By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
In Jane Austen’s time, some of the leisure activities of the middle and upper classes included hunting, horseback riding, playing cards, and gambling. A person could also read for pleasure, in a private library or a circulating library. For those with leisure time, there were excursion day trips, picnics, and putting on plays.
Hunting: Men’s Favorite Activity?
In Sense and Sensibility, hunting is a favored activity among the men. Sir John Middleton, Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, is described as a ‘sportsman’, who did little else other than hunt and shoot. It’s not said in praise of him. Sir John is genial, but this narrowness makes him ridiculous.
Willoughby, too, is an avid hunter, although he also has a wider range of interests. Critics have long made much of the idea of Willoughby as a hunter not only of hares and foxes but of women. He’s clever in trapping and catching female prey.
Not every leisure activity in Austen’s fiction must be read as a defining element of one’s character, but she rarely includes any throw-away details. We see this especially in her card-playing scenes.
The most admirable characters in Austen’s novels have little time for cards. They see it as a substitute for good conversation or for more improving activities, like reading. “We have many leisure hours and read a great deal,” says Sir Edward Denham, proudly, in Sanditon.
However, Austen doesn’t seem to have been against card playing. In her own life, she seems to have had favorite card games. But in her novels, a character’s love for card playing is not usually a sign of a life that’s heading in the right direction. The worst example may be Mansfield Park’s Tom Bertram, who loses a devastating amount of money gambling and puts his entire family’s finances, and his brother’s financial future, in jeopardy. It’s likely that some of that money was lost betting at cards.
Austen’s characters rarely do much harm by playing cards. Even Tom’s own mother, the indolent Lady Bertram, plays cribbage without incident. Still, the way she plays cribbage reveals a lot about her. She makes her niece Fanny do all of the scorekeeping and has her deal the cards, too. As in other areas of her life, she expects to be served and contributes little.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Different Card Games Held Different Meaning
Which card game one preferred carried meaning. Early on in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet jokes that her sister Jane and Mr. Bingley have known each other only a short time, so short that one of the few things they know about each other is that they both like the card game Vingt-un better than they do Commerce. That’s actually significant!
The card game Vingt-un (French for 21) was like blackjack. Commerce was more like poker. Meaningfully, this couple prefers the simpler card game, Vingt-un, which has fewer rules and is based on good luck. Neither of them likes Commerce, a more complicated, cut-throat card game of skill. The fact that it’s called Commerce is also amusing. Jane and Bingley do not seem cut out for the world of business. They’re both so genial and idealistic.
Speculation in Mansfield Park
We see a similar plot point in Mansfield Park, where the canny Mary Crawford plays a rousing card game called Speculation. Speculation was a fashionable and acceptable game, with only a little gambling involved, using chips. Each player was dealt a hand, and cards were turned over in a particular order. The object was to acquire the highest value card in each hand’s trump suit. Players who could keep track of which high-value cards had already been played could do better, so there was some skill involved. It was said to be one of Jane Austen’s favorite card games.
Mary Crawford plays Speculation with abandon, taking risks that don’t pay off. She gains a short-term victory that prevents her securing a long-term one. About this move, she says, “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.” It encapsulates Mary’s approach to life.
Not Just a Game of Cards
Another popular game was whist, similar to bridge, with a trump suit, trick-taking, and four players, each with a partner. The name whist derives from the same word as wistful. It was a thinker’s game, so it’s meaningful that Pride and Prejudice’s thoughtless Mr. Wickham doesn’t like to play whist.
The card game quadrille was the favorite of Pride and Prejudice’s powerful, snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Quadrille was also the name of a popular dance. It signifies the number four in both cases. The card game quadrille was complicated and required a great deal of conversation. Lady Catherine plays it not with money but with little playing pieces made of ivory and called fish. Lady Catherine’s habits of play involve watching out for others to make mistakes and then to comment on them. Mr. Collins’s style of play is to agree with everything her Ladyship says, to thank her for every fish he wins, and to apologize if he thinks he’s won too many.
This scene is an excellent example of how complicated leisure and labor were in Austen’s day. For Mr. Collins, being in the good graces of Lady Catherine, his patron and boss, extended even to a leisurely card game. For him, a game of cards with her was never just a game of cards.
Common Questions about How Card Games Defined Characters in Austen’s Novels
Austen didn’t seem to have been against card playing. In her own life, she seems to have had favorite card games. But in her novels, a character’s love for card playing is not usually a sign of a life that’s heading in the right direction.
The card game Vingt-un (French for 21) was like blackjack. Commerce was more like poker. Vingt-un had fewer rules and was based on good luck. Commerce was a more complicated, cut-throat card game of skill.
Whist was a popular card game, similar to bridge, with a trump suit, trick-taking, and four players, each with a partner. The name whist derives from the same word as wistful. It was considered a thinker’s game.