In Regency England, courtship and flirtation were very different than they are today. Couples could have very little unchaperoned contact with one another in company and none in private. So anything that might allow them to push those boundaries and keep reputations intact was bound to be popular.
What’s more, without distractions like television or the internet, all classes of society played parlor games. What else was there to do during the long, dark winter nights when the cost of candles meant that everyone holed up together in one room in the evenings?
So, with everyone playing parlor games, it was only natural that young people—or those not so young—would make use of these pastimes to their greatest advantage. Games spanned the spectrum from quiet sedate card or word games to very physically active games that could even involve physical touch. Each variety provided opportunities for the courting couple to interact in ways otherwise forbidden by proper society.
Consider how a flirtatious girl or determined beau might make use of games like Buffy Gruffy, Hot Cockles, Move All or How d'ye do? How d'ye do?
In Buffy Gruffy a blindfolded player stands in the middle of the room while the others arrange their chairs in a circle and silently trade places. Someone claps to start the game. The blindfolded person passes around the chairs and stops in front of one. How one does this without stumbling and falling is rather a mystery, but it certainly does suggest cheating played a big role in the game.
The blindfolded player begins questioning the seated player to determine their identity. The answers are delivered in a disguised voice and with a great deal of evasion. All sorts of touching which would not otherwise have been appropriate might occur in the context of trying to figure out the other player’s identity, the degree largely dependent on what the players wanted to get away with and how diligent their chaperones might chose to be.
Hot Cockles took the same notion a step further. In this case the blindfolded player either stood, sat, or most interestingly of all, knelt with their head in another player’s lap. No doubt the Lydia Bennets would push for this version, while any proper chaperone would be having a heart attack.
Other players would run up and touch the blindfolded person’s shoulder and have them guess who tapped them. The mind boggles at how an enterprising young beau might use this game to their ends.
If having one’s beau’s head on one’s lap wasn’t enough, Move-all provided the opportunity to have said beau sit in one’s lap—if one managed it all carefully, that is. In this game, chairs are set out in a room, as far apart as possible, with one less chair than player. The chairless player stands in the center and shouts ‘Move all’ and everyone scrambles for a new seat. A great deal of pleasing impropriety might be disguised under the chaos.
Others games offered the possibility for people to manage covert communications as part and parcel of the play. In ‘I love my love with an a’, each person picks a letter and completes the verse about ‘their love’ with words beginning with that letter. Anyone who cannot fulfil their verse or who repeats what has been said by another must pay a forfeit, more on why this might be a desirable outcome in a bit.
The verses used for this game could be short: I love my love with an A, because she is ardent: I hate her, because she is ambitious : I took her to Andover, to the sign of the Angel : I treated her with artichokes ; and her name is Anne Adair. Or they might be long and rather involved—with the potential to be far more revealing: I love my love with an S, because she is sensible; I hate her, because she is sarcastic; by way of presents, I gave her Shenstone, a squirrel, a sea-gull, and a sensitive plant; I took her to Salisbury, to the sign of the Sun, and treated her with soup, salmon, sand-larks, shaddocks, and sherry; her name is Selina Smith, and she is dressed in sarsenet. Talk about an opportunity to get a lot off one's chest, all in the name of good fun!
Direct questions might be asked indirectly in a game of Short Answers. Ladies and gentlemen are seated alternately in a circle. A lady begins by asking her neighbor a question which he answers with a single syllable. Longer answers exact a forfeit for each extra syllable. Furthermore, neither questions nor answers may be repeated lest forfeits be incurred—unless of course that’s what one was looking for…
With Cross Questions and Crooked Answers a little bit of collusion, creativity, and craftiness could result in some interesting declarations. In this game, players sit in a circle. The first player asks their neighbor a question. For example, “What is the use of a cat?" The next player might answer: “To kill the rat, that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Jack built,” or some otherwise ridiculous reply. The answering player then asks a question of their neighbor and receives an answer and so on around the circle.
Here’s when it could get interesting, though. At the end of the round each player must repeat both the question they asked and the answer they gave (to a different question entirely). A little scheming could lead to some very interesting statements being made. And if not that, there’s always the potential for forfeits if any player cannot recite their question and answer correctly. (Yes, I know, I promise, I’m getting to that.)
Interesting potential of a different sort came in Musical Magic, an amusement in which flirtatious actions could be encouraged and even directed by one's friends. In this game, one player leaves the room while the others decide on a task or action they want to see that player take. It might be as simple as snuffing a candle, for a novice player, or as complex as kneeling before another player, removing their ring and placing it on the finger of the other player, for one with some experience with the game.
Another player goes to whatever musical instrument is available and they can play creditably well and the first player returns. That player must then figure out his or her task through the guidance of the background music. The music would grow louder the closer the player got to the next correct action and softer if farther away. The music would stop when the player got the action correct.
If the player gives up in despair which, honestly, seems like a likely result, then a forfeit must be paid.
Added Benefit of Forfeits
And now the issue of forfeits and why they might be the whole point of a game.
When someone lost a game, they paid a forfeit. The forfeit could be an elaborate penalty or dare, which might be a great way to get even with one's rival. More often though, they were a thinly disguised machination for getting a kiss, as in the forfeiting player would have to bestow a kiss on someone, often the hostess, but it could be another player. Often, forfeits were accumulated all evening, until the hostess would ‘cry the forfeits’ and they would all be redeemed at once.
Considering how much flirtation and active courting might be going on under the guise of these games, it doesn’t seem at all far-fetched to think that paying or receiving forfeits from the right players might be the whole point after all.
Revel, Rachel. Winter Evening Pastimes; Or, the Merry-maker's Companion Containing a Complete Collection of Evening Sports, including Twelfth-night Ceremonies, with Copious Directions for Crying Forfeits, and Promoting Harmless Mirth and Innocent Amusement. The Whole Selected, Altered, and Composed, by Rachel Revel, Spinster. London: Printed for A. Mesnard, 40, Strand, 1825.
Find previous instalments of this series here:Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage
To Have a Courtship, One Needs a Suitor
Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship
Show me the Money: the Business of Courtship
The Price of a Broken Heart
Making an Offer of Marriage
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