When the weather begins to get cold and our days are shorter, games are a perfect way for our friends and family to pass the time. The same was true in the Regency Era. Jane Austen and many of her heroines spend their evenings playing games, sewing, putting on theatricals, and reading to occupy their hours. Sometimes, like in Mansfield Park’s game of Speculation, Austen uses games to further plots or reveal more about a character. Despite games being present in all of her books, one of the books where games are used the most is Emma. In movie adaptations of Emma, we see both games from the book and additional ones appropriate to the regency period.
We know from Jane Austen's niece, Fanny Austen Knight, that Bullet pudding was a game played by the Austen Family around Christmas. Most recently, it was depicted in Emma. (2020). When Emma is going to visit Harriet at Mrs. Goddard's school, she walks in on Harriet and the other boarders playing a version of the game with a penny instead of a bullet.
The rules of the game were best explained by Jane Austen's niece, Fanny Austen, in a letter she wrote on January 17, 1804.
"You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek at top. You must then lay a bullet at top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person that is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths of which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choking you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out."
This explains why this game leads to Harriet's face being covered in flour when she finds out about Mr. Elton's infatuation with Emma.
According to Fanny, another game that was played by the Austens around Christmas was snap-dragon. On the commentary track of Emma. (2020), Director Autumn de Wilde, and Screenwriter Eleanor Catton, discuss how this game was in an early version of the script but was cut due to safety concerns. Why was a game a safety concern? The game of snapdragon involves a pewter dish being filled with alcohol, usually brandy. Then, raisins and nuts are put into the dish and the contents are set on fire. The goal of the game is to use your fingers to get one of the nuts or raisins and eat it without being burned. This was a game enjoyed by both children and adults.
How is it possible not to burn your fingers? In the podcast The Thing About Austen, hosts Zan Cammack and Diane Neu discuss brandy's low flash point. This means it can catch fire at around 80°F. So, the fruit and nuts are closer to room temperature than"molten" temperatures.
Elaborate word games like Riddles, including Charades and Conundrums, were also popular pastimes in the Regency period. Riddles are an ancient concept that took off as entertainment in the 18th Century. These riddles were much longer and more complex than ours today. In The Thing About Austen, Dr. Lynn Festa, a guest on the podcast, discusses how riddles were most commonly in the form of extensive multi-stanza poems cleverly defamiliarizing ordinary situations or objects. (Here are some examples) They could be collected into books, both professionally and as a DIY project, in order to share with friends and pass down through a family.
Charades in the Regency period were not the hand gesture-driven game that we know today. They were invented in the 18th Century in France and quickly became popular in England. Festa describes charades as an enigmatic description of the separate syllables of a word which you have to guess in isolation and then recombine to make the word. In simpler terms, each line of the poem describes a word in a poetic fashion. The words in each of the pairs of lines are syllables that are put together to answer part of the riddle. In Volume I, Chapter IX of Emma, Mr. Elton uses the lines,
My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!
But ah! united, what reverse we have!
Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown;
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.
Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,
May its approval beam in that soft eye!
Emma quickly solves the first lines to mean Court and Ship to create courtship. This riddle seems to support Emma's theory that Elton is in love with Harriet. In reality, of course, it demonstrates that while Emma is clever enough to figure out the charade, she is too self-deluded to identify the intended recipient. This acts as a metaphor for the entire plot because Emma believes she has figured out everything that is happening around her. However, in reality, she knows very little.
Conundrums are much more of an equivalent to what we know as riddles today. Festa describes them as short "riddles with punny answers." In Volume III Chapter VII, Mr. Weston makes up the conundrum, "what two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?" The answer is M and A, Emma. This moment is right after Emma embarrasses Ms. Bates. Mr. Weston is trying to change the subject into something positive and entertaining for the group. However, it works more as a way to shine a light on how despite Emma's wrongdoing, her friends, except Knightley, still put her on a pedestal of perfection because of her rank and beauty.
Whist is a precursor to the modern game of bridge and uses the standard 52-card deck. Four players split into two teams. The whole deck is dealt with the last card facing up. The suit of that card is considered the trump suit. The general goal of each round, also known as a trick, is to play the highest-ranking card of the same suit as the first person's card. However, trump cards outrank other cards and they will win the trick. The amount of tricks minus 6 is the total number of points a team has. The team with the most points wins.
In Emma, we see multiple mentions of whist. In Volume II, Chapter VI, we learn that before The Crown Inn was redone for the ball, it was only fit for a whist club of"the gentleman and half-gentleman" of Highbury. Also, In Volume I, Ch. VIII, We learn that Mr. Elton is part of this club and, "though it was the whist-club night, which he had been never known to miss before", still goes to London to take the picture of Harriet to be framed. This is used by Emma as more ammunition to convince Harriet and herself of Elton's infatuation with Harriet.
So, while you are visiting with friends and family during this season, add these games to your repertoire to bring a taste from the past into the modern world!