Games in Literature: The Significance of Card Playing in Jane Austen

Daphne Nwobike

Staff Writer

“That is the power of Jane Austen!” Ally Hollis gleefully announced when she realized that the ladies at our table were in the lead, while Parker Oliver lamented over losing yet another game of Speculation. Voices reverberated around the room as students and community members battled for wealth and success in a game that grew more intense and invigorating as the night progressed. Surrounded by the warmth of the McGriff Alumni House and seated at tables adorned with delicate flowers, intricately designed teapots, elegant dinnerware, fruit tea, and decadent pastries consisting of crumpets and macarons, it was impossible not to feel like a character residing in one of the many drawing rooms in Austen’s novels. Remarkably, this opportunity to travel back in time was provided by an informative presentation about “The Significance of Card Playing in Jane Austen” by Dr. Robin Bates. 

Photo courtesy of Daphne Nwobike

When asked to describe traits that make Jane Austen’s novels memorable, most people cite her riveting storylines, swoon-worthy romance, well-written heroines, and above all, the charming Mr. Darcy. However, card games never make it onto the list, despite being present in her most famous works, from Pride and Prejudice to Mansfield Park to Sense and Sensibility. During his presentation, Dr. Bates revealed the many ways card playing contributes to the broader impact of Austen’s works.

For one, Austen uses card games as analogies representing the formal society of the time. According to Dr. Bates, “there were a set of rules; everybody [knew] the rules, and everybody [operated] by them. There’s a certain predictability, and everyone is expected to behave a certain way. Essentially, there are no surprises.” Card games reveal the rigidity and austerity of Austen’s society, where people could not express themselves fully for fear of being chastised by those around them. In the Regency period, card games brought young people together. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, the guise of playing card games allows Wickham to reveal everything he knows about Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth. Card games also highlight character traits. Dr. Bates’ simple words, “Mr. Darcy doesn’t play games,” emphasizes the idea that characters who are reluctant to engage in card games are more taciturn, reserved, and introverted than those who gladly play along. Lydia Bennet from Pride and Prejudice is one such character whose affinity for card games is indicative of her personality. She is free-spirited and prone to living on the edge, as evinced by her obsession with playing Lottery Tickets, a game that involves taking risks. 

Switching gears to a specific game in Austen’s works, Dr. Bates describes the significance of Speculation. He says, “in the early 19th century, there was a rage for speculation as [the British] were speculating about getting huge returns from the West Indies.” But in Jane Austen’s novels, speculation primarily occurs where marriage is concerned. Certain characters are passionate about finding the most handsome and lucrative suitor, regardless of their true feelings. For example, Lucy Steel in Sense and Sensibility moves from Edward Ferrars to Robert Ferrars, the heir apparent, because the latter would be the epitome of financial stability. Thankfully, some of Austen’s characters resist the lure of speculation, such as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Dr. Bates remarks, “these women choose not to speculate, and because they’re virtuous, they get their men anyway.” 

With all ground covered on the role of card games in Austen’s novels, we turned to the practical side of things—getting to play Speculation at our tables. Dr. Bates provided a run-down of the instructions: “Each of you will be dealt three cards. If you don’t want to do anything else but turn over a first card, turn over a second card, and turn over a third card, then that’s all you have to do. There will be a suit name, and whoever has the highest card in that suit wins. The speculation comes in when you offer to buy a card you think might win from [its owner]. For instance, if you think the ten of clubs might win, you can offer to buy it from the person who has it.” 

So after fake coins are passed out to each player, and Ally Hollis adeptly shuffles my group’s cards, we set off. My group, comprised of Athena Wilkerson (C’21), Ally Hollis (C’16), Nathan Stewart, Parker Oliver (C’89), and Marilyn Phelps, approached the game head-on. We shakily maneuvered the rules initially, but things became competitive once we got the hang of the process. One by one, we all secured wins, with Mrs. Phelps and Ms. Hollis taking the lead in the beginning, Ms. Wilkerson and Mr. Stewart surprising everyone with their unexpected wins, and Mr. Oliver being a great sport despite the unfortunate tide of the game where he was concerned. Forty-plus minutes of gameplay later, all the groups finish up their last rounds. There were prizes for the four players with the highest number of coins. My group’s total of 23 coins was quickly outshined by the winners, who earned 40, 35, 34, and 25 coins, respectively. Fourth place won a Jane Austen bookmark, third place won illustrated cards of the Jane Austen novels, second place won Jane Austen playing cards, and first place won a Jane Austen action figure! After learning about the relevance of card games and playing Speculation with others, it was no surprise that Dr. Bates was passionate about sharing his discoveries with the Sewanee community—and we are glad he did. 

Photo courtesy of Daphne Nwobike

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