Lottery fishText by Isabel Hughes, Chair of Trustees at Jane Austen's House
Fish like these were a common sight in homes before television and then the digital world took over as the most popular leisure pastime. My grandfather used to hold a Christmas auction when as children we bid with fish counters to buy wrapped presents including pencils, notebooks and the odd carrot or potato. In Jane Austen’s day families played all sorts of games but more often cards. Fish and other shapes were used as gaming chips or counters for betting.
The fish were no doubt named after the lotteries, both public and private, that were popular in Regency England. Although there was no National Lottery as today, a state lottery was run between 1694 and 1826. The British Museum was famously founded in 1753 through a public lottery and earlier James I authorised a lottery to support the first settlers in Jamestown, Virginia in 1612.
In Austen’s novels, characters socialise through card games. They sit closely together, perhaps playing cards “close to their chests” and offer new information about each other or provide the reader with insights into their characters.
In “Pride and Prejudice” Mr Wickham sits between Elizabeth and Lydia Bennet. Although Lydia is keen to talk to Wickham she becomes much more involved in playing lottery tickets, leaving Lizzie and Wickham free for a private discussion about Mr Darcy. Lydia is “too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prizes” which hints at her near disastrous risk-taking later in the novel. Lottery tickets was a game of chance, not skill, which involved betting on matching cards using counters or lottery fish.
Card games represent an opportunity for important conversations at the Bingleys’ home, Netherfield and Lady Catherine’s Rosings. Miss de Bourgh plays another gambling game, cassino, and Jane pokes fun at the dull conversation: “Their table was superlatively stupid.”