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Writing the Prizefight

Pierce Egan’s "Boxiana" World

David Snowdon

This book won the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History (2013)

This book focuses on the literary contribution made by the pugilistic writing of Pierce Egan (c. 1772-1849), identifying the elements that rendered Egan’s style distinctive and examining the ways his writing invigorated the sporting narrative. In particular, the author analyses Egan’s blend of inventive imagery and linguistic exuberance within the commentaries of the Boxiana series (1812-29). The book explores the metropolitan and sporting jargon used by the diverse range of characters that inhabited Egan’s ‘Pugilistic Hemisphere’ and looks at Egan’s exploitation of prizefighting’s theatricality. Another significant theme is the role of pugilistic reporting in perpetuating stereotypical notions relating to British national identity, military readiness and morality. Consideration of Egan’s metropolitan rambles is complemented by discussion of the heterogeneity, spectacle and social dynamics of the prize ring and its reportage. The book traces Egan’s impact during the nineteenth century and, importantly, evaluates his influence on the subsequent development of sporting journalism.


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Chapter 3 Sporting Theatre: Spectacle and Social Dynamics


Whether describing a snaking convoy of spectators journeying to an ille- gal prizefight, or conveying anticipation of the pugilists’ gladiatorial-like entrance, Pierce Egan’s reports embodied the theatricality that the writer associated with this colourful sporting subculture. He reasserted his belief that the English were not ‘automatons’ by animating the pages of his pugi- listic pieces with innovative imagery and linguistic verve, and his distinc- tive scene-setting accentuated the dramatic uncertainty of the prize-ring environment. By foregrounding the spectacle surrounding a prizefight Egan intrigued a potential new audience, transcending preconceptions harboured by a readership that mirrored the class and race fusion involved in sporting events. The manner in which the Boxiana texts sought to erode social barriers might be compared to the appeal of a stage production to a mixed collection of early-nineteenth-century theatre-goers at Covent Garden: ‘The dress boxes, pit, and lower gallery were the domain of vari- ous middling groups, while artisans, craftsmen, labourers, and servants occupied the upper gallery. The pit especially contained an audience of mixed social background’.1 Significantly, this degree of segregation was not present in the sporting assemblies described by Egan. Although its illegality meant that contests were not advertised openly, wealthy patrons boosted pugilism’s status and it is ironic that, for a suppos- edly spectator sport, public crowds were originally considered unnecessary. Receiving funding from its upper-class supporters, prizefighting did not rely on revenue in the form of admission monies, and the Fancy viewed 1 In this period, the word ‘theatricality’ was regarded as...

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