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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 481-504
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"Faro's Daughters": Female Gamesters, Politics, and the Discourse of Finance in 1790s Britain
One of the most enduring themes of eighteenth-century commentary on contemporary Britain was the nation's passion for gambling. The rage for play obsessed all classes of society but was conducted to the most dramatic and conspicuous extent by the gambling "great," especially men and women of the Whig elite, such as Charles James Fox and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who could bet and lose the modern equivalent of millions at a night's play. Such behavior was widely condemned as a sign of the moral degeneracy and irresponsibility of the fashionable classes. 1 High-stakes gambling represented a profligacy that constantly courted ruin and disaster: it was a form of luxury that was geared not toward the display of wealth but to the display of one's insouciance in losing it. The anxieties surrounding gambling tended to become more acute during periods of social and political upheaval, particularly the 1790s when an influx of émigrés in the aftermath of the French Revolution led to a rapid increase in the number of gambling clubs in London. 2 There are a number of reasons why this by-product of the Revolution should have been controversial in the Britain of the 1790s. The impact of the events of 1789 led to an even more intense scrutiny of the behavior of the fashionable world, which became the target for, on the one hand, sustained radical critique, and, on the other, a concern on the part of loyalists that the irresponsibility of a privileged few was endangering the moral and political survival of the nation. At a time of food crises and other privations due to war, [End Page 481] some felt that the spectacle of upper-class gambling rendered the entire ruling order vulnerable. Charles James Fox's gambling notoriety increasingly became a political liability, used by his enemies on all sides of politics to challenge his authority as "man of the people." Moreover, a problem which was in many respects of even greater concern--lower-class gambling--was made more difficult to regulate in a climate that apparently tolerated upper-class excess on such a phenomenal scale.
However, the main target for criticism was not the gambling of the male elite but that of upper-class women, in particular the operation of Faro tables in the houses of prominent women of fashion. The notoriety of these "Faro ladies" reached a peak in 1796 when, in a widely publicized statement, the Chief Justice, Lord Kenyon, threatened them with the pillory. In early 1797 they were eventually brought before a magistrate and fined for illegal gambling. The subject of numerous caricatures, novels, and suppressed plays, as well as extensive comment in newspapers and journals, the Faro ladies have been neglected by orthodox political history and by a feminist history that has (understandably) been more preoccupied with radical women such as Mary Wollstonecraft. 3 While historians of contemporary France are paying increasing attention to the ways in which the representations of Marie-Antoinette and other elite women encode what Lynn Hunt has described as "fundamental anxieties" about the changing social and political order, comparable work in the British context has barely begun. 4 The political crises of the 1790s and, in particular, the controversy surrounding Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France led to an increasing emphasis on the role of women as guardians of the domestic virtues and, ultimately, of the health of the nation. Linda Colley has argued that some late-Georgian women were able to use this "womanpower" to assert a form of limited political recognition, but the Faro ladies represented an older, more entrenched form of this "womanpower"--the sexual, financial, and class power of the aristocratic woman, traditionally seen as threatening by both aristocratic men and middle-class opinion. 5 Moreover, by apparently relishing their notoriety in the print media and brazenly using gambling as a...