The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope Coquettish Belinda plays at ombre with two male admirers. You can follow the game card by card until the last trick, on which it all turns. “An Ace of Hearts steps forth: The King unseen / Lurk’d in her Hand, and mourn’d his captive Queen. / He springs to Vengeance with an eager pace, / And falls like Thunder on the prostrate Ace”. Belinda wins!
The Prelude, by William Wordsworth The poet recalls the card games of childhood, but now the play seems prophetic of the conflicts he would witness as an adult, particularly in revolutionary France. The boys’ grubby playing cards prophesy the future.
Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen The Bertrams play “speculation” with Fanny and the cunning Crawfords. The contest is an enactment of the amorous games these two are also playing. Henry keeps “helping” Fanny; Mary flaunts her daring: “I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me”.
“Queen of Spades”, by Alexander Pushkin Hermann sits with his fellow officers every night, watching them gamble yet not playing himself. But he is truly a man obsessed, and when he hears that old Countess Fedorovna has the secret of winning at cards, he employs every means to extract it from her, including courting her ward Lizaveta. He thinks he has obtained the secret, but at the table the queen of spades does for him.
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens Young Pip is invited by rich Miss Havisham to play cards with beautiful Estella and to be mocked. “‘He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!’ said Estella with disdain.” The contest is torment. “She won the game, and I dealt. I misdealt, as was only natural, when I knew she was lying in wait for me to do wrong.” Naturally he falls for her.
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton Impecunious Lily Bart is addicted to playing cards for money. The main pastime of upper-crust society seems to be bridge, for high stakes. Lily loses, while “Judy Trenor, who could have afforded to lose a thousand a night, had left the table clutching such a heap of bills that she had been unable to shake hands with her guests when they bade her good night.” Tragedy looms.
The Home of the Gentry, by Ivan Turgenev Every suspect character in Turgenev’s stories seems dedicated to playing “preference”, a kind of three-handed whist. Lavretsky’s unfaithful wife Varvara is naturally a devotee. “Varvara Pavlovna was quite devoted to preference; at this Marya Dmitrievna was so delighted that she felt quite overcome . . .”
The Golden Bowl, by Henry James Maggie watches as her husband plays bridge with her father, her step-mother, and clever Mrs Assingham. All attention is concentrated on the codified play of the cards, but the play reveals more to the attentive spectator, for Maggie’s husband and step-mother are secret lovers.
“My Lady Love, My Dove”, by Roald Dahl Arthur and Pamela Beauchamp have some friends, the Snapes, for the weekend. For a jest, they instal a microphone in the Snapes’ bedroom. After losing a considerable sum at bridge to their visitors, the Beauchamps listen in and discover that their “friends” have a system for cheating at cards. Now they can cheat too . . .
Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey The eponymous protagonists of Carey’s novel, set in the 19th century, meet on a voyage from England to Australia. They are brought together by their shared love of gambling, enjoying a long, sexily tense, one- on-one game of poker for penny bets. Never will either be happier.