Arts of Play: The Culture of Gambling in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Hogarth's "Scene in a Gaming House" seems to be a typical image of the ubiquitous gambling that characterized eighteenth-century British social life. It depicts a raucous assemblage of men gathered around gaming tables; some wigs are askew, some swords are drawn, chairs are overturned. One player pulls his hat over his face in despair at a recent loss while others, looking treacherous, count their money, perhaps unfairly won. As in so many of his satirical paintings and prints, Hogarth captures the sordidness of supposedly genteel men's pastimes. In contrast, a commissioned portrait by Hogarth, "Assembly at Wanstead House," shows a family group seated decorously at a game of cards in their formal parlor. Thought to commemorate a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, the painting portrays an elegant woman surreptitiously revealing the winning card, the ace of spades, to a male on-looker. The representational range of these two images suggests that gambling in the period did not have a single, simple meaning. Although there were many voices denouncing play, gambling was not disreputable. In "Assembly at Wanstead House" and similar portraits, Britons chose to have themselves depicted gambling, encountering chance, risking money courteously at specially-made card tables in their homes - as if gambling represented, as much as a portrait of an aristocrat and his horse, a fundamental aspect of identity.
Eighteenth-century Britons negotiated their relations with their world through gambling, and the period's novels explore central questions of British identity through representations of gambling. Not simply an aristocratic or rakish diversion, gambling, from high-stakes Faro to lottery insurance to petty wagers, permeated the daily lives of Britons of all classes and economic strata. Gambling took place alongside the development of a modern capitalist economy - games were played and stocks were traded in the same coffee houses - in a culture of flux where it was difficult to tell the difference between a gamble and an investment, and where the ever-present threat of cheaters undermined society's fictions of stability. Building on Ian Hacking and Lorraine Daston's studies of chance and the origins of probability theory, this cultural history of gambling reveals the centrality of the arts of play for the construction of civic, social, and private selves in a period that was anything but the "Age of Reason."
In an introductory survey of the customs, protocols, and arts of play, I examine the relationship between gambling and early financial practices such as stocks, annuities, and insurance, detail the laws governing play, and analyze the physical objects used for gaming. My dissertation then traces in the ensuing chapters economies - of realism and probability, sentiment, gender, and empire - inflected by gambling. The first chapter examines the gap between the theory and the practice of risk that continued throughout the eighteenth century despite the development of mathematical probability theory. I argue that the laws of probability seemed irrelevant to gamesters because the rampant cheating that made calculation impractical and the inconsistent application of the anti-gaming laws conditioned gamesters to perceive play as an unquantifiable series of individual episodes. Edmond Hoyle's "Short Treatise on Whist" was the first successful application of the theory of risk to gaming. Drawing on older games manuals, he presented probability not as a collection of overarching laws that minimized anomalies into a discernible pattern but as picaresque narrative, a series of discrete cases or incidents. Tobias Smollett's picaresque novel, Ferdinand Count Fathom, bears out the gamester's suspicion of totalizing probability theory by representing an episodic world of unquantifiable cheating that can be resolved novelistically only by a sudden turn to providential narrative that is both unrealistic - improbable - and unconvincing. In Henry Fielding's final novel, Amelia, cheating at play symbolizes a world that is not ordered by divine design; the narrator, who is much less confident than that of Tom Jones, can bring about a happy ending only by improbable recourse to special providence. The divinely designed, ordered world that both mathematical probability theory and providential narrative posit cannot account for the cheater's paradise that Smollett and Fielding wished to represent realistically in their novels of London life.
While gambling culture upset tidy economies of mathematical and providential order, economies of gender were created and critiqued at gaming tables. My second chapter examines the fictional ideal of the disinterested male gambler as a response to a world where a wager seems to be the only remaining honorable financial transaction untainted by the increasing desire for gain that renders class distinctions meaningless. Sentimental gamblers in Oliver Goldsmith's journalism, Sarah Fielding's David Simple, and Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, who, in David Simple's words, define goodness of character by "contempt for money," indicate dissatisfaction with the contemporary world in which male character is defined precisely by money, rather than by spectacles of feeling. The sentimental gambler, working against the increasing symbiosis of emotional and monetary economies, performs his disdain for the marketplace paradoxically by refusing to spend emotion at the gaming table. The sentimental gambler's desire to separate money and feeling, however, is both futile and dangerous; William Godwin's St. Leon exposes the emotional isolation that the sentimental, aristocratic male ethos, including disinterested gambling, courts.
The sentimental male gambler wants to keep emotional and monetary spending distinct, but the female gambler threatens to conflate a monetary economy with a sexual one. My third chapter reads the portrait of a female gambler in Frances Burney's Camilla in the context of a century's worth of plays, essays, poems, and another Hogarth painting, "The Lady's Last Stake." These representations develop the anxiety that the gaming woman took herself out of sexual circulation when she sat down to cards, thus neglecting lover, husband, or children, at the same time that her inevitable gambling losses would lead her to repay her debts with sexual favors. While the ideal male gambler was supposed to remain emotionally aloof from the game, the female gambler's passions were imagined as utterly absorbing, eclipsing the affections that bound her to her duties, her sexual honor, and her social functions. Burney's female gamester forms part of her novel's broader exploration of an economy in which a woman's monetary expenditure, whether at the gaming table or the milliner's shop, is seen as a sexual act that must be monitored and regulated by men.
Moving beyond Great Britain's shores to the Atlantic economies that sustained the nation, my fourth chapter examines the nexus of gambling, education, and empire in Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. I contrast a wager between an English child and a Jamaican creole slave-owner on an English country estate with that creole's own childhood gambling "with his negroes" on his plantation. Worried about a too-permeable boundary between "At Home" and "Abroad," Edgeworth links gambling with slave-owning, and, in an effort to strengthen that boundary, unfairly blames the creole for both, even though many of the novel's English characters gamble and all of them participate in the slave economy. Contextualizing the novel by analyzing educational playing cards from the period, as well as the role gambling plays in Edgeworth's pedagogical theory, I argue that Belinda, despite its repudiation of gambling, imagines that a carefully supervised exposure to chance could produce properly educated colonial subjects, a fantasy that allays Edgeworth's fear that British society at the turn of the nineteenth century was not rationally ordered but was itself a game of chance. Edgeworth wants gambling to represent the disorder of the empire beyond Great Britain's borders, but, as in Smollett and Fielding's novels, gambling undermines fictions of British stability.
My dissertation returns to economies of gender in the final chapter on Jane Austen's Persuasion, examining Anne Eliot's use of a system of secondary calculation familiar to women throughout the eighteenth century who describe marriage as a lottery and a woman's happiness as a matter of chance. Persuasion draws on conventional representations of gamblers to open the novel to the more psychological, less topical, explorations of gambling that become common in nineteenth-century fiction. Inflected by Bath's illustrious history as a gambling resort, Persuasion examines the conditions of risk-taking and decision-making. Contrasting Wentworth's confidence in his luck with the confidence game of William Elliot, who springs from the tradition of rakish, villainous gamblers in eighteenth-century drama and fiction, Anne Elliot, who once feared risk, develops a sophisticated appreciation for the boons of chance and is better able to assess true risks. Austen's novel thus serves as a fitting conclusion to this study, for it both relies on the culture of gambling so amply documented in earlier representations of the arts of play and points toward the more symbolic thematics of gambling found in the novels of George Eliot, Benjamin Disraeli, and Anthony Trollope.