Jul 7 2014 3:45pm

You Bet Your Love: Gambling in Historical Romance

Gambling cat picture by gchampeau via Flickr Creative CommonsWhist. Vingt et un. Hazard and Loo and Faro and Piquet. If you have ever read a historical, and certainly one set in London between, say, the two Queens Elizabeth, then chances are you have come across reference to at least a few, if not all, of these games of chance, once popular with the ruling elite. Only Vingt et un remains with us virtually unchanged (you might know it as Blackjack), though both Whist and Hazard have survived in modified form, as Bridge and Craps respectively. But even the most enthusiastic of today’s high rollers would be hard put to call themselves as dedicated to Lady Luck as were the scions of the Upper Ten Thousand back in the days of yore, for whom gambling was as much occupation as it was hobby and/or addiction. It was like they were an entire class of World Championship Poker players, only with less tattoos (though, possibly the same number of wigs).

Historical romance would have us believe that a gentleman of breeding spent much of his time at the gambling table—or gaming table, as it was much more pleasingly known (“gaming” has a much dorkier connotation now, of course), winning and losing enormous sums, bonding with each other in the camaraderie of excess, and occasionally becoming accidentally, often resentfully, engaged to some benighted fellow’s innocent young daughter, sister or (soon-to-be) widow.

A Hazard of Hearts by Barbara CartlandSeveral years ago, I wrote a paean of praise to Barbara Cartland in these very pages, speaking of my adolescent love of her enduringly adolescent works featuring doe-eyed, heart-faced virgins with mostly made up names like Zenobia, Aldora and Salrina. Quite often the constantly recycled plots of these foolish fancies would feature a Forced to Marry motif in which a rakish young man with nothing to lose would wager his broken down ancestral home against some equally broken down gamester’s worldly goods, and when the inevitable happened and the Not Our Hero lost, his subsequent suicide would leave Actually Our Hero with no honorable option but to marry his late opponent’s doe-eyed, heart-faced virgin of a daughter. Switch out the rakish, penurious young man for a sardonic, thirty-something nonpareil who comes to survey his newly-won country house only to find it inhabited by his late opponent’s doe-eyed, heart-faced virgin of a sister, and you have another variation on the theme. Other books and plots brought gambling into the action in other ways – A Hazard of Hearts had our hero’s mother an addict and probable cheat; An Angel in Hell had our heroine playing roulette in Monte Carlo with our hero’s also-addict mother; etc. very etc., but the prevalence of storyline-propelling financial ruin due to a love of cards, dice and horse racing in the Cartlandian oeuvre certainly gave the impression that such a calamity happened all the damn time.

And she wasn’t far off. Oh, it’s doubtful that quite as many (say it with me) doe-eyed, heart-faced virgins found the domineering loves of their lives due to their suicided guardian’s predilections and compulsions, as her—and many others’—fiction might suggest. But the reality is, enormous gambling debts caused fashion icon Beau Brummell to flee England and otherwise capable statesman Charles Fox to lose much political power. The Duke of Wellington, that battlefield nemesis of Napoleon himself, almost had to leave the Army as a lieutenant to pay his gaming debts. And some couples really were Forced to Marry, with the likes of the Earl of March being wed at eighteen to a thirteen-year-old girl in payment for his father the Duke of Richmond’s bad luck.

In her book on the eponymous seventeenth century beauty – and gambler – Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire  (filmed as The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), Amanda Foreman states: “Gaming was to the aristocracy what gin was to the lower classes: it caused the ruin families and corrupted people’s lives.” She goes on to quote noted contemporary wit Horace Walpole: “A thousand meadows and cornfields are staked at every throw, and as many villages lost as in the earthquake that overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii.” It was a time when anything as uncouth as gainful employment was considered beyond the pale for the well-bred, and when the lucky sperm Masters of the Universe had at their disposal the livelihoods of their whole families, as well as their tenants and servants, such was their dynastic wealth. At least three months of the year—“the Season”— were to be spent in the metropolis engaging in an orgy of ever-increasing frivolity, away from even the smallest demands of estate and household management. Throw in marital disharmony the likes of that experienced by our poor Georgiana, and it is really no wonder that even for those who did not develop a full-blown obsession, gaming added excitement and a feeling of satisfaction to an otherwise dull, perhaps even unproductive, life. As genre doyenne Georgette Heyer’s young Hubert Rivenhall tells his stern elder brother Charles, a trifle defiantly, in The Grand Sophy: “I wish I had not had such infamous luck, but everyone plays, after all!”

Ah, yes. Heyer. In her very first novel, the Georgian tour de force that is 1921’s The Black Moth, gaming was at the fore, with our hero exiled from Polite Society due to an accusation of cheating at cards. (Dude don’t play that way, of course. He’d not be our hero, else!) Other of her novels feature newly-fledged young misses fleeced of kisses, jewels and pin money in assorted games of chance (Powder and Patch, The Convenient Marriage, April Lady), young blades befriended and cheated by smooth-talking “Captain Sharps” (Arabella, Frederica, Friday’s Child) and family fortunes brought to the brink by ruinous play (The Grand Sophy, Venetia, A Civil Contract). My much beloved These Old Shades feels like it takes place almost exclusively in Parisian gambling establishments—the Duke of Avon repaired his fortunes by winning someone else’s, let’s recall—and Faro’s Daughter assuredly does, with our heroine actually a hostess of same. (!) It is clear, then, that in this area of early Historical Romance, gaming plays as big a part as do cameos by celebrities of the day and blatant anachronism.

The Prince's Bride by Julianne MacLeanMore recent Historicals, both Trad and blush-inducing, keep this tradition alive, with the likes of Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You (part of her series The Gamblers) having a hero who runs a gaming hell—a “hell” basically being the equivalent of a modern-day backroom high stakes poker game—and Julianne MacLean’s The Prince’s Bride (part of her Royal Trilogy) featuring a heroine who kidnaps a man—fortuitously, her One True Love—in order to pay her father’s gambling debts. House parties, card parties and visits to exclusive gentlemen’s clubs like White’s and Brooks’s (which yet exist) still abound across the various subgenres, and if I had a dollar for every beta character who found himself with pockets to let after a particularly disastrous visit to Ascot or Tattersalls, I’d doubtless have enough to pay off all of their cumulative losses—probably even with the couple of centuries worth of interest.

Of course, gambling remains an incredibly popular pastime to this day, with global casino revenue alone estimated at over $150 billion in 2013, and while it is definitely a more egalitarian endeavor now, it was hardly the preserve of only the ton even back in Historical Romance times. Scandalized was the Regency mama who learned of her precious son’s consorting, and betting, with the hoi polloi at a cock fight or pugilistic display; in some gaming hells frequented by the gentry it took little more than the possession of shoes and a shirt to get in the door, and even then standards might slip if enough gold weighed down a grimy purse. And while the tradition of a “debt of honor” has largely gone by the wayside now—a modern line of credit is enforced by more than just a threat of the cut direct—debts accrued to casinos and bookies and friendly neighbourhood Pai gow parlors still break apart friendships, relationships, families and fortunes, as will they ever (as well as leading to many a corrupt police officer, as pretty much every crime thriller I have ever seen informs me).

Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is in the annals of historical—mostly Georgian and Regency —Romance that we see gambling, and the concept of the inveterate gamester, played out most often even now (outside of, perhaps, anything set in Vegas), and this can be put down to the fact that the denizens of the rarefied, moneyed heights in which we typically dwell in this genre almost always had nothing better to do. They might not be addicts, especially not if they’re our protagonists, and they might not even really enjoy the undertaking, but by Jove, at least one of our characters must and will risk something (or everything) on the turn of a card because, as young Hubert said so insightfully, everyone played.

Bet on it.

Gambling cat image courtesy of gchampeau via Flickr Creative Commons


Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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1 comment
Jennifer Proffitt
1. JenniferProffitt
I do believe the Devil in Winter (my top Kleypas) takes place at a gaming hell that our hero owns.
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