Playing Cards Jane Austen Style

Card playing in the previous century

Yesterday in my Jane Austen class my students played cards. I introduced them to Speculation, the game that is played in Mansfield Park, and by the end of the exercise they had a deeper understanding of the characters in the book. We also learned that how we play games says a lot about our personalities.

The game is very easy to play, with Austen telling us that “it was impossible for Fanny not to feel herself mistress of the rules of the game in three minutes.” This was true with my students as well. (I’ve appended the rules after the break below.) Speculation’s complexity lies not in the basic rules but in how people play it.

Essentially, everyone deposits an agreed amount of money into the pot (I emptied my change drawer to furnish the money) and then three cards are dealt face down to each player. The dealer turns over his or her top card, which denotes trump. In the round of play, whoever has the highest card in that suit wins the pot. Therefore, if the dealer’s top card is an ace, the round ends immediately, with the dealer getting the pot. By the same logic, if an ace shows up in the round of play, once again play stops and that player collects.

Often, however, no ace has been dealt, which means that the players can speculate in both senses of the word. If a player turns over a high card in the trump suit—say, a jack—other players can offer to buy the card. They do so because they are speculating that no higher card will turn up and that they are buying a winner. The owner of the card, on the other hand, may choose to sell because he/she thinks that a higher card will turn up.

Likewise, a player who is holding the high card but is worried that one of the still-concealed cards is a higher one may buy that card, sight unseen, from the owner. This is to insure that his/her card remains the highest. Lively bargaining sessions can ensue.

Now to the players in Mansfield Park. There is the mild-mannered heroine Fanny Price who is only too willing to allow William, her ambitious brother whom she adores, to buy high trump cards from her for less than they are worth. After all, she is more interested in him winning than winning herself. Therefore, she has to be coached by Henry Crawford, a Regency rake who wants to make her fall in love with him. As Austen explains,

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.

Then there is Lady Bertram, perhaps the stupidest character in all six of Jane Austen’s novels. (She surpasses even Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey.) Crawford has also undertaken to coach her and Austen tells us,

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.

Henry, who is a master manipulator, is in his element and uses the card game to further his designs on Fanny. He only seems to focus on Lady Bertram but is really using her as cover so that he can talk directly to Fanny:

He was in high spirits, doing everything with happy ease, and preeminent in all the lively turns, quick resources, and playful impudence that could do honor to the game . . .
Two other characters at the table are Edmund Bertram, who plans to be a parish rector, and Mary Crawford, who is in love with Edmund (he is attracted to her as well) but wants him to find a profession that is more dashing and lucrative than the church. At one point we have a very entertaining conversation where Henry Crawford is talking to Edmund about the rectory in which he will live as the card game swirls about them. At various points, Crawford interrupts his conversation with Edmund to (1) tell Lady Bertram not to turn over her cards, (2) tell her not to overbid for one of Mary’s cards, and (3) tell Fanny not to allow herself to be cheated by her brother.

Fanny, who would like to be married to Edmund, tries to hide her interest in the rectory conversation by focusing on her brother,

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.”

Meanwhile, Mary, upset at the talk of Edmund’s future in the church, 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.

On one level, the game reveals character: William is focused on advancement and Henry on controlling women. Mary is prone to extravagant gestures and Fanny undervalues her own claims. Lady Bertram is very, very dumb.

The game also foreshadows, albeit indirectly, what will happen. Fanny will indeed hold on to her queen—her own sovereign self—despite intense family pressure to marry Henry. Mary will make an imprudent bid for everything and end up with nothing. William comes out all right as he advances up the naval ranks. Lady Bertram remains clueless to the end and other people take care of her.

The students agreed to take on the roles of the different players, which added an extra layer of fun. “Lady Bertram” (Ellen) at one point dealt the cards face side up. “Fanny” (Selene) allowed her brother (Miranda) to buy a King of Clubs for a mere penny, and we all chastised “Henry” (Bethany) for not having caught that in time. “Mary” (Claire) took reckless chances.

I have written in a past post about authors making use of games as extended metaphors, the two most brilliant instances being the card game ombre in Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock and chess in Alice through the Looking Glass. Austen’s use of Speculation is not on that level of intricacy but she does convey, in a society as tightly regimented as a card game, the complex relationships that go on within it.

Rules for Speculation 

Preliminaries.

Everyone starts with the same number of chips and at the start of each deal antes one to a pot. Deal three cards face down on the table in front of each player in a stack, then turn the next card of the pack to establish a trump suit. (Not that there is any trick-play. Trump, in this game, means the only suit that counts for winning.)

Object.

To be in possession of the highest trump when all cards in play have been exposed. For this purpose cards rank from Two low to Ace high.

Play.

The trump turn-up belongs by right to the dealer, so if it is an Ace the dealer wins without further play. If it is not an Ace, but is high enough to interest anyone else, they may offer to buy it from the dealer, and the dealer may haggle about it, or auction it, or keep it, as preferred.

Each in turn, starting with the player to the dealer’s left – or, if the turn-up was sold, to the purchaser’s left – turns up the top card of his or her own stack. This continues in rotation, but omitting the player who currently possesses the highest trump. If and when a trump is turned that is higher than the one previously showing, the player who turned it may offer it for sale at any mutually agreeable price, or refuse to sell it. Either way, play continues from the left of, and subsequently omitting, the possessor of the highest trump.

Furthermore, anyone at any time may offer to buy not necessarily the best visible trump, but any face-down card or cards belonging to another player. The purchaser may not look at their faces, but must place them face down at the bottom of his or her stack and turn them up in the normal course of play. (The time to indulge in this piece of speculation is when you currently own the highest trump and want to prevent someone else from turning a higher.)

End.

The game ends when all cards have been revealed, or when somebody turns the Ace, and whoever has the highest trump wins the pot.

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  • Barbara

    Robin, I’m off to reread that scene from Mansfield Park; I was never sure about the rules for Speculation. Does it show up anywhere else in Jane Austin?


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