Tuesday, January 26, 2021

CROQUET IN NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICAN: A Craze or Just Crazy? by Marisa Masterson

 Besides the obvious that they are both works of literature, what do Alice in Wonderland and Little Women share in common? Croquet and cheating.

By the time the American Civil War was over, the croquet craze had spread from England to the United States. At the same time baseball was gaining popularity, a game many men brought back to hometowns after serving in the war. That sport was for men, though. People at the time considered croquet a placid sport appropriate for ladies. 

Placid? In both of the books mentioned above, the women are caught cheating at croquet. True to life? Definitely.

Using her long skirts, a woman might hide the ball. Without anyone seeing the ball, she moves it (known as scuffling) to where she needs it. Or maybe she would peek around to see if anyone was watching. Unobserved, she taps ball to the spot she wants. 

No wonder people were publishing croquet handbooks at the time. Besides rule books to stop cheating, women began to wear croquet dresses with slightly raised hems. This hints at another reason the game was popular--flirting.

A peek at a woman's ankles tantalized men. The game itself gave men and women time together, often after dinner in the evening. Before this, members of higher society isolated men and women after that meal. Croquet brought them back together and even gave an excuse for touching. A man could "help" a woman by standing behind her to line up a shot or teach her how to swing the mallet.

In recent years, a previously unknown photo of Billy the Kid appeared. In it, he and friends play croquet on the rough ground of New Mexico. The photo shows the group celebrating a wedding and clearly demonstrates men and women interacting. By the 1870s, the game had grown so popular in the United States that it is being played in the barely settled West. Interesting! I wonder if Billy the Kid cheated?

I mention Billy the Kid because of his connection to New Mexico and the Lincoln County War. This month, I released a new book set in New Mexico and loosely based on the violence and division that took place there. 

Renie Hunter gladly accepts Harland McGregor's proposal before he leaves to join the Army of the West. Two years pass before he finally sends for her. Her uncle, the man who raised her, insists the young couple marry by proxy before she leaves. After all, he argues, New Mexico is far from the world they know.

The proxy marriage might prove to be a bad idea. When Renie arrives in the small western town of Harmony, the husband who meets her train seems different from the sweetheart who slipped the small ring on her finger years earlier. Will she still be able to reach the tenderness buried deep inside Harland?
The novel is loosely based on the Lincoln County War.
184 pages

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