Card Games in Jane Austen Novels

Notes from a talk given 13 October 2018, Wellington
Marianne Vignaux
I wanted to talk a bit about card games specifically in Jane Austen’s novels. When I started this, all I knew off hand was that card games appear frequently in the novels, they are obviously a mechanism that Austen uses to isolate people within a crowd, so that her characters have the privacy to conduct business necessary to the plot without any breach of protocol. Think, for example of Wickham’s pivotal conversation with Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, “Allowing for the common demands of the game, Mr Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him” in which he makes the extraordinary (and misleading) revelations about Mr Darcy’s history, which sets up one of the two pillars of Elizabeth’s dislike and Prejudice against him. How else was she going to get this information, since she didn’t exactly know Wickham well enough to wander off on her own into the shrubbery with him. So these secrets had somehow to be revealed in full view of everybody.

Similarly, in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor uses the cover of the others playing cards to interrogate Lucy Steele about her boasted of engagement to the enigmatic Mr Ferrars.

But what I found when I started looking for card games in the novels was that typically she doesn’t just say “they played cards”, she is actually quite specific about what card game different characters play, and when she names a game she would be  assuming that her readers would be as familiar with the rules of the games and the associated cultural baggage as we would be of Monopoly or Cluedo or Snap. So if I learn in a (say) 20th century novel that a character is very good at Monopoly, that means something. If a character prefers Snap, that means something. They would obviously not be interchangable. So I started to wonder what were these different games, that Jane Austen references, and what do they say about the characters, and what are we missing out on if we don’t get the references.

But lets start with some examples of NON card playing –

·  In Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth declines the opportunity to join the folks at Netherfield park in a card game (because she (probably rightly) suspected that they were rather out of her price range for the stakes they were gambling) – Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment. “Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.”

·  As well as underlining the class (or at least wealth) difference here, this is an example of a common theme of Jane Austen’s reference to card games, that they are mainly enjoyed by the less sophisticated of her characters – the Mr Hursts rather than Elizabeth Bennets of this world. Similarly, of Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility – “They met for the sake of eating, drinking, and laughing together, playing at cards, or consequences, or any other game that was sufficiently noisy.” but Marianne is rather above this “No one made any objection but Marianne, who with her usual inattention to the forms of general civility, exclaimed, “Your Ladyship will have the goodness to excuse ME—you know I detest cards,” and she goes off to play the piano.

·  Another example of non- card playing, which I think might have a slightly different meaning: Anne Elliot in the final chapters of Persuasion says “I am no card-player” and Wentworth  replies “You were not formerly, I know. You did not use to like cards; but time makes many changes.” The question is, is Anne now willing to take a risk on Wentworth?

And so to cards.

·  In Northanger Abbey Isabella finds “a pool of Commerce, in the fate of which she shared, by private partnership with Morland, a very good equivalent for the quiet and country air of an inn at Clifton”. Commerce is a trading game in which each player in succession may exchange one of his 3 cards for another card until someone refuses and then the best hand wins. Remember Isabella’s sub-plot in Northanger Abbey, she heartlessly exchanges one man for another in order to obtain “the best hand at close of play” – in her case marriage.

·  In contrast we are specifically told that the loyal Jane and Bingley in Pride and Prejudice don’t like Commerce – they prefer Vingt-Un (a game still familiar today as twenty one).

·  Lydia on the other hand gets so caught up in her risk taking card game and the prize that might be hers that she temporarily loses her future husband’s attention to her sister – “At first there seemed danger of Lydia’s engrossing him entirely, for she was a most determined talker; but being likewise extremely fond of  lottery tickets, she soon grew too much interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prizes to have attention for anyone in particular.” And if you think about the Lydia sub-plot, it is right that she is such a risk taker, with her eye on the prize, and not enough attention to the risks. It turns out that the card game “lottery tickets” is a pure game of chance, where you win if you get a pair.

·   In Mansfield Park, a game of cards is proposed to Lady Bertram. “She hesitated. Luckily Sir Thomas was at hand.“What shall I do, Sir Thomas? Whist and speculation; which will amuse me most?” Sir Thomas, after a moment’s thought, recommended Speculation. He was a whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not much amuse him to have her for a partner.”

·  Whist is basically like bridge, but without the bidding round that comes before each hand.

·  Henry Crawford ends up teaching the card game called Speculation to Fanny and Lady Bertram. “It was a fine arrangement for Henry Crawford, who was close to Fanny, and with his hands full of business, having two persons’ cards to manage as well as his own; for though it was impossible for Fanny not to feel herself mistress of the rules of the game in three minutes, he had yet to inspirit her play, sharpen her avarice, and harden her heart, which, especially in any competition with William, was a work of some difficulty; and as for Lady Bertram, he must continue in charge of all her fame and fortune through the whole evening; and if quick enough to keep her from looking at her cards when the deal began, must direct her in whatever was to be done with them to the end of it.” This pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the characters of Henry, Fanny and Lady Bertram.

·  And it is during this game of Speculation that poor old Mary finds out that Edmund really is intending to become a clergyman and live at Thornton Lacey. At one point she loses her composure and begins to play badly, overpaying for a card: “Miss Crawford, a little suspicious and resentful of a certain tone of voice, and a certain half-look attending the last expression of his hope, made a hasty finish of her dealings with William Price; and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me. I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it…The game was hers, and only did not pay her for what she had given to secure it.” You will shortly have the opportunity to experience what this means. “All the agreeable of her speculation was over for that hour. It was time to have done with cards, “

·  Meanwhile Fanny’s brother William “who was driving as hard a bargain, and imposing on her as much as he could; but Crawford pursued with “No, no, you must not part with the queen. You have bought her too dearly, and your brother does not offer half her value. No, no, sir, hands off, hands off. Your sister does not part with the queen. She is quite determined. The game will be yours,” turning to her again; “it will certainly be yours.” And actually at the end of the book it is!

·  But now we (like Fanny) must learn to inspirit our play, sharpen our avarice and harden our hearts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s