Notorious in history for its high stakes gambling, the Georgian age was an era characterized by rapacious greed that seemingly could only be satisfied at the gaming tables; a time of growing prosperity in which men who were once wont to be satisfied with safe investments and moderate gains were taken of a sudden by a fever to wager. Nowhere was this more evident than amongst the aristocracy, who lacking the industry and virtue inherent to the middle class, chose instead to cultivate such idleness and vice.
While it is no secret that this frenzy of mindless wagering overtook so many men to the point of losing entire fortunes, far less has been said over the years of the many women who were also taken with this malevolent malady. No longer a strictly male vice, the Georgian age saw the corruption of a great number of women as more and more genteel gaming venues opened their doors to the fairer sex, many of whom eagerly joined their male compatriots at Hazard, Piquet, Basset, Faro, EO, Roulette, and Rouge et Noir.
Early in the 18th century, this gaming rage was satirically addressed on the stage by the preeminent female dramatist of her era, Susanna Centlivre in her plays, The Gamester, The Basset Table, Love at a Venture which garnered her great success.
Surprisingly, rather than being frowned upon by the Crown, play for money by either gender was even encouraged as entertainment at the Royal residences. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731 chronicles the winnings of their Majesties George II and Queen Caroline, and even the young royal princesses when they played Hazard.
Yet, Joseph Addison’s essay from The Guardian, (29 July 1713) sheds much light on the growing addiction among women:
“Could we look into the mind of a female gamester, we should see it full of nothing but Trumps and Mattadores. Her Slumbers are haunted with King, Queens and Knaves. The Day lies heavy upon her till the Play-Season returns, when for half a dozen Hours each day her Faculties are employed in Shuffling, Cutting, Dealing and Sorting out a Pack of Cards, and no Ideas to be discovered in a Soul which calls itself rational, excepting little square Figures of painted and spotted Paper.”
Addison further warns of the great toll gaming takes on a woman’s body as well as her soul:
“ The Beauties of the Face and Mind are generally destroyed…there is nothing that wears out a fine Face like the Vigils of the Card-Table…hollow eyes, haggard look, and pale Complexions are the natural Inclinations of a female Gamester. Her morning sleeps are not able to repair… in short, I never knew a thorough-paced Female Gamester hold her Beauty two Winters together.”
One of many aristocratic women caught up in the rage was Miss Pelham, an unwed daughter of the Prime Minister, who was notoriously addicted to gaming. Horace Walpole gives this pitiful account:
“Poor Miss Pelham sitting up all night at the club without another woman, losing hundreds and her temper, beating her head, and exposing herself before the young men and the waiters.”
While another contemporary says of her:
“I have seen her at that villainous faro table putting the guineas she had perhaps borrowed on a card with the tears running down her face…”
Another less pathetic but equally infamous Georgian gamestress was the actress Kitty Clive who was said to have flown into a rage when an elderly white-haired lady beat her at cards:
“Two black aces!” she cried. “Here, take your money, though I wish instead I could give you two back eyes, you old white cat!”
While the likes of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire might be able to lose thousands in a night without much worry, woe to the woman who wagered and lost above what she could afford. In 1714, Edward Ward writes in his satirical essay Bad Luck to him that has her; Or The Gaming Lady:
“ her jewels are carried privately into Lumbard Street that Fortune may be tempted the next night with another sum borrowed of my Lady’s Goldsmith or at the extortion of a Pawnbroker; and if that fails, then she sells off her wardrobe…”
Addison finishes with this shocking warning:
“there is still another Case in which the Body is more endangered as all Play-Debts must be paid in specie, or by an Equivalent. While the Man that plays beyond his income may pawn his Estate; the Woman must find something else when her pin-money is gone… When the Female body is once Dipp’d, if the Creditor be very importunate, I leave my reader to Consider the Consequences….”
A similar admonition to female gamblers is poetically repeated in the 1770 play The Oxonian by George Coleman the Elder:
“Lo! Next to my prophetic eye there starts, A beauteous gamestress in the Queen of Hearts…
So tender there if debts crowd fast upon her, She’ll pawn her “virtue” to preserve her “honour”
This same gaming fever rages in my heroine Lady Susannah Messingham’s veins in my SIBA nominated novel FORTUNE’S SON:
“You’ve bollocks of brass, my lady!” George exclaimed, too lost in the moment to guard his speech.
Susannah, paid him no heed, his voice had long since become little more than a buzz in her ears. She’d stayed with her lucky queen and the impulse had paid off with seven hundred guineas now on the table divided between the queen and the ace. Her mind was a flurry of calculations. If her good fortune continued, she might garner enough to live out her entire life, not just a woman of independent means, but one of substantial wealth.
She held her breath, and her hands clenched the table’s edge as the tallière turned over the next two cards, the ace of spades, and the three of diamonds.
“Ace wins, three loses.”
“Good God!” Selwyn slapped the table. “You’ve done it again! You’ve the devil’s own luck tonight!”
With her pulse drumming a deafening tattoo in her ears, Susannah dumped the remains of her purse onto the table, splitting it between the queen and the ace, the sum of her two wagers now totaling nearly a thousand guineas.
Recalling his promise to Philip, George was reluctantly moved to intervene with a staying hand. “Mayhap you should consider the payout. I’ve yet to see anyone surpass trente-et-le-va.”
With her eyes glimmering and her voice breathless, she answered, “Did you not study Virgil, Mr. Selwyn?”
He looked chagrinned. “I’m afraid I left my studies a bit precipitately.”
“Fortune favors the bold,” she quipped over-brightly. She bent her card just as Philip’s ominous warning came unbeckoned into her head – Luck tires as surely as the player.
Ashton, John. The History of Gambling in England: By John Ashton .. London: Duckworth & 3 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, W.C., 1898. Print.
MacCunn, Florence A. Sir Walter Scott’s Friends. New York: John Lane, 1910. Print.
Sala, George A., and Edmund H. Yates. “Women at Cards in the 18th Century.” 3. Temple Bar, A London Magazine For Town and Country Readers 117 (1899): 248-56. Print.
Steinmetz, Andrew. The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims. London, 1870. Print.