Strictly Jane Austen

Games, Gambling & Speculation in the Time of Jane Austen

The energy of the Regency found outlets in gambling, gaming, social mobility, and the spread of opportunity. In this month’s Musings, Dr Leigh Wetherall Dickson, Associate Professor at Northumbria University, looks at this fascinating period through the prism of Austen’s characters and the games they liked to play.

On Monday 24th and Tuesday 25th October 1808, Jane Austen wrote a letter to her sister, Cassandra in which she names the many games played with her nephews. Edward and George Austen, aged 14 and 13 respectively, had travelled to Southampton to stay with their relations after the death of their mother, Elizabeth Bridges Austen. Jane reassures Cassandra that ‘We do not want for amusement; bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable, spillikins, paper ships, riddles, and conundrums, and cards, with watching the ebb and flow of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed’. 

In the same letter Jane identifies one game in particular that was an instant success amongst the family: ‘I introduced speculation, and it was so much approved that we hardly knew where to leave off’.  A popular domestic gambling game throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, Speculation was, according to the 1847 edition of Hoyle’s Games ‘a noisy round game, that several may play, using a complete pack of cards, bearing the same import as at whist, with fish or counters, on which such a value is fixed as the company may agree upon.  The highest trump, in each deal, wins the pool; and whenever it happens that no trump is dealt, the company pool again, and the event is decided by the succeeding round’. With a mixture of luck and strategy, and an awful lot of shouting, the objective could be achieved by the trading and auctioning off cards amongst the players.  

Lydia was ‘extremely fond of lottery tickets, [and] she soon grew too interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prize, to have attention for anyone’

This is the game likely played at the noisy supper part held by Mrs Phillips in Pride and Prejudice, the occasion during which Elizabeth listens to all Wickham has to say about Darcy, and at which Elizabeth’s concerns about Lydia monopolising Wickham prove to be unfounded; Lydia was ‘extremely fond of lottery tickets, [and] she soon grew too interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prize, to have attention for anyone’. On the way home ‘Lydia talked incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish she had lost and the fish she had won’.  On the surface the evening is spent in familial conviviality, but Lydia’s greed for lottery tickets is indicative of her essentially selfish and irresponsible nature and is closely aligned to her pursuit of the fashionable and, ultimately, Wickham: ‘Look here’ she says to her sisters, ‘I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty but thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it any better.’  Like the making of bets with no guarantee of winning a fish, Lydia has gambled a significant financial outlay on a horrible hat, uncertain if the investment will pay off. Lydia is not overly troubled either way as she is only concerned with gratification of immediate desire with no thought as to any future consequences for herself or her family. The leap from lottery fish to elopement with Wickham is, then, not so big, and neither the fish, the hat nor Wickham is worth much to anyone except to Lydia.

In 1817 William Davis, an advocate of saving banks to encourage frugality, noted that a ‘fondness for Dress may be said to be the folly of the age’ as money is frittered away upon the superfluous instead of being invested for the benefit of futurity’, a lament that is equally fitting about the fashionable vice of gambling. Davis could be describing Lydia Bennett, but there is a correlation between fashion and gambling throughout Austen’s novels. Independently they become emblematic of a vacuous and despicable society, but when combined they become indicative of something darker.  The Bingley sisters, with their ‘air of decided fashion’ play for high stakes by way of signalling the social and economic differences between themselves and Elizbeth Bennett, a message especially intended for Mr Darcy from Miss Bingley. However, the games they favour reveal the trade origins of their fortune (Commerce) and their spitefulness (Loo, a game ruinously punitive for the unwary). Mary Crawford combines the amoral and acquisitive metropolitan characteristics of the Bingleys with the risk taking and restless energy of Lydia: ‘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’. Like Lydia, her game of choice is Speculation, which she plays with a ruthlessness that makes Lydia’s greedy accumulation of lottery fish look positively childish. Mary’s determination to buy the knave she has been coveting ‘at an exorbitant rate’ not only illustrates the financial resources at her disposal but that she is willing to speculate to accumulate. In so doing, she demonstrates all the necessary skills of being a successful player that Henry Crawford tries to teach Fanny; ‘he had to inspirit her play, sharpen her avarice, and harden her heart’.  How willing Mary is to speculate to accumulate, and how hard her heart and how sharp her avarice, is revealed when she contemplates the death of Thomas Bertram, heir to Mansfield Park, to benefit Edmund whom she has her in her sights.

The presence of the Bingleys and the Crawfords represent the encroachment of the restless, rootless, and self-interested metropolitan culture into the more traditional enclave of landed interests and concerns. But I think Austen is less concerned with shoring up the old order than she is with exploring the impact of such incursions. Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, the apparently secure future of Mansfield Park, do extricate themselves from the speculative onslaught of the Crawfords, but it is telling that neither are good card players. That they both soften towards their respective pursuers indicates that they neither have the skills nor the resources to resist speculative forces indefinitely. Religion, propriety, and genuine feeling may have triumphed in this instance but are pitted against the destabilising, relentless forces of private avarice and pretence, the key characteristics of Speculation.

Dr Leigh Wetherall Dickson is an Associate Professor at Northumbria University. Her publications include an edited collection of the Works of Lady Caroline Lamb (2009) and the provocatively titled Disease and Death in the Eighteenth Century (2016). Leigh will be coming to Bath for our Strictly Jane Austen residencies in April and October – why not join in the celebrations and hear her fascinating interrogation of the Regency through the prism of Austen’s characters and the games they liked to play? Discover more about the meaning of the Crawford’s love of ‘Speculation’ in Mansfield Park and what drives Lydia Bennet’s craving for ‘lottery fish’ in Pride and Prejudice.