Saturday, 9 November 2013

None so fast as stroke

An out-take from the Maxwell Gray work: I just ran into a MG reference in a 1923 article, Novelists' sporting blunders, which concerns sporting bloopers in novels.
Ouida's classic hero, who rowed twice as fast as his fellows in the Boat Race, is the supreme example of the errors into which authors who venture to deal with a phase of sport of which they are ignorant may fall.
Maxwell Gray's Boat Race
Maxwell Gray, the author of "The Silence of Dean Maitland," makes a curious reference to the Boat Race in "The Great Refusal," published in 1906.
Once he remembered — on a boat-race day — when every coster cart fluttered light or dark blue ribbons and the colours were in shop windows and ladies' dresses, and expectation was on tiptoe for the result of that five minutes' swift sweep over Thames waters — he remembered thinking that the sixteen god-like youths smiting the river with strokes too swift to count were, after all, of real flesh and blood like himself.
These inaccuracies are the more inexplicable as it does not require a knowledge of rowing to know that about twenty minutes is the average time for the race from Putney to Mortlake, and that it is perfectly easy to watch and count the strokes of the oars as they are seen rowing past.
Novelists' sporting blunders, page 580, T.P.'s and Cassell's Weekly, Volume 1, 1923
The Maxwell Gray error is verifiable. The Ouida one is not. A little Googling finds that its attribution to Ouida (the novelist Maria Louise Ramé) seems to have been a popular meme of the early 20th century. The quotation generally took the form"All rowed fast, but none so fast as stroke" ("stroke" being the rower at the stern who sets the pace for the whole crew), and it seems to be an abbreviated paraphrase of this passage ...
The word sounded clear from the mouth of the 'Varsity captain of boats, and at once Ralph exerted the full force of Herculean arms. His blade struck the water a full second before any other; the lad had started well. Nor did he flag as the race wore on… as the boats began to near the winning-post, his oar was dipping into the water nearly twice as often as any other.
... which comes from Desmond Coke's 1903 Sandford of Merton. Written under the pseudonym Belinda Blinder, it's a comic novel of Oxford university life, a pastiche of The History of Sandford and Merton - and the howler is of course a deliberate joke.

I can't find any precise origin of the accretion of the story to Ouida. The first citation I can find for the "... none so fast as stroke" line is 1908 ...
In one way and another, however, the crowds which watch the practice of the crews have come to know more about rowing than any earlier generation. ...  And there is certainly not a novelist left who could write with a grave face that "all rowed fast and furiously, but none so fast as stroke."
- The Boat-Race, The Spectator, 28 March 1908
... and in the same year, it was ascribed to a female novelist (for no reason I can see beyond sheer sexism):
We do not know whether or not it was a lady novelist who wrote gravely that "all rowed fast and furiously, but none so fast as stroke," but we suspect it was.
 - 'Varsity Howlers, The Press (Canterbury, NZ), 14 Hōngongoi 1908, Page 6
By the 1920s, the story was solidly attached to Ouida (see Google Books hits). Probably the connection was forged because of the female pseudonym of the author of Sandford of Merton, and the easy target that Ouida made as an eccentrically florid stylist known for such inaccuracies. The misattribution has been repeatedly debunked - notably via the correspondence column of The Spectator in 1937, and by Elizabeth Knowles on page 21 of What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotations (OUP, 2006) - but it refuses to die, and has been given new currency by the usual quotation websites.

Addendum: I find a clue in a contemporary review of Sandford of Merton:
"The Oxford Magazine" once published a delicious chapter on the Eights extracted from an imaginary novel by Ouida ...
- Reviews,  The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, page 817, Volume 95, 27 June 1903
If this is accurate, it might be identifiable as the source that kicked off the meme.

- Ray

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