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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pools of Commerce and Thorough Parties

I became curious today to understand the rules of Commerce, the card game that is mentioned in two of JA's novels, and 4 times in her letters:

NA: Catherine was disturbed and out of spirits; but Isabella seemed to find a pool of commerce, in the fate of which she shared, by private partnership with Morland, a very good equivalent for the quiet and country air of an inn at Clifton.

P&P: "Yes; these four evenings have enabled them to ascertain that they both like Vingt-un better than Commerce; but with respect to any other leading characteristic, I do not imagine that much has been unfolded."

11/20-21/00: “The three Digweeds all came on Tuesday, & we played a pool at Commerce.”

09/14/04: My mother had her pool of commerce each night & divided the first with Le Chevalier, who was lucky enough to divide the other with somebody else. *...*

10/01-02/08: Our party at Mrs. Duer's produced the novelties of two old Mrs. Pollens and Mrs. Heywood, with whom my mother made a quadrille table; and of Mrs. Maitland and Caroline, and Mr. Booth without his sisters, at commerce. ….A second pool of commerce, and all the longer by the addition of the two girls, who during the first had one corner of the table and spillikens to themselves, was the ruin of us; it completed the prosperity of Mr. Debary, however, for he won them both.

10/07-09/08: We found ourselves tricked into a thorough party at Mrs. Maitland's, a quadrille and a commerce table, and music in the other room. There were two pools at commerce, but I would not play more than one, for the stake was three shillings, and I cannot afford to lose that twice in an evening.

For those of you who are also curious, here is the explanation of the rules of the game that I found online:

*COMMERCE: *"....Any number can play with an ordinary pack . There are several variations of the game, but the following is a common one. Each player receives three cards, and three more are turned up as a "pool ." The first player may exchange one or two of his cards for one or two of the exposed cards, putting his own, face upwards, in their place. His object is to "make his hand" (see below), but if he changes all three cards at once he cannot change again. The next player can do likewise, and so on. Usually there are as many rounds as there are players, and a fresh card is added to the pool at the beginning of each. If a player passes once he cannot exchange afterwards. When the rounds are finished the hands are shown, the holder of the best either receiving a stake from all the others, or, supposing each has started with three "lives," taking one life from the lowest. The hands, in order of merit, are: (i.) Tricon - three similar cards, three aces ranking above three kings, and so on. (ii.) /Sequence - three/ cards of the same suit in consecutive order; the highest sequence is the best. (iii.) Flush - three cards of the same suit, the highest "point" wins, /i.e./ the highest number of pips, ace counting eleven and court-cards ten. (iv.) /Pair - two/ similar cards, the highest pair winning. (v.) /Point - the/ largest number of pips winning, as in "flush," but there is no restriction as to suit. Sometimes "pair" and "point" are not recognized. A popular variation of Commerce is /Pounce Commerce./ In this, if a player has already three similar cards, /e.g./ three nines, and the fourth nine comes into the pool, he says "Pounce!" and takes it, thus obtaining a hand of four, which is higher than any hand of three: whenever a pounce occurs, a new card is turned up from the pack."

So it is a kind of 3-card draw poker, and it looks like it would be fun, as it would combine luck and skill. It sounds like all that a player risked was the initial "stake" or ante, and that there was not, as there is in poker, betting on every round. Just doing some quick math, it sounds like a pool of commerce could consist of as many as 8 or 9 players, which would mean, as many as 8 or 9 rounds, which would take a while to play out, with every increasing suspense as a player had to watch nervously as all the other players exchanged a card, in between turns. Sounds like fun, but I'd want to play it with betting at the end of every round!

I also have two questions about the above references to the game by JA:

First, what exactly is meant by Isabella being described as being in “private partnership with Morland”? It’s an odd phrasing—does it mean that she, Catherine and James entered into some alliance during a pool of commerce, to share profits and losses? Or does it mean that the act of participating in the pool of commerce with Catherine and James was in itself a way of having as much fun together as they would have had they made it to Clifton?

Second, when JA writes “We found ourselves tricked into a thorough party at Mrs. Maitland's”, what exactly is a “thorough party”? By the context, it sounds like it describes a scam like in the Redford/Newman movie The Sting, i.e., a fixed game, like going to a crooked gambling casino. But when I looked in Google Books, I could not find ANY other usage of that expression—the closest I came was the term “thorough party man”, which was an expression often used to describe a politician who put party above scruples in his political dealings. So both usages involve a lack of scruples in dealing with others. Which suggests that the word "thorough" may have had ironic significance for JA in her other usages of same in the novels.

JA uses the word “thorough” numerous times in all the novels, all of them superficially having the normal meaning, i.e., of emphasis, although the usages by the likes of Mrs. Elton carry a strong taint of insincerity.

The one that sticks out as unusual in the whole bunch is the famous narration about Mary Bennet:

“They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough bass and human nature; and had some new extracts to admire, and some new observations of thread-bare morality to listen to.”

The normal interpretation is that Mary was studying music, and reading moralizing books. But purely as a matter of syntax, the adjective “thorough” in that sentence could modify not only of the word “bass” but also the term “human nature”. And that could be an ironic suggestion that Mary (as a representation in that moment of one side of JA's personality, i.e., her bookish side) was usually deep in the study of “thorough” (i.e., unscrupulous) human nature”. It would then follow that Mary (aka JA) “had some new extracts to admire, and some new observations of thread-bare morality to listen to”, i.e., a very tongue-in-cheek ironic description of JA's novels themselves! The word "thread-bare" is exactly the sort of pseudo-self deprecating, minimizing language that JA used in describing her own writing to James Stanier Clarke.


1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

A comment on the "thorough bass" discussion at the end of the post:

"Thorough bass", it seems to me, is as much a syntactic unit as "human nature". Suppose you turned the expressions around: "human nature and thorough bass". Reading this as "human [nature and thorough bass]" seems quite off to my ear. By extension, your reading of it as "thorough [bass and human nature]" is also unlikely to me.

I discovered your blog a couple months ago when a student found it after I asked the class a question that she googled: "Why is Lucy Steele considered evil?" She found the post about LUCY FERrars, of course. I then skimmed through the whole history of the blog, fascinated by your ear for puns and allusions, if skeptical about the "shadow stories" (about which I will remain agnostic until you write your book!).

This post was the earliest I noted to comment on, because of my disagreement with your reading of the syntax of "thorough bass and human nature," so I also noticed a later post in which you return to the passage:

And it struck me there that you quote the passage with a hyphen in "thorough-bass", which makes the reading here completely impossible, doesn't it?