I am enjoying Frances Willard’s book A Wheel Within a Wheel so much, I’ve decided I’m going to post on it regularly, although it may mean I end up quoting much of the book, as it’s so short. But it has so many gems, I can’t resist. It’s something I could easily finish in an evening, but I don’t want to rush it, and this way I can report on the details better.
One of the things I like best about the book is Willard’s combination of moralizing and rebelliousness. It’s such an odd combination in a way — she seems both conservative and progressive — but when you think about her time period, it makes perfect sense. She’s a “proper lady” in some ways, taking every opportunity to find a moral or a lesson in whatever she is writing about. But she’s also known for trying to shake up the status quo in her roles as a suffragette and as the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And learning how to ride a bicycle at the age of 53 in her day and age is an act of defiance in and of itself. So she sounds both old-fashioned and very modern, and it’s a combination I find amusing at times, and very appealing.
Here is a taste of her style; in a paragraph enclosed in parentheses, she gives this advice about learning to ride:
Just here let me interpolate: Learn on a low machine, but “fly high” when once you have mastered it, as you have much more power over the wheels and can get up better speed with a less expenditure of force when you are above the instrument than when you are at the back of it. And remember this is as true of the world as of the wheel.
She strikes me as someone who would know just how to expend the most force, both on the bicycle and in the world. She is not someone I would want to contradict; when she tells her friends she wants to learn to ride, initially no one approved, but:
they posed no objection when they saw my will was firmly set to do this thing; on the contrary, they put me in the way of carrying out my purpose …
It does not surprise me that her friends would capitulate quickly. She does show a vulnerable side, however, which she reveals in this passage, a passage that also shows her quickness to turn her cycling lessons into lessons about life:
That which caused the many failures I had in learning the bicycle has caused me failures in life; namely, a certain fearful looking for of judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt — at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it.
But I’ll leave you with the most delightful passage, which comes when she hears the bicycle speak to her, in “softly flowing vocables.” Here is what her bicycle says (a long passage, but worth quoting — don’t miss the last paragraph):
Behold, I do not fail you; I am not a skittish beastie, but a sober, well-conducted roadster. I did not ask you to mount or drive, but since you have done so you must now learn the laws of balance and exploitation. I did not invent these laws, but I have been built conformably to them, and you must suit yourself to the unchanging regulations of gravity, general and specific, as illustrated in me. Strange as the paradox may seem, you will do this best by not trying to do it at all. You must make up what you are pleased to call your mind — make it up speedily, or you will be cast in yonder mud-puddle, and no blame to me and no thanks to yourself. Two things must occupy your thinking powers to the exclusion of every other thing: first, the goal; and, second, the momentum requisite to reach it. Do not look down like an imbecile upon the steering-wheel in front of you — that would be about as wise as for a nauseated voyager to keep his optical instruments fixed upon the rolling waves. It is the curse of life that nearly everyone looks down. But the microscope will never set you free; you must glue your eyes to the telescope for ever and a day. Look up and off and on and out; get forehead and foot into line, the latter acting as a rhythmic spur in the flanks of your equilibriated equine; so shall you win, and that right speedily.
It was divinely said that the kingdom of God is within you. Some make a mysticism of this declaration, but it is hard common sense; for the lesson you will learn from me is this: every kingdom over which we reign must be first formed within us on what the psychic people call the “astral plane,” but what I as a bicycle look upon as the common parade-ground of individual thought.
12 responses to “A Wheel Within a Wheel”
Halfway through the long quote I forgot it was the bicycle speaking. Instead I thought it was Willard which, of course, it actually is. Just imagine what she would have done had she begun learning about the bike at age 3, a half century earlier. President Willard!
I am thinking of picking up the unicycle, and I am sure it will speak to me in like fashion.
Sound like a fascinating woman, book. Do you think you could make up a list of your favourite books this year? Could use some suggestions for holiday or winter reading.
A metaphysical lesson through the eyes of a bicycle. I’m intrigued. This really sounds like a fascinating book.
I am glad the book is turning out so good. Love the last quote. Does your bicycle speak to you Dorothy? Have you read Mark Twain’s essay on learning how to ride a bike? If not, I highly recommend it after you finish this book. It will provide appropriate absurd and humorous balance.
What fun, and I just love that last quote. Please keep quoting the book word-for-word. That way, I won’t have to add it to my TBR list.
Bikkuri — a unicycle! Do describe how it goes! I’m curious what your unicycle will say to you …
Lilalia — she IS a fascinating woman; I need to find out more. As for a list — I’ll be making one up at the end of the year, so look out for it! 🙂 The Willard book is likely to be on it.
Dark Orpheus — yes, it’s definitely a book worth checking out.
Stefanie — thanks for the recommendation; I haven’t read the Twain, and I will certainly have to! As for what my bicycle says to me, it’s something like “Clean me! Clean me! Please!!”
Emily — I’ve obliged in my latest post, as you’ll see …
She probably wouldn’t have gotten away with her rebelliousness if she didn’t also have a little balance of the proper in her, too. She looks pretty formidable from her photo. It must have been quite “freeing” to learn to ride a bike!
I just hope it doesn’t say, “Get off!”
Danielle — you’re right — too much rebellion would make you an outcast, I’m sure. And from the way she describes it, it WAS quite freeing — in lots of ways.
Bikkuri, no, but my legs say that …
Thank you for posting all this – she is fantastic and makes me smile, think and nod in sober recognition all at once. I’m learning to ride at 24. I’ve linked to you in my blog about same; hope you don’t mind!
Hi Alice — linking is great, and best of luck with your cycling lessons!
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