Notorious in history for its high stakes gambling, the Georgian age was an era characterized by a 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.
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!”
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 more light on the growing addiction:
“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.”
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”
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4 STARS from RT Book Reviews
“Lee brings the atmosphere of the Georgian era to life with lush descriptions that beg the reader to see, hear, feel and touch it all… with a lively cast of characters and surprising twists and turns that are reminiscent of Fielding’s Tom Jones or Defoe’s Moll”- RT BOOK REVIEWS5 star TOP PICK from The Romance Reviews
“FORTUNE’S SON by Emery Lee is a brilliantly written story about a tumultuous love worth fighting for…Such carefully crafted characters and setting engage readers in a novel of breathtaking beauty. This novel will have everything you want and then some. (The Romance Reviews )
FORTUNE’S SON by EMERY LEE
2011 TRR BEST HISTORICAL ROMANCE Nominee
Love is the ultimate gamble…
Seasoned gambler Philip Drake knows every trick and uses most of them. After years of infamy, he’s ready to accept the mantle of respectability with his earldom– until a devastating racing loss and the threat of debtors’ prison force Philip right back into his gaming ways…
Susannah, Lady Messingham, is a woman with a past who refuses to belong to any man again. But Philip’s skill catches her eye and she persuades him to teach her how to win at the tables. Their new partnership turns into an exhilarating high-stakes game that entangles them in terrifying risk and unimaginable rewards…
Immerse yourself in the risky side of Georgian England with a pair of lovers who aren’t afraid to risk it all on a toss of the dice…
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.