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Dickens and Chickens

On 17 April 1860, in fields near Farnborough, Charles Dickens joined an audience amongst whom were the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, as well as a number of MPs and clergymen, to watch the American John Carmel Heenan and England’s Tom Sayers (the Brighton Titch) beat one another blind and bloody in a bare-knuckle fight that lasted nearly two and a half hours. The fight ended in a draw when Aldershot police stormed the ring, forcing the fighters and their illustrious spectators to flee the scene. It was the brutality of this match that signalled an end to the bare-knuckle era and prompted the development of the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules.

Dickens’s interest in pugilism was of long standing. In 1848 Dombey and Son, which had been published in serial form over the preceding two years, came out in book form. One of many of his novels that draws on the world of the prize fighter, it introduces the unforgettable Mr Toots, a would-be man about town, and his companion and boxing coach the Game Chicken. There was indeed a fighter known as the Game Chicken – Bristol-born Henry Pearce (1777–1809), who features in my first Dan Foster novel, Bloodie Bones. Hen Pearce became champion of England in 1805. But the real Henry Pearce was long dead by the 1840s, the era in which Dickens’s novel is set.  

Boxers were heroic figures.
Pearce was a popular figure, remembered for his courage and heroism, tales of which pursued him even after his retirement from the ring. In Bristol in 1807, for instance, he rescued a girl from a blazing building, an act which garnered him much praise. Dickens’s Game Chicken is nothing like Hen Pearce. He’s a grotesque figure in a shaggy white greatcoat, with a shaven head, a perpetual black eye and a nose that’s been broken and badly mended countless times. He guzzles ale and beefsteaks at Toots’s expense and it’s his ultimate goal to wrangle enough money out of Mr Toots to enable him to purchase “the good-will and fixtures of a public house...[and] to drink himself to death as soon as possible”. For all his posturing as a “celebrated public character” (“I’m afore the public”), he’s all swagger and bluster. We only hear of one victory he’s achieved (against the Nobby Shropshire One), and he’s badly punished in his fight with the Larkey Boy – a defeat he puts down to an illegal move on the part of his opponent when in fact he was outmatched from the start.

He’s also coarse and unfeeling. His response to Mr Toots’s request for advice on how to win the hand of Florence Dombey is to suggest that Toots “doubles up” her father with a single blow to the stomach. When Mr Toots makes clear that he has no intention of using brute force to win Florence (there’s a later hint at abduction), the Game Chicken accuses Mr Toots of meanly giving in and leaves him (“This here conduct of yourn won’t suit my book, Master”) – demanding a sweetener of £50 to see him on his way.

Overall, then, Dickens’s Game Chicken is not an attractive character. P G Wodehouse compares him unfavourably to “the great Hen Pearce”, describing him as “a poor, weak-kneed caricature of his class” and even suggests that he is drawn from the “scum of the boxing world”.  While it’s true that the Chicken of Dombey and Son – that “professor of the peaceful art of self-defence” – is in reality not much more than a thug whose only answer to life’s difficulties is to use his fists, he is a perfect subject for Dickens’s irony, comic perspective and exuberant prose. Describing the Game Chicken’s ill-fated fight against the Larky Boy, Dickens blithely peppers the page with boxing slang (as his Game Chicken is “peppered” by the Larky One): with fibbing and grassing and tapping and bunging, and being groggy and coming up piping. It’s breezy and funny and it revels in the language. It’s pure Dickens.

And yet there’s that 1860 fight. During that contest, Heenan’s features were left so bloody and swollen that he was, according to The Times (18 April 1860), “almost unrecognisable as a human being”. Sayer’s face too was “smeared with blood and heavily bruised and bumped”. In addition, he suffered such a severe injury to his arm stopping one of Heenan’s blows that he had to fight one-handed, and was unable to use the limb for some time after the fight. He was also half-strangled on the ropes until he was “black in the face”. If the character of Dickens’s Game Chicken is as far removed from that of the real Game Chicken, Hen Pearce, as Wodehouse suggests, then Dickens’s Game Chicken vs Larky Boy match is just as far from the reality of the Heenan vs Sayers fight.

Should Dickens have given a more honest account of a boxing match in Dombey and Son? Did turning it into a comic knock-about have the effect of making the violence seem acceptable? Nowadays violence is often portrayed in explicit detail in books and television and film drama – in Scandinoir, for example. But is there something fundamentally wrong with using violence as a form of entertainment? On the other hand, given that we live in a violent world it might be equally dishonest to leave it out of our art altogether. 

How should writers depict violence in their work? What do you think?

For more information see:-

Frank Keating, ‘Heenan v Sayers: The fight that changed boxing forever’, The Guardian, 14 April 2010,

‘The Fight for the Championship’, The Times, 18 April 1860

P G Wodehouse, The Pugilist in Fiction,


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