No matter how much we yearn for the manners of yesteryear, it must be acknowledged that there really wasn’t that much to do in the early 19th century. In Jane Austen’s Regency-era England, quality diversions were in short supply, especially for ladies. But characters in Austen’s novels often play games to pass the time, which can offer up insights into who they are. Characters’ behaviors during games reveal traits such as their willingness or unwillingness to take chances or their general wealth, income, and quality of living.
We’ve picked out some games that may be lesser known to a modern day reader, as well as some that people still play. It may surprise you just how many are familiar and just how many are played by your family members at holiday gatherings.
A trick-taking card game using a standard 52-card deck, whist is one of the most frequently mentioned games in Austen’s works. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins’ lack of skill at whist reveals him to be a rather dim sort of fellow, and Mr. Darcy (putting aside his usual distaste for card games) falls prey to Mrs. Bennet’s “rapacity for whist-players” near the end of the novel. Mrs. Bennet’s greed must have gotten the better of her poor nerves that day.
Trick-taking refers to each round of play, called a trick, where there is one clear winner at the end of the trick. Whist is played by four players, with two pairs of partners among them. The first player leads the trick with a suit, and the other players have to either match the suit or play a trump card. The highest card of the leading suit wins the trick, unless a trump is played. Trumps always win (hopefully just in cards). Whist is simple in theory, but can get tricky (HAR) in practice.
Schoolmistress Mrs. Goddard from Emma is very fond of piquet, and Emma tries to alleviate her father’s worries with the promise of cards with Mrs. Goddard. If Emma is go out for the evening, her worrywart father will need to distract himself from the many evils that might befall his daughter outside of their house. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Hurst also play piquet in Pride and Prejudice, notably keeping Mrs. Hurst out of the loop.
Another trick-taking game, piquet is instead played with two players and a 32-card deck called a piquet deck, which removes all cards with values two through six from a standard 52-card deck. There are three different stages in piquet: the exchange (players can change out one to five of their twelve cards for those in the talon, or the remainder deck), the declarations (used to determine who has the better hand by revealing choice cards), and trick play (like a round of whist). Piquet is about controlling how much the other player knows, sometimes sacrificing points for the chance to keep secrets.
Mr. Darcy’s esteemed yet quiet cousin, Miss de Bourgh, plays casino (or cassino, if you want some extra fricative action) while her mother, the also esteemed yet rather prickly Lady Catherine, prefers the more old-fashioned quadrille.
Casino is a fishing card game based on the traditional Italian game Scopa. In fishing games, players match cards from their hand with those lying face-up on the table in order to “capture” them. Players can capture table cards either by matching them or by playing a card that is the sum of two or more table cards. If you fail to catch any fish, your card remains on the table.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s indolent aunt, Lady Bertram, is often thoughtless and distracted, with nothing more on her mind than her beloved pugs. After an eventful ball, Mansfield Park is desolate and so are the moods within. Lady Bertram commands Fanny to “fetch the cards” in order to keep her awake, and they pass the time with cribbage until there’s nothing left to do but sleep.
Typically played with two, cribbage is a standard-deck card game that uses its own distinctive cribbage board to mark points. Cribbage is also unique in that it has a special pile called the crib for the dealer’s use. One card is placed face up on the table, and players take turns playing cards, trying to reach certain numerical totals or complete sets. Also, if players are able to maximize their scores, they have good “pegsmanship,” which I’m going to be using in conversation from this day forward.
On Elizabeth’s first visit to Netherfield Park, she declines an offer to play lanterloo with the others, as she suspected them to be “playing high.” No not that kind of high, but rather high stakes, high enough that the relatively poor Elizabeth could not afford to play.
Lanterloo, also hilariously called loo, is another trick-taking card game played with the standard 52-card deck. Players contribute to a pool and must win at least one trick or they have to add more to the pool. Players can choose not to play if they don’t like their hand, but if a player fails to win a trick he or she is considered “looed,” which sounds quite ominous. And messy.
What modern games would you want to introduce into Regency-era society without (or perhaps with) offending their delicate sensibilities? Let’s take a turn about the room and talk about it in the comments below.