John Galsworthy, the Nobel Prize-winning author, was brought up in Kingston upon Thames, close to the start of the “most famous cycling highway in the world.” Born in 1867, he would have been in his mid-twenties when the Ripley Road was at its peak of popularity, even more popular than when it had been described, by Lord Bury in 1887, as the “Mecca of all good cyclists.”
Galsworthy was therefore intimately familiar with the rise and rise of cycling, and he included the social impact of the bicycle in his famous novel series, The Forsyte Saga. This was a fictional chronicle of the lives and loves of members of an upper middle-class English family, similar to his own.
Many of the upwardly-mobile characters in the three Forsyte novels took to cycling: “Cicely and Rachel and Imogen and all the young people — they all rode those bicycles now and went off Goodness knew where.”
Later, they took to motorcars, but it had been bicycles which had afforded them their first experience of freedom. In On Forsyte Change of 1930, an explanatory book, Galsworthy fleshed out the background to the saga. He wrote of the bicycle’s social significance, especially for women:
Such historians as record the tides of social manners and morals, have neglected the bicycle. Yet would it be difficult to deny that [the bicycle] has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second…Under its influence, wholly or in part, have wilted chaperons, long and narrow skirts, tight corsets, hair that would come down, black stockings, thick ankles, large hats, prudery and fear of the dark; under its influence, wholly or in part, have bloomed week-ends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language, knickers, knowledge of make and shape, knowledge of woods and pastures, equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation — in four words, the emancipation of woman.”