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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Croquet is a lawn game where players hit balls through hoops with a mallet. It was introduced into England from France in the 1850s and soon became a popular game played around the country by middle and upper class ladies and gentlemen. It is portrayed widely in both art and literature, especially during its heyday in the second half of the 19th century, but also in more recent times.

In art, painters depicted croquet in various ways. US landscape painter Winslow Homer, for example, seemed to use croquet to show women’s alleged weakness and ineptitude. Only the women in his paintings are playing croquet. In “Croquetspiel” (spiel is German for play), painted in 1864, he portrays three ladies, and one gentleman who appears to be showing them how to play. He is bending down near the lady in red in the middle of the painting, pointing at the ball, and also to the mallet which he is holding in his other hand, as if telling her how to hit a ball with a stick.

Homer’s 1866 painting “A Game of Croquet” has one woman concentrating on holding onto her hat and the other about to hit the ball, but she seems to be holding the mallet with only one hand. His “Croquet Players” of 1865 has four ladies playing croquet while two men and one lady appear to be bystanders. The lady in the middle of the picture looks like she might have just hit the ball with one hand and missed the hoop from about three feet away. All the women in his croquet paintings are wearing the long, flowing dresses of the period, but even wider than usual, making it very hard to play any sort of sport or games.

Similarly, French painter Edouard Manet shows two women playing croquet, but in slightly narrower dresses, in his 1873 painting “Croquet Party” while two men look on.

By contrast, Louise Abbema, another French painter, has men playing the game too. In “A Game of Croquet,” painted in 1872, she shows a game being played on a sandy beach with four women and four men participating. Croquet was a game played on the beaches in France and Belgium. A lady is hitting the ball using two hands and looks far more skilled than those portrayed by Homer. French painter Pierre Bonnard, in his 1892 painting “Twilight (The Croquet Game),” shows two gentlemen and two ladies, with at least one of the men appearing to be a player. One of the ladies is having her shot.

A number of paintings from this era portray croquet as a means of young gentlemen and ladies taking advantage of an opportunity to socialize informally, even flirt, a rarity in Victorian times. In John Leach’s “A Nice Game for Two or More” painting from 1861, players of both sexes are enjoying the game. In a sketch version in Punch, the caption reads: “Fixing her eyes on his, and placing her pretty little foot on the ball, she said, ‘How, now, shall I croquet you?’ And croqueted he was, quite thoroughly!” Indeed, in “A Game of Croquet” in the Daily Graphic, 20 June 1870, the focus seems to be on men and women socialising rather than playing croquet. They have mallets in their hands but appear to be too busy chatting and flirting to worry about the game.

The old portrayal of women hardly able to play the game didn’t disappear completely. Norman Rockwell’s 1931 painting “Croquet” is set in the 19th century and shows a lady swinging a mallet with one hand. A man behind her looks on with a facial expression that seems to suggest he assumes that she will play a poor shot. More recent paintings show the growing informality of the game. “Croquet Anyone?” (c. 1960s) by John Lavalle shows a relaxed group of men and women playing croquet. The man hitting the ball has bare feet.

A large number of paintings, cartoons, photos, and croquet paraphernalia are exhibited at the National Croquet Museum and Gallery collection at the Charles P. Steuber National Croquet Center, West Palm Beach, Florida.

In literature, croquet makes a number of appearances, often as a strange or brutal game. US writer and artist Edward Gorey is known for macabre illustrations in his books and often used croquet pictures. “Epiplectic Bicycle,” published in 1969, includes a picture of a sister and a brother, Embley and Yewbert, hitting each other with croquet mallets.

English author H G Wells uses croquet as a metaphor for man confronting the issue of why he exists, in “The Croquet Player,” published in 1937. It is written in the first person and is about a man whose life is heavy influenced by his aunt’s wealth. He declares he is one of the best croquet players in the world and that his aunt is good too. But he says: “If we did not shrink from the publicity and vulgarity of it we could certainly be champions.”

Despite various influences throughout the book, at the end he hasn’t moved away from croquet. He tells a friend: “I must be going … I have to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve.” The friend says: “But what does croquet matter … if your world is falling in ruins about you?” He tells the man he doesn’t care and almost repeats his previous line about having to play croquet with his aunt.

In chapter 1 of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Alice recalls “trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself.” Later, the Duchess gets an invitation to play croquet with the Queen. In chapter 8, “The Queen’s Croquet Ground,” the Queen asks Alice if she plays croquet.

Alice describes the croquet ground as “curious.” The game is played in a rough field that is “all ridges and furrows.” The balls are hedgehogs, the mallets are flamingos, and the soldiers themselves make the arches by doubling over backwards. She secures a flamingo and is about to use it to hit a hedgehog but it looks at her and she laughs. Then it unrolls itself and crawls away. The ridges and furrows are a hindrance and the soldiers keep moving to other parts of the ground. Everyone plays at once and they are all arguing. The Queen is angry too and calls for Alice’s head. She tries to escape the field.

English novelist Jasper Fforde includes croquet games in his stories. In a number of his novels with literary detective Thursday Next as the main character, he uses croquet. In “Something Rotten,” croquet is depicted as a brutal sport. Prime minister Yorrick Kaine and the Goliath Corporation plan to dispose of the English president. Kaine’s ambitions may result in nuclear armageddon. Next has to make sure the Swindon Mallets beat the Reading Whackers in the 1988 Croquet Superhoop final in order to stop Kaine and Goliath and the end of the world. She enlists a group of Neanderthals to help win the match and thereby saves the world.

In summary, the game of croquet in depicted in art and literature in a wide variety of ways. It is used in paintings to portray women’s perceived inability and to show how gentlemen and ladies used it to socialize informally in an otherwise ultra-conservative era. Croquet is used in literature to show situations ranging from anger and brutality, to a man’s struggle with his existence, and a match that was a world saver.

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