- A Sixpence at Whist: Gaming and the English Middle Classes, 1680-1830 by Janet E. Mullin
Tales of aristocratic gamesters who sacrificed the family estate in pursuit of pleasure riddle the pages of eighteenth-century novels, newspapers, and prescriptive literature. Scholarship dedicated to the growing passion for gaming amongst England's upper-ranks also abounds, but Janet E. Mullin's A Sixpence at Whist aims to explore the place of gaming in the emergent leisure time and culture of the middle classes. After all, Mullin argues, moralists who bemoaned the excesses and scandals of aristocratic gamesters aimed their diatribes at the middling sort whose economic contributions and moderation provided the perfect counter-example of the gambling wastrel to rich and poor alike. Given the predominant characterization of the middling sort as the epitome of self-control and fiscal responsibility, how and why did gaming emerge as an integral element of middle-class sociability and identity in the long eighteenth century?
Mullin tackles this question by deftly sifting through prescriptive publications, material artifacts, and personal accounts from middling men and women. One of the most fascinating and enlightening sources Mullin explores is the diary-account book, which includes records of quotidian household accounting alongside diary entries detailing everyday experience. Through a close reading of these sources, Mullin demonstrates that the middle classes did not merely embrace or emulate the gaming culture of their social superiors, but rather they transformed it to reflect their [End Page 335] dedication to moderation and economy. Indeed, the rituals and materials of gaming provided practitioners a medium through which they could perform middle-class values. In chapters devoted to family and hospitality in the home, Mullin describes how gaming worked within the larger culture of genteel sociability that the middling sort privileged. At dinners and parties, gaming at the card table offered opportunities to engage in self-presentation through material possessions and polite interactions. Some families introduced children to gaming at a young age to instill the practices of sound judgment, good manners, and congenial hospitality. Early exposure ensured children understood the value of blending skill with moderation when undertaking any form of financial risk. Low-stakes play could solidify a family's reputation for judiciousness and calculated risk while strengthening social and commercial ties.
Mullin also explores the heightened risks and rewards of playing games within the public venues of middle-class sociability. As members of the middling sort sat down to play cards within the new assembly and public rooms of spa and country towns, they crafted their public image and identity. The larger, more varied audience of public rooms provided an opportunity for those who wished to craft their reputations through fashion, civility and the exercise of reason, but it could quickly be undermined by an instance of excess or vice. As this suggests, those middling players who failed to manage their wagers, accept losing with grace, or limit their play risked their carefully crafted reputations. For middling families whose businesses relied on their credibility, a wayward son, or worse, daughter, could lead to financial ruin. Court records and second-hand diaries reveal that some middling players did engage in destructive play. A few fell victim to professional gamesters known as "sharpers," who haunted public venues such as inns and gaming-houses. Those middling players who were unable to control their addictions risked prosecution and even imprisonment, and their families grappled with implications of their public fall from grace. Mullin details the descent and repentance of Edward Goulburn, whose recklessness landed him in a debtor's prison. Through the kindness and direction of his brother, Edward became a lawyer and applied the hard lessons of his youth in a London bankruptcy court. While assisting errant children with their debts often offered families the preferred solution, some parents felt compelled to cut sons off completely. Try as they might to excise the diseased limb from the family tree, this choice conceded failure.
Mullin reveals that the publications, artifacts, and court records that crafted...