to have been any story of girls’ cricket in any edition, from 1879-1967.

Punch magazine weighs in a few times with cartoons featuring cricketers – Nottinghamshire’s own John Jackson being the first cricketer to be the subject of a cartoon, followed in subsequent years by – among others – AO ‘Jonah’ Jones.

Not a novel but in 1847, Bessie Rayner Parkes, later mother to the humorous writer Hilaire Belloc, wrote to a friend when they were both in their late teens: “…Tho' I take very regular exercise & plenty I lead rather too quiet a life all the year round.  I want a game of cricket or swim in a river, not feasible in Brighton or London.” 

There is a seam to mined here, one feels – cricket in a non-cricket context.  Over to the nation’s most literate sports fans to pursue.


Emma John’s article can be read in full here


March 2024