Little Wonder tells the epic, and until now largely unchronicled, story of Lottie Dod, the first great heroine in women’s sports. Dod was a champion tennis player, golfer, hockey player, tobogganist, skater, mountaineer, and archer. Read an extract below describing Dod’s explosive debut at Wimbledon and her meteoric rise to fame.
From that very first match, it was clear that Wimbledon had a new star at hand. Using a wooden racket, the head of which flattened out at the top – a racket that weighed a little under a pound, its handle wrapped in a strip of tightly bound brown leather – she played a raw, powerful game. Seemingly, she took pleasure in blasting her opponents out of contention. The tennis correspondent for Pastime, surprised by the teenager’s ferocity, informed readers that Dod had “fully convinced us that none of the ladies now playing can hope to dispossess her of her position without completely altering their style of play”. The crowd loved it. Much as large sports audiences today chant the names of their heroes and heroines, so back in the 1880s they did the same for the new star of Wimbledon. “Lot-tie! Lot-tie!” they shouted out, slowly, rhythmically, as she skewered her hapless opponents.
A year later, Dod cemented her reputation by successfully defending her Wimbledon title. Once again, she routed her nearest rival, Blanche Bingley Hillyard. Once more, the newspapers waxed rhapsodic about her abilities. “Nothing but praise can be written. She appears to improve at every successive meeting at which she competes,” Pastime purred. “Her play on Saturday was far superior to any previously shown by a lady. Her forehand stroke across the court is, for pace and length, almost unapproachable, even among the men players.”
Dod’s meteoric rise, and the coverage the newspapers and magazines of the late 1880s accorded it, was tapping into a powerful new force in late Victorian society. Sports culture had taken off with a vengeance in that decade in both Britain and the United States. The new individual and team sports of the age, from tennis to football, from cycling to baseball, were all capable of furnishing new mass-culture heroes for the rapidly changing and urbanising era. For women, sports, along with the adventurous pastime of travel writing, afforded an escape from at least some of the strictures of Victorian life. Take, for example, the New York World reporter Nellie Bly, the globe-trotting young American who had so famously beaten Phileas Fogg’s fictive eighty days for circumnavigating the globe. Or Freya Stark, the young Englishwoman who began travelling to some of the most far-flung places on earth and chronicling her adventures in a series of well-received books. Or consider the accolades accorded the American sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
In the Victorian world, women were hemmed in (literally) in terms of what they could do . . . except in those odd instances when they weren’t. Someone like Lottie Dod, improbable as her achievements were, captured the late Victorian imagination as surely as did the exploits of Nellie Bly. Such women were allowed to be transgressive, to do what were thought of as men’s jobs, to accomplish what were thought of as inherently male achievements. And, in so doing, in resonating so deeply with the public’s imagination, they helped shatter the stereotypes of what women were and what they could and couldn’t do.
Dod was by now the object of something approaching fan adoration. After her second Wimbledon victory, the New York World had a special correspondent in London write up a glowing portrait of the champion and her fans. Titled “The Girls Go See Champion Lottie Dod and Get Points on Style”, it reported that “it is quite a fad with society girls to go in parties to see Lottie Dod play tennis. A London girl asked her the other day the secret of her success. ‘Well,’ said the pretty championess, ‘I never lose my head in a game, and experience has taught me never to lose my temper. I think tennis a capital game to teach a girl self-control.’” Rich American girls in London on their grand European tours would corner Dod at garden parties and beg her to visit them across the sea.
That same year, an anonymous scribe, writing under the pseudonym of Thomas Moore, wrote a satirical poem on the inability of Scottish lasses to defeat Dod on the tennis court:
Weep Weep Hibernia,
Let thy tears
Bedew the verdant sod.
For vanished are thy
hopes and fears
Before Miss Lottie Dod!
Miss Martin – had you
Played as well
As we have seen you play,
Another tale we had to tell,
Than must be told today.
But who can face that skating sling
That sends the ball like bird-on-wing
And drives it to the very spot
Where, at the moment, ye are not.
Sasha Abramsky grew up in London and now lives in Sacramento with dual UK-US citizenship. He is a freelance journalist, writer, public speaker and university lecturer at U.C. Davis. He has written thousands of articles and is the author of eight published books including Inside Obama’s Brain (Penguin, 2009), The American Way of Poverty (Nation Books, 2013) and The House of Twenty Thousand Books (Halban, 2014).