Isabella’s Lady Golfer

All the world loves to play, and the characters in Isabella’s novels were no exception. Come springtime, many of Isabella’s characters headed outdoors to engage in some kind of sport for fun and relaxation.

The cover from a 1908 issue of Collier’s magazine.


Ester Randall and her friends played tennis in Ester Ried’s Namesake.

“A Rally,” by Sir John Lavery, 1885.


In What They Couldn’t, Professor Landis enjoyed neighborhood baseball games until his few leisure hours were overtaken by the duties of his profession.

On the other hand, Irene Burnham was a lady of leisure in Ruth Erskine’s Son. She had plenty of time to play tennis and golf.

By the time Irene Burnham appeared in the novel, lady golfers had been swinging their clubs for centuries. Mary Queen of Scots was said to be an avid golfer.

A romanticized rendering of Mary Queen of Scots, published by The Detroit Publishing Company, 1898.


Legend has it Mary coined the term “caddie.” She also incurred the anger of her church and her subjects when, in 1567, she hit the links within days of her husband being murdered.

Queen Mary playing a round of golf

When Isabella was young, golf was a game of leisure and skill that few women could afford to play. But with the advent of public golf courses in the early twentieth century, more women began to take up the game.

In 1897 the first 7-hole tournament for ladies was held in Morristown, New Jersey.

In 1895 the first women’s amateur tournament was held in Hampstead, New York.

From the Casper Star Tribune, Monday, June 5, 1922.


There was plenty of advice available for women who wanted to learn to play the game. That advice often focused on what women should wear on the golf course:

From Golf Illustrated magazine, December 7, 1900.


A lady’s golfing outfit, from a 1912 issue of The Ladies Home Journal magazine.


Other advice centered on women’s conduct on the links, as in this article from The Philipsburg Montana Mail, on Jul 22, 1898:

Click on the image to see a larger version


Isabella’s friend and fellow author Margaret Sangster published a book of etiquette in 1904, in which she included a chapter on how women should behave on the golf course.

One of Ms. Sangster’s comments suggests she may have thought golfing an unfeminine pastime. She wrote:

Now, we do not presume to dictate, but we must observe that the posture and gestures requisite for a full swing are not particularly graceful when the player is clad in female dress.

Ms. Sangster also worried that male golfers might see their scores suffer when there were women on the course:

If women choose to play at times when the male golfers are feeding or resting, no one can object; but at other times—must we say it?—they are in the way, just because gallantry forbids to treat them exactly as men.

Are you a lady golfer, or know someone who is?

What do you think of those determined lady golfers of bygone years who risked their “graceful” femininity to play the game—and the “gallant” men who played with them?

You can read Margaret Sangster’s book, Good Manners for All Occasions, by clicking here.

7 thoughts on “Isabella’s Lady Golfer

  1. How fascinating! I’m not a golfer at all…unless you count those hilarious attempts at miniature golf (all of which were perfectly dreadful). But I do admire anyone who can swing at that little ball and actually HIT it! Thanks for this fun account, Jenny!

  2. Interesting! I consider Isabella’s books to reflect a very strict Christian mindset. I was born in 1930 to very strict Christian middle-class parents. I was taught that golf was a worldly activity, not to be indulged in by a Christian. Probably their reasoning was that it was expensive and time-wasting. I am amazed that Isabella would not have agreed. I am also surprised that golfing goes all the way back to Mary Queen of Scots.

    1. You raised a good question, Patricia! Isabella never came right out and stated her opinion on golf, but I tend to think she probably agreed with your parents’ opinion. Irene Burnham (the character she created) not only played golf, she also played cards and thought social commitments were more important than church services. I think by lumping golf in with Irene’s worldly activities, Isabella gave us a clue about her feelings on the sport. —Jenny

  3. This was quite interesting. I’d never really thought of ladies playing golf back than. And even though I’ve read “Ruth Erskine’s Son” I must have forgotten that little tidbit. I’ve never played real golf. (I don’t think put-put golf counts, does it? I think I’ve played that twice.)

      1. Yeah! Let’s just say I’m not one you’d have to work hard to beat. 🙂

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