Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Speculation and the Emotional Economy of Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Speculation and the Emotional Economy of Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

At the mid-point of Mansfield. Park (1814), the Bertram family dines at the Parsonage, and card games make up the after dinner entertainment. The characters form two groups, with Sir Thomas, Mrs. Norris, and Mr. and Mrs. Grant playing Whist, while Lady Bertram, Fanny, William, Edmund, and Henry and Mary Crawford play Speculation. This scene is central not only because Speculation reveals certain characters' personalities but also because another type of "speculation" occurs during the game as the players contemplate or conjecture about one another. Moreover, "speculation" in the sense of gambling functions as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of the marriage market for women. Critics have discussed Austen's word play with economic terms in Emma and Persuasion, but the valences of "speculation" in Mansfield Park have not been fully examined. (1) A close look at this aspect of the novel reveals that most characters, particularly the women, engage in speculation: assessing others' value, contemplating possible outcomes or alternatives, playing recklessly, and relying on chance as they make their financial and emotional investments in others. Thus Austen emphasizes the risks as well as the rewards of the marriage game for women.

Speculation, a favorite card game of Jane Austen, (2) can be played by any number of players. After everyone antes, three cards are dealt face down to each player. The dealer turns a final card face up, which determines the trump suit. Players may try to buy this card from the dealer if the dealer chooses to sell. Once this negotiation is settled, the player to the dealer's left (or to the left of the person who now owns the trump card) turns one card face up. If this card is higher than the initial trump card, players may bargain for it. If not, the next player turns one card face up and so on, with the exception of the owner of the trump card, who does not turn over any other cards. Players may continue to try to buy the trump card or even to purchase cards that are face down on the chance that they will be high. The game ends when the ace is revealed, or all cards are turned over, with the pot going to the holder of the highest trump card. The hands are then shuffled and placed at the bottom of the deck before the next round is dealt. (3)

The game depends a great deal on chance in the hand one is dealt, but there is an element of strategy involved, calculating the odds that another player holds a trump card face down or whether the price of the trump card is worth the risk. According to Hoyle's Games, an eighteenth-century manual, "In order to play this game well, little more is required than to recollect what superior cards of that particular suit have appeared in the preceding deals, and calculating the probability of the trump offered proving the highest trump out" (131). One can play conservatively, hazarding little, losing little, and occasionally winning; or one can play boldly, paying great sums for trump cards in an attempt to win the pot.

As critics such as Alistair Duckworth and David Selwyn have noted, the way the various characters at the Grants' dinner party play the game gives insight to their personalities. For example, in addition to playing his own hand, Henry Crawford manages Lady Bertram's cards while also trying to direct Fanny's play. The narrator tells us, "It was a fine arrangement for Henry Crawford, who was close to Fanny, and with his hands full of business, having two persons cards to manage as well as his own" (279). Whereas Mary Margaret Benson argues that "we see Mr. Crawford at his best" during this scene (99), I would argue that his double-dealing character shines through in his manner of playd As we have seen at this point in the novel, Henry enjoys dabbling in others' affairs, suggesting improvements for other gentlemen's estates in particular. Moreover, his negotiation of Lady Bertram's, Fanny's, and his own interests in the card game echoes his earlier attempt to juggle two women at the same time--Maria and Julia--reminding us of the impossibility of his disinterested involvement in cards or women. …

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