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“In the Quest For Some Amusement”: The Role of Card Games, Dancing, and Walks as Precursors, Metaphors, and Measurements of Compatibility in Pride and Prejudice

While leading four couples to the altar in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen creates for each a distinct set of circumstances, compulsions and models of marriage. All four plots, however, have a common thread running through them—the pivotal role played by card games, dances, and walks in predicting the compatibility of the to-be husband and wife and the possibility of their future happiness.

Throughout the novel, life in an English country village is portrayed as stifling, even tedious. From Mr Darcy’s description of its “confined and unvarying society” (Austen, 26), to the remarks of his “faithful assistant” (24), Miss Bingley, about its “insipidity” and “nothingness” (17), to the youngest Bennet sisters’ “constant repinings at the dullness” (138) around them following the departure of the regiment from Meryton, a semantic field of boredom and stagnancy emphasises the limited world inhabited by its characters.

This claustrophobia and monotony is most strongly experienced by the female characters who, in keeping with the male-female marital roles of 18th and 19th century England, are expected to while away the hours with trivial hobbies and tasks. While the Industrial Revolution provided men with work opportunities that allowed for movement and activity, the women of the higher classes were expected “not to accomplish but to be ‘accomplished’” (Newton, 120).  Against this stultifying backdrop, a majority of the pastimes that Jane Austen’s characters—usually but not always female—indulge in appear futile and unstimulating. For example, Mrs Hurst “playing with her bracelets” (33) in Netherfield, Lydia purchasing a bonnet that can, at best, be made “tolerable” (127), Mr Collins tracking with regularity the frequency of Miss de Bourgh’s phaeton drives—all “in the quest for some amusement” (33).

There are, however, three pastimes which, more than any other, fill the days of the characters and drive the marriage plots forwards. In the world of Jane Austen in general—and in that of Pride and Prejudice in particular—card playing, dancing and embarking on long walks assume multiple functions. They propel the narrative towards its conclusion. More importantly, they are devices that serve as precursors and metaphors: foretelling events, offering subtle insights into character, and providing hints into the nature of the various matches, both potential and actual.

Card tables are laid out on numerous evenings in Pride and Prejudice, and Austen uses card games to sprinkle the narrative with tantalising clues about the fate awaiting various couples. The book’s first mention of card playing, ironically enough, implies that cards and love are unrelated. Elizabeth remarks that Jane and Bingley’s acquaintance is too short to suppose that they will get married; Jane cannot yet “understand Bingley’s character” (14) since all she knows about him is “that they both like Vingt-un better than Commerce” (14).  However, Elizabeth’s assumption that cards and compatibility are unrelated is repeatedly tested throughout the novel.

As the plot unfolds, Jane and Bingley’s preference for Vingt-un over the more complicated Commerce serves as a metaphor for their similar easy-going, straightforward personalities, implying compatibility in matrimony, and in the simpler, straighter trajectory of their courtship in comparison with the ups and downs of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship. Elizabeth and Darcy are never seen playing a card game together, implying that their nuanced relationship exists outside the realm of rules and conventions. In fact, cards—specifically Mrs Bennet’s “rapacity for whist players” (197)—act as an obstruction, keeping the pair apart when Elizabeth wishes to speak with Darcy towards the end of the novel. Hence, as Benson says, “like the domestic society of the novels themselves, the card table imposes a closed, known society, dictated by defined well-known rules” (Brumit) in which there is no place for genuine conversation and understanding, the basis of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship.

It is appropriate, then, that when it comes to the sensible, emotionless marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins’—undertaken to adhere to the dictates of society and for economic gain—the card table is employed as a metaphor for matrimony. While Charlotte is constructed through positive characterisation and portrayed as level-headed, intelligent and an “intimate friend” (11) and close confidante of Elizabeth through much of the first half of the book, Mr Collins is a world apart. He is embarrassing in social situations, ingratiating in his apologies and thanks, and tedious enough to read aloud Fordyce’s Sermons in “monotonous solemnity” (41). Elizabeth’s appalled disbelief is understandable when she hears that Charlotte is to marry Mr Collins. Underneath this seeming incompatibility, however, there is striking similarity in Mr Collins’ approach to card games and Charlotte’s approach to matrimony. Mr Collins’ attempt at whist, a card game that requires intelligence and perception, at the Philips’ party is disastrous. He loses every point, emphasising both his incompetence and inability to read people, traits mirrored in his mortifying marriage proposal to Elizabeth. Following his loss at whist, however, he asserts that “when persons sit down to a card table, they must take their chance of these things” (50)—a sentiment that closely echoes Charlotte’s unromantic assertion that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (14). This shared approach explains their joyless, yet convenient, “scheme of felicity” (82).

Card playing is thus established as a metaphor for marriage—both are gambles of chance and luck. Moreover, the economic aspect of marriage reinforces the connection between the two. Just as in card games, where the objective is winning money, practical Charlotte sees marriage in terms of its economics, and as the “pleasantest preservative from want”. The reader cannot blame and even admires Charlotte for taking the “only honourable provision” she can. Unsurprisingly, once settled in the Parsonage at Hunsford, it is clear that Charlotte values her new home and independence much more than she values her husband.

Charlotte’s lack of choice as a woman differentiates her from George Wickham, who is perceived as mercenary because of his desire to find a rich wife after squandering multiple opportunities in “idleness and dissipation” (117). Intriguingly, the reader never sees “gamester”  (172) Wickham play a single card game, not even at the Philips’ where he has the chance. However, as 19th century card-playing authority Edmund Hoyle says, the ability to “deceive and distress your Adversaries” (Schneider), is the requisite for winning most card games, which is visible in Wickham’s manipulation of characters and readers alike. Wickham plays the characters in the book as though they were in a card game, dazzling them with the way he “smiled, looked handsome, and said many pretty things” (190), a facade that successfully hides his opportunistic nature. However, whether he eventually wins the game of matrimony is questionable: his marriage to Lydia Bennet allows him to clear debts and rekindle his career, but his married life is “unsettled” (224) and affectionless, a far cry from the fortune he anticipated from marrying into money.

Another form of entertainment that is omnipresent in Austen’s books and deeply connected to courtship and marriage is dancing. The dances performed during the Regency period were intricate and decorous affairs, reflecting the society to which they belonged. They provided an opportunity for men and women of marriageable age to seek attractive partners under the watchful eye of chaperones. Across her novels, Austen highlights the parallels between marriage and dance. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney explicitly remarks that “in both, it is an engagement between man and woman” in which “man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal” (Austen, NA, 57).

The country dance serves as “an emblem of marriage” (NA, 57) in Longbourn as well, with half an hour of dancing sometimes providing a telling glimpse into married life. “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love,” (6) writes Austen in Pride and Prejudice, emphasising the progression from dancing together to love to marriage. It explains Mrs Bennet’s triumph when Bingley chooses to dance with Jane for a second time, seeing it as a precursor to marriage. For once, Mrs Bennet is right. Bingley and Jane remain in synchronisation, both while dancing in balls and in their relationship whenever together. However, not all couples maintain such consistent harmony.

Elizabeth and Mr Collins’ dances are marked by a lexical set of discomfort: they are “dances of mortification,” full of “shame and misery,” and Mr Collins “moving wrong without being aware” (54), hinting at what married life with him would look like. Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, however, is dynamic, undergoing a shift both in the assembly rooms and outside. A series of dances mirror the pride and prejudice which drive Elizabeth and Darcy away from each other. Elizabeth—and the reader—start out by disliking Darcy because of his cutting rejection of Elizabeth as only “tolerable” (8) during the first assembly and the disdainful manner in which he first employs his “advantage of choice.” The next two times when Darcy, increasingly bewitched by Elizabeth, asks her for a dance she exerts her “power of refusal,” only agreeing on a third occasion during which their combative conversation leaves “each side dissatisfied” (57). This choreography of rejection followed by acceptance is echoed in Darcy’s marriage proposals to Elizabeth, and only during Darcy’s second proposal and Elizabeth’s acceptance is there synchronisation.

The rule-bound and judgemental atmosphere of the novel’s assembly rooms seems to confirm Ralph Waldo Emerson’s infamous criticism that life in Austen’s novels was impossibly “pinched and narrow” (Emerson, 146). It is during long walks in nature that Elizabeth—and a slew of Austen’s other female protagonists—find respite from structure and artifice. Elizabeth’s independence is established when she walks three miles to tend to Jane in Netherfield. In the novel’s Regency England context—when the mobility of upper class women was limited “within a small radius” (Newton, 126)—Elizabeth’s solitary walk marks her out as unusual. Bingley’s sisters use this to prove her “indifference to decorum”(22), going on to claim she “had no conversation, no style, no taste” (21)—all factors associated with breeding and class, and by extension, marriageability. Implicit in their criticism is an exertion of the social class divide they perceive separates Mr Darcy from Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s matter-of-fact “jumping over stiles” (20) and indifference to the male gaze is juxtaposed with Miss Bingley’s attention-seeking parade around the drawing-room in an attempt to seduce Darcy. Elizabeth’s walk is admirable for reader and Mr Darcy alike, and her eyes—and character—are “brightened” (22) by it while Miss Bingley only evokes ridicule. Hence, Elizabeth’s resolute tramp through the muddy countryside acts as the first stage in the convoluted journey towards her marriage.

Walks also are employed as tacit strategic manoeuvres in the game of marriage, allowing protagonists to be themselves beyond the watchful gaze of their friends and neighbours. During her “ramble within the Park” (106) in her stay at Hunsford, Elizabeth’s unintended walks with Mr Darcy give him a chance to probe and ask seemingly “odd unconnected questions” (107) that the “wretched conventions” (Emerson, 146) would normally inhibit. Meanwhile, Miss de Bourgh, handpicked since childhood as the bride for Darcy, remains closed off in her phaeton, symbolising the disconnect between Darcy and her. Hence, Austen seems to suggest that in spite of similarities of class or social background, it is character that determines the compatibility of a match.

Jane Austen employs walks to map out the character growth of her heroines and the gradual movement towards their marriages. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s autumn walks, symbolic of a joyless and selfless life, transition gradually to her springtime strolls in Bath, which are marked by renewed beauty and the regaining of lost hope. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s progression of thoughts and emotions during her series of walks reflects the sharpening of her discernment, which in turn changes her opinions and feelings towards Darcy.

It seems fitting, then, that Darcy’s second proposal takes place during another walk. As the two converse, they walk onwards “without knowing in what direction” (212), an image that mirrors the reader’s inability to know what direction Elizabeth and Darcy’s newly-solidified relationship will take in their married life, which remains out of the bounds of the novel. Despite this open-endedness, the maturity and humility displayed by the protagonists during their final walk indicates a mutual understanding of character that is certain to protect Elizabeth from reliving her father’s plight; the “danger in an unequal marriage”(218).

Card-playing, dancing, and walking map out the trajectory of the relationships in Pride and Prejudice, both for the marriages that do end up taking place, as well as the ones that don’t. Jane Austen lived at a time when, although marriages of affection were becoming more common and acceptable, parental wishes and economic factors still played a critical role in determining the choice of spouse. Austen uses card-playing, dancing, and walking to imply that, when it comes to marriage, the coming together of love and good sense makes the most prudent and satisfying matches.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • _____. Persuasion. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. United Kingdom, Hachette Partworks , 2001.
  • Brumit, Matt W. “‘[T]hey Both like Vingt-Un Better than Commerce’: Characterization and Card Games in Pride and Prejudice.” Persuasions On-Line 34.1 (2013). Accessed 1 June 2023.
  • Lowder Newton, Judith. “Women, Power and Subversion.” Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice—Jane Austen, by Robert Clark, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. Volume 15, United Kingdom, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.
  • Schneider, Matthew. “Card-Playing and the Marriage Gamble in Pride and Prejudice.” Dalhousie Review 1993, hdl.handle.net/10222/61254. Accessed 1 June 2023.
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