Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What Games Did Jane Austen Play? A Guest Post from Syrie James

In Jane Austen’s First Love, a young Jane spends a month in Kent with the Bridges family at their country estate, Goodnestone Park, where romance blossoms between her and an extraordinary young gentleman. While there, Jane engages in all sorts of activities. As I researched the novel, I was fascinated to learn about the kinds of amusements that were popular in Georgian England, and in particular, the games that Jane Austen was fond of herself.

Jane Austen and her family were avid game players. In a letter to her sister Cassandra in October 1808, Jane explained how she kept two of her brother Edward’s sons busy while they were visiting her in Southampton after their mother died:

“We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spilikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out.”

We can imagine Jane making paper ships with her nephews, playing cards, or telling each other riddles. But what are the other amusements to which Jane refers?
Bilbocatch, also called cup-and-ball, was a simple, traditional child’s toy comprised of a wooden stick with a cup at one end, and a small wooden ball with a hole in it which was attached to the cup by a string. The object of the game was to catch the ball in the cup or on the pointed end. A bilbocatch which belonged to Jane Austen is on display at Chawton Cottage (Jane Austen’s House Museum.) A charming illustration from Lydia Marie Child’s 1838 book, The Girl’s Own Book, shows two young ladies playing the game.

Spilikins was similar to a game known today as jackstraws or pick-up sticks. The game originated in the late 16th century and was named after Jack Straw, one of the leaders of an English rebellion in 1381. To play, a group of strips of wood, straws, or toothpicks are spilled in a heap. Players compete by picking up as many straws as possible, one by one, without disrupting the pile. Jane was apparently a skilled player of both of these games, as her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, attests to in his A Memoir of Jane Austen:

“Jane Austen was successful in everything that she attempted with her fingers. None of us could throw spilikins in so perfect a circle, or take them off with so steady a hand. Her performances with cup and ball were marvellous. The one used at Chawton was an easy one, and she has been known to catch it on the point above an hundred times in succession, till her hand was weary.”
Jane Austen also played “battledore and shuttlecock,” an ancient game that was similar to modern badminton. It was played by two people with wooden racquets (battledores), who batted back and forth a cork shuttlecock trimmed with feathers. As she wrote in 1808 to Cassandra:

“Yesterday was a very quiet day with us; my noisiest efforts were writing to Frank, and playing at battledore and shuttlecock with William; he and I have practised together two mornings, and improve a little; we have frequently kept it up three times, and once or twice six.”

Jane Austen and her family enjoyed any number of card games, but she was especially fond of speculation. The game, which could be played with two to nine people and required a full 52 card deck, involved bidding on cards. Whoever held the highest trump at the end won the pot. Austen included a telling game of Speculation in Mansfield Park, and wrote of her nephews’ visit in 1808, “I introduced speculation, and it was so much approved that we hardly knew how to leave off.”

Austen described a variety of parlor games in her novels, such as the charades, alphabet blocks, and conundrums (clever word puzzles) indulged in by the characters in Emma. A dangerous but popular parlor game at the time, Snapdragon, involved snatching raisins out of a bowl of burning brandy, the goal being not to burn one’s fingers! Other amusements during the Georgian era included cricket, billiards, horseback riding, chess, lawn bowling, and archery, many of which are featured in Jane Austen’s First Love. In this excerpt from the novel, Jane writes to her friend Martha Lloyd about the object of her affection, Edward Taylor, and her woes on the archery range:

“As I am already proficient at the sport, he spent all his time teaching Charlotte how to shoot a bow and arrow. How irritating it was to see him standing over her for such a lengthy period, and in such an intimate posture! How I wish he had been instructing me! It seems that a young lady, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”


Jane Austen's First Love
Inspired by Actual Events
Fifteen-year-old Jane Austen dreams of three things: doing something useful, writing something worthy, and falling madly in love. When she visits her brother in Kent to celebrate his engagement, she meets wealthy, devilishly handsome Edward Taylor—a fascinating young man who is truly worthy of her affections. Jane knows a match between her and Edward is unlikely, but every moment she spends with him makes her heart race—and he seems to return her interest. Much to her displeasure, however, there is another seeking his attention

Unsure of her budding relationship, Jane seeks distraction by attempting to correct the pairings of three other prospective couples. But when her matchmaking aspirations do not all turn out as anticipated, Jane discovers the danger of relying on first impressions. The human heart cannot be easily deciphered, nor can it be directed or managed. And if others must be left to their own devices in matters of love and matrimony, can Jane even hope to satisfy her own heart?


Syrie James is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Nocturne, Dracula My Love, Forbidden, and The Harrison Duet: Songbird and Propositions. Her books have been translated into eighteen foreign languages.


  1. Thank you for sharing the information, Syrie. I even recognized one.

  2. I remember playing pickup sticks to. To think it has been around since the 16th century. Very informative and enjoyable post.