The Truth Behind Jane Austen’s Fight Club: Female Prize Fights Were a Thing During the 18th Century

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. 

The sec­ond rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! 

- Chuck Palah­niuk, Fight Club

Could it be a case of autho­r­i­al over­sight that all sub­se­quent rules are exclu­sive­ly con­cerned with such prac­ti­cal mat­ters as dress and fight dura­tion?

Giv­en the macho rep­u­ta­tion of both the book and the film adap­ta­tion, it seems like the third rule of Fight Club should be: you DO NOT talk about the fact that a fair num­ber of Edwar­dian ladies were badass bare knuck­le fight­ers.

Because doing so might dimin­ish Fight Club’s street cred just a bit­sy…

Film­mak­er (and pop­u­lar audio­book nar­ra­tor) Emi­ly Jan­ice Card has a good deal of fun in Jane Austen’s Fight Club, above, mar­ry­ing Palahniuk’s tropes to the social mores of England’s Regency peri­od.

“No corsets, no hat pins and no cry­ing,” Tyler Dur­den stand-in Lizzie instructs the eager young ladies in her cir­cle. Soon, they’re proud­ly sport­ing bruis­es beneath their bon­nets and stray blood spots on their tea dress­es.

While young women of the fic­tion­al Ben­net sis­ters’ social class refrained from bru­tal fisticuffs, there’s ample evi­dence of female com­bat­ants from the pro­le­tar­i­an ranks. They fought for mon­ey, and occa­sion­al­ly to set­tle a dis­agree­ment, train­ing hard for weeks in advance.

Their bouts drew spec­ta­tors to the amphithe­ater owned by box­ing pro­mot­er James Figg, and the mar­velous­ly named Hock­ley in the Hole, a seedy estab­lish­ment whose oth­er attrac­tions includ­ed bear­bait­ing, bull­bait­ing, and fight­ing with broadswords and cud­gels.

The female fist fight­ers chal­lenged each oth­er with paid notices in local papers, like this one from “cham­pi­oness and ass-dri­ver” Ann Field of Stoke New­ing­ton:

Where­as I, Ann Field, of Stoke New­ing­ton, ass-dri­ver, well known for my abil­i­ties, in box­ing in my own defense wher­ev­er it hap­pened in my way, hav­ing been affront­ed by Mrs. Stokes, styled the Euro­pean Cham­pi­oness, do fair­ly invite her to a tri­al of her best skill in Box­ing for 10 pounds, fair rise and fall; and ques­tion not but to give her such proofs of my judg­ment that shall oblige her to acknowl­edge me Cham­pi­oness of the Stage, to the sat­is­fac­tion of all my friends.

Mrs. Stokes prompt­ly announced her readi­ness to come out of retire­ment:

I, Eliz­a­beth Stokes, of the City of Lon­don, have not  fought in this way since I fought the famous box­ing- woman of Billings­gate 29 min­utes, and gained a com­plete vic­to­ry (which is six years ago); but as the famous Stoke New­ing­ton ass-woman dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meet­ing her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with will be more dif­fi­cult for her to digest than any she ever gave her ass­es.

Rather than keep­ing mum on Fight Club, these female pugilists shared Muham­mad Ali’s flare for drum­ming up inter­est with irre­sistibly cocky word­play.

Ref­er­ences to adver­saries fight­ing in “close jack­et, short pet­ti­coats, and hol­land draw­ers … with white stock­ings and pumps” sug­gest that the adver­saries played to the spec­ta­tors’ pruri­ence, though not always. Unlike the 20th-cen­tu­ry stunt of biki­ni clad jel­lo wrestling, sex appeal was not oblig­a­tory.

In a chap­ter devot­ed to pub­lic enter­tain­ments, sports and amuse­ments, Alexan­der Andrews, author of The Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry or Illus­tra­tions of the Man­ners and Cus­toms of Our Grand­fa­thers, doc­u­ments how the Mer­ry Wives of Wind­sor, a crew com­prised of “six old women belong­ing to Wind­sor town” took out an ad seek­ing “any six old women in the uni­verse to outscold them.”

On June 22nd, 1768, a woman called Bruis­ing Peg “beat her antag­o­nist in a ter­ri­ble man­ner” to win a new chemise, val­ued at half a guinea.

In 1722, Han­nah Hyfield of New­gate Mar­ket, resolved to give her chal­lenger, Eliz­a­beth Wilkin­son, “more blows than words,” promis­ing to deliv­er “a good thump­ing.” Both par­ties agreed to hold a half-crown in their fists for the dura­tion of the fight. William B. Boul­ton, author of 1901’s Amuse­ments of Old Lon­don, spec­u­lates that this was a prac­ti­cal mea­sure to min­i­mize scratch­ing and hair-pulling.

Time trav­el to an 18th-cen­tu­ry female bare knuck­les fight via Female Sin­gle Com­bat Club’s exhaus­tive cov­er­ageSarah Murden’s excel­lent analy­sis of John Collet’s paint­ing, The Female Bruis­ers, above, or Jere­my Freeston’s short doc­u­men­tary avail­able on YouTube.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Author Chuck Palah­niuk Read Fight Club 4 Kids

Ste­vie Nicks “Shows Us How to Kick Ass in High-Heeled Boots” in a 1983 Women’s Self Defense Man­u­al

Ernest Hemingway’s Delu­sion­al Adven­tures in Box­ing: “My Writ­ing is Noth­ing, My Box­ing is Every­thing.”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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