Over on my blog, Every Woman Dreams, I recently received a question from a reader regarding the playing of cards at balls and at what was known as “gaming hells.” Here is the question: I know many books mention card playing going on in designated rooms at balls, but I haven’t heard what they were playing? Would they be gambling and playing games for money like 21 (apparently one of the most popular games of the day, even among families) or would they stick to games like Whist (I know they played this for stakes, too)? Would there be a person who would oversee the “bank,” as there was at the various clubs or hells?
I read somewhere about [Charles] Fox and how much he and his brother lost even at supposedly staid places like Almack’s.
Jane Austen’s World tells us this of Charles Fox: “The politician Charles Fox, able to play for long periods without sleep, lost his fortune at the gaming tables. Horace Walpole described one of Fox’s marathon gambling sessions:
‘He had sat up playing Hazard at Almack’s from Tuesday evening, 4th February , till five in the afternoon of Wednesday 5th. An hour before he had recovered £12,000 that he had lost, and by dinner, which was at five o’clock, he had ended losing £11,000. On Thursday he spoke, went to dinner at past eleven at night; from thence to White’s, where he drank till seven the next morning; thence to Almack’s, where he won £6,000; and between three and four in the afternoon he set out for Newmarket. His brother Stephen lost £11,000 two nights after, and Charles £10,000 more on the 13th; so that in three nights the two brothers, the eldest not twenty-five, lost £32,000. – Lowe, p 129.
“Fox’s father, Lord Holland, paid off his son’s debt to the princely tune of £140,000. (In today’s terms this sum would be astronomical – depending on the inflation converter you used, you would multiply the sum by 97 to get at the value of 1780 money today.) The Prince of Wales, in rebellion against his frugal father, modeled his own conduct after that of Fox. Known for his extravagant lifestyle, Prinny set the pace for hedonistic living as Regent and King.”
Supposedly, Charles James Fox, Whig MP and leader of the Opposition to William Pitt the Younger’s Tory government, and close personal friend of George, Prince of Wales, along with Georgiana Cavendish (remember Keira Knightley in the 2008 movie “The Duchess’), Duchess of Devonshire, and Fox’s brother lost large sums even at supposedly staid places like Brooks’s.
**Please note that some accounts of Fox’s losses refer to his doing so at Almack’s. However, we must remember that Brooks’s, at one time was called “Almack’s,” in the late 1700s. So the place where Fox lost a large fortune was the gentleman’s club Almack’s, later called Brooks’s. (Absolutely confusing for those of us who are trying to keep our facts straight!!!)
The establishment most of us read about in Regency romances— Almack’s—was where couples met in the “Marriage Mart,” although this idea appears to be more of a early Victorian concept than Regency. It was run by the four Patronesses and was later (somewhere in the late 1820s, I believe) called “Willis’s Rooms.” Moreover, the “Regency romance” Almack’s was not as staid as Georgette Heyer and many Regency romances make out: It was not just a “marriage mart,” but also a club where the wheelers and dealers of Parliament “wheeled their deals (and dealt their wheels?”), and where one would meet everyone of importance on a Wednesday night. So I expect there was some significant money lost and won at the Almack’s we know from Regency stories, upon occasion.
… the undeniably romantic allure of the richly decorated gaming clubs or the reckless gambling of dynastic fortunes [which] rather trump[s] the dingy and dull penny games played against street walls or in alehouses. (Arthur Pitt, MA dissertation, A Study Of Gamblers And Gaming Culture In London, c. 1780-1844)
The idea of playing cards is one often explored in Regency Era-based books and novels. What type of games? Were these purely for passing time in pleasurable company? Or were they more for those, like Mr. George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who attempted to win his fortune? Or foolishly lose one’s inheritance? We hear mention of playing cards after supper within families and playing cards at balls, a separate room set aside for those who wish to indulge in sometime more sedate than dancing a country dance. Card parties were a common way to while away an evening. Whether as a small group in a private home, or as an alternative to dancing at an assembly or ball, they were an acceptable pastime for anyone in any station.
First, let us address the playing of cards outside the home. Many who indulged in this activity were serious gamesters, often times placing their families in ruin and “putting a period to his existence.” Naturally, such is not to say all men lost their fortunes, nor does the idea of “gaming hells” eliminate the fact that men (and some women) regularly bet on cock fights, bear baiting, horse races, fisticuffs, etc. Moreover, it was not necessary for the gentleman to go to a “gaming hell” to place his bet, for every gentleman’s club (White’s Brooks’s, Boodle’s, Watier’s, etc.) had a card room, and as mentioned above, every ball and house party hosted a game room. In those, the player could have reasonable hopes of an honest game of cards. The gaming hells were not so reputable as that. There, “Captain Sharps” often won huge fortunes.
In Georgette Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter, the family has a gambling house where Faro [or Pharoah – or Basset] was played. It was a game with a bank that people played against the house. They had a bouncer and usually had people learn of the game and its location by word-of-mouth, because it was illegal to have a Faro bank. In other words, faro is not really a card game, but a game of chance using cards. Nowadays, it is played at a green baize table displaying pictures of playing cards. However, during the Regency, the dealer took cards from a special wooden box and laid them face up on the table. One suit of the cards is pasted to the table in numerical order, and players place their bets by putting what they want to stake on one or more cards. Various rules decide whether a card drawn from the box wins for a player with a stake on the same number or whether he loses. Basically though, the player bets on whether a certain card will be dealt from the wooden box.
In the late 1700s, fashionable ladies set up Faro banks in their homes, but this practice fell out of favor by the Regency. Such did not mean they stopped completely. Some ladies, especially widows, supplemented their income by ‘holding the bank’ in private card parties held in their houses. As long as they retained the appearance of merely being a hostess, and not in business, such a venture would “dent” their reputation but might not ruin it.
The Jewel Thief and the Earl
Grandison Franklyn, 8th Earl Harlow, has earned the moniker “Grandison, the Great” for a variety of reasons: his well-honed attitude of superiority; his appearance; and a string of mistresses, most notably Lady Jenest, who created a “great” row when he cut her loose.
Miss Colleen Everley is the daughter of England’s most notorious thief, a man called “Brook’s Crook.” Colleen has been taught many of her father’s skills, along with an eye for the value of each item in a room. Unfortunately, the lady does not possess Thomas Everley’s daring.
Lord Harlow and Miss Everley must combine forces to return Queen Charlotte’s sapphire necklace before Her Majesty learns it is missing. Toss in a healthy sprinkling of quirky characters and missteps in the investigation, and the reader will find a delightful tale that goes beyond the “Cinderella” effect and opposites attract.
Available to Read on Kindle Unlimited
I used an in-home gaming situation in The Jewel Thief and the Earl. Enjoy this excerpt.
Colleen still did not feel much like keeping company with anyone, especially not Lionel Dostoff, but Lord Liverpool had sent his plans for the possible recovery of the necklace, and so, she had not sent her apologies to Dostoff and, rather, informed him he should call upon her for their walk in Hyde Park. Resigned to what much be done, when he called upon her, she had greeted the man with a smile of welcome, although her heart said otherwise.
“You appear more than a bit pensive, my dear,” Mr. Dostoff said as they strolled together along one of the less used paths of the park.
“I am just exhausted. After leaving your establishment, I did not sleep until the following night. I spent my day at the Ever-Rising Home.”
“I admire the program you have established. It takes a special type of woman to give to those who are less fortunate than she, even accepting women others would shun without a second look at them. Hopefully, someday, your idea will become the model for charities assisting the downtrodden. If you wish to expand it, I would be willing to speak to a variety of possible investors in your behalf. Many among the ton are willing to purchase the moniker of being charitable by placing their money in the hands of those willing to do the work for them.”
“That would be truly spectacular, sir. I can only accommodate two dozen women with children at a time. As each woman must remain with me for a minimum of six months or until she can be placed in suitable employment, my numbers remain constant, but our waiting list increases daily. As quickly as one is placed into a more proper environment, another is at the door to claim the empty space. It would be good for all if we had more than one facility available.”
Mr. Dostoff patted the back of her hand. “I will speak to my parents. They are known for their charitable work. If they lead, others will follow.”
Colleen had never asked the question she had wondered upon since she had taken Mr. Dostoff’s acquaintance. “Do your parents sanction the role you play for the British government?”
“My father is aware of the sacrifices I make for our great nation, and, although he cannot openly congratulate me, he has refused to turn me out, as many would have done in similar circumstances. My mother is not one to keep secrets, so my father and I have not explained it all to her. She simply loves me as a mother should, even with my so-called faults.”
“Then you are blessed,” she said softly, attempting to disguise how she wished her parents had made different choices. Colleen realized he wished to ask of her parents; therefore, she quickly changed the subject. “As we are to appear together this evening, we should discuss how best to proceed.”
“Naturally,” he said, lowering his voice. “We are to attend an at-home betting parlor.”
“I thought they were illegal,” she said innocently.
“They are,” he verified. “There has been a variety of legislation over the last fifty years or so against gaming hells such as the Red Hawk, as well as the more luxurious establishments; yet, enforcement is sporadic, at best. Several Society widows have chosen to open their homes a few times each month to those wishing to play faro, hazard, quinze-et-la-va, basset, and trente-et-la-va. Although some openly criticize such practices, Lady Jenest ignores the naysayers.”
“Lady Jenest?” Colleen gasped. “Lord Harlow’s former mistress?” Although she would never admit the facts to others, Colleen knew something of each of Harlow’s mistresses, including his current one: Susana Wisley, a not-so-famous opera singer, who had caught his lordship’s eye, a year or so back.
“You are familiar with Lady Jenest?” Mr. Dostoff asked.
“Only what the newsprints provided,” she confessed.
“Obviously, Lord Harlow could not attend this evening’s event,” Dostoff explained. “Such is the reason Lord Liverpool arranged for you and I to attend together. I will play, while you will use your skills to learn something of the missing necklace.”
“How is Lady Jenest involved?” Colleen’s mind raced to place the missing pieces to the puzzle troubling her for several days.
Mr. Dostoff asked, “Did not Lord Harlow explain the situation?”
Colleen knew her brow furrowed in confusion. “When I asked, Lord Harlow repeatedly said he was not at liberty to say.”
Mr. Dostoff also frowned. “I suppose his lordship simply followed protocol.” The gentleman was quiet for several elongated moments before he said, “I imagine Lord Liverpool insisted on secrecy before the Prime Minister had made inroads into the investigation. As I understand it, the necklace disappeared from Lady Jenest’s home safe.”
“The necklace belonged to her ladyship?” Colleen questioned.
“Like Lord Harlow, I have been instructed not to disclose the name of the owner of the necklace, but it was not the property of Lady Jenest or any of her inner circle.”
“How did it come to be in her ladyship’s safe?”
“As I understand it, the owner was deep in his cups when he called upon Lady Jenest. Her ladyship made the suggestion to secure the necklace once she was made aware of its presence on the gentleman. Reportedly, it was placed in the safe in the evening, but it was not within the safe in the morning.”
“Was this during one of her ladyship’s at-home gatherings?” she asked.
“Yes, which unfortunately leaves us with as many as fifty suspects, but, first, we must determine if Lady Jenest has placed the necklace away in order to sell it. According to all reports, her ladyship’s debts rise despite her efforts to produce more eligible funds with her gaming ‘business.’”
Colleen asked, “What role am I to play this evening?”
“Nothing too dangerous. Simply wander through the rooms. Determine how easily one could have accessed Lady Jenest’s private quarters and her safe.”
“And, I suppose, use my skills to learn whether Lady Jenest has stashed the necklace away for her own purposes once others have forgotten of its value?” she inquired with a lift of her brows.
“Despite what may first appear evident, Lady Jenest is not a suspect, for most doubt she would be so foolish as to set herself against the owner of the necklace—a man who could bring the authorities to her door with a simple flick of his wrist; yet, who is to say the reality of a desperate woman’s mind.”
* * *
Earlier, Colleen had begged off when Mr. Dostoff had suggested they enjoy tea at a nearby tea room. Now, she was again on the gentleman’s arm as they entered Lady Jenest’s lavish Town house. She had chosen a gown her father had ordered for her when they had been on the Continent. Ironically, although several years old, the cut of the gown was currently in fashion in England. A bit of lace had presented it new life.
In reality, despite wishing to look her best in order to play her role in this farce, she chose a gown with a fuller skirt than those with an empire waist so she might move more freely. She feared she would be required to escape detection in a hurry.
“Mr. Dostoff,” Lady Jenest said with a tip of her fan against Lionel’s sleeve. “I was so pleased you sent around a card today. Do you wish to play faro?”
Lionel frowned. “I was thinking I might choose hazard or basset for a hand or two.”
“Then you will wish to join those in the blue drawing room,” her ladyship said with another touch of Mr. Dostoff’s sleeve, obviously flirting with the man and completely ignoring Colleen’s presence beside the gentleman. Colleen knew she should be outraged by the woman’s audacity; however, she was not. First, she felt nothing romantic when it came to Lionel Dostoff, and, secondly, it was a sad business that Lady Jenest with a grown son would be required to hope for another patron’s protection.
“And you, my dear,” Lionel said looking down on Colleen and drawing her ladyship’s attention to the fact he had another woman on his arm.
“Oh, do forgive me, Miss—” Lady Jenest said around a well-placed, but most assuredly, fake smile.
Lionel answered for Colleen. “Miss Snowden. I should have realized you had not been properly introduced, my lady. With your permission, Lady Jenest, I would give you the acquaintance of Miss Snowden.”
“Are you new to London, Miss Snowden?” Lady Jenest asked.
“Not so terribly new, my lady,” Colleen responded evasively. “I simply possess a much smaller circle than does someone of your exalted position.”
“And what of your acquaintance with Mr. Dostoff?” Lady Jenest persisted, although other guests stood behind them waiting to be received.
Lionel placed his free hand over hers as it rested upon his arm to indicate he would respond. “I hold an acquaintance with Miss Snowden’s father.”
“And who is Mr. Snowden?” Lady Jenest inquired as people edged forward to have their share of the conversation.
“Just the younger son and brother of a gentleman from the southern shires,” Colleen said softly, very conscious that more than one of those behind her listened for her response. She had not wanted any notoriety, but she should have known London society thrived on every tidbit of gossip.
Lionel took the lead. “We should not keep you longer, Lady Jenest. I can see many wish a few minutes of your time.” With a brief bow on his part and a curtsey from Colleen, he led her away, but, first, he made certain she could move from room to room without censure by saying, “I know you prefer whist to basset, but I insist you keep me company for a little while before you seek your own entertainment, my dear.”
* * *
From a place in Lady Jenest’s garden, Grandison had watched her ladyship interact with Dostoff and Miss Everley. He was already hiding in the bushes when the lady had stepped down from Dostoff’s carriage. Grand refused to admit, even to himself, how his eyes drank in the simple beauty of the woman. Even without the jewels and ornamentation others wore, Miss Everley outshone all of the society ladies entering Lady Jenest’s home.
It went against all he held holy to stay hidden when he knew it should be he by Miss Everley’s side, rather than Lionel Dostoff. Unfortunately, Grand would have a high price to pay if Lord Liverpool learned of this bit of subterfuge which Grand had chosen to practice. He knew Lady Jenest’s house and grounds nearly as well as her ladyship did, and so, he placed himself nearby in order to be in a position to assist Miss Everley if the lady required his protection. Miss Everley may possess some of her father’s techniques, but Grand doubted she held even one-tenth of Thomas Everley’s bravado.
As Dostoff led the lady towards the blue sitting room, Grand paralleled their movements to a position outside the large open window where he could watch Miss Everley through the silky drapes and wait. His instincts told him this operation would not go as smoothly as the Prime Minister had hoped. Grand would make certain Miss Everley would not be destroyed by their country’s need to correct Prince George’s mistake in trusting the wrong people. She had paid a high enough price for her father’s mistakes. One of her own making would likely destroy her.
* * *
Colleen carefully watched Lionel’s skillful play. She held no doubt the man had the ability to memorize the cards as they were turned. She had seen such men when she had lived on the Continent, but this game was her first time in viewing a “master” up close. No wonder the man was so successful as an agent of the Crown and his current position at the Red Hawk, which she knew was a place where many involved in London’s more profitable crimes took refuge.
Mesmerized by his play, it took her a few minutes to recall the role she portrayed in this charade. She leaned forward to say softly, “I believe I shall join the other ladies in the room set aside for whist.”
Without looking away from the game, Mr. Dostoff said, “I will join you soon, my dear.” He caught the hand she had placed on his shoulder and brought it to his lips. Even through her gloves, Colleen could feel the heat of his mouth upon her skin. The feeling was not unpleasant; yet, she wished he did not play his role so well, for, although she enjoyed Mr. Dostoff’s company, she would not place a claim on the man. Doing so would betray her heart, which, if she were honest with herself, had been given away to a young man who had greeted her all those years prior with a simple, “Good day.” No one would ever take Grandison Franklyn’s place in her soul. His presence had been ingrained upon her heart years prior.
Now for the giveaway. I have 5 eBook copies of “The Jewel Thief and the Earl” available to those who comment below. I will contact the winners by email on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.