The post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on December 10, 2019. I think you will discover it as fascinating as did I. Enjoy!
“The Most Agreeable & Rational Recreation Ever Invented”
During a recent visit to Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, I was drawn to one of the exhibits, a board game called The New Game of Human Life. Published in London in 1790, it was aimed at the family market and was the British adaptation of a French game, Le Nouveau Jeu de La Vie Humaine.
The New Game of Human Life is a classic roll-and-move game with 84 spaces, each representing a year of human life. The 84 spaces are divided into the seven ages of man: childhood, youth, young man, the prime of life, the sedate middle age, the old man and decrepitude.
The players take turns to advance with the goal is to be the first to reach the ending space: The Immortal Man. It’s like Snakes and Ladders meets Monopoly, in that some spaces take you forward and others set you back, and the players pay and receive stakes depending on where they land.
Human Life as the Georgians Knew It
The depiction of the life stages in the game is fascinating, and it tells us a lot about what Georgians thought of life as a whole. For example, a player landing on The Studious Boy (nr 7) can advance to The Orator (nr 42). However, one ending up in The Negligent Boy (nr 11) has to pay a stake and skip two rounds.
As the players advance, the stakes also increase. A player arriving at The Duellist (nr 22) has to pay two stakes and return to The Boy (nr 3), presumably to learn to be less troublesome. In contrast, a player landing on The Married Man (nr 34) gets two stakes (the wife’s dowry, of course) and skips ahead The Good Father (nr 56)
There are some interesting distinctions as well. A player landing on The Romance Writer (nr 40) has to pay two stakes and go back to Mischievous Boy (nr 5), while the lucky player landing on The Tragic Author (nr 45) jumps straight onto the last space and wins. It’s clear what type of genre was held in admiration and which in contempt.
The game also features cameos by famous contemporaries. The Poet (nr 41) stands for Alexander Pope. “The Patriot” (nr 55) represents William Pitt. The Glutton (nr 59) is supposedly the Prince of Wales, although for obvious reasons his identity isn’t clearly stated. The last space, The Immortal Man, is for Isaac Newton, who died at the ripe old age of 84.
“Utility and Moral Tendencies”
The New Game of Human Life had a strong moral component. It even included advice for parents and tutors as to how to explain the meaning of the different spaces to children under the reassuring title “utility and moral tendency of this game.”
Paradoxically, winning the game was utterly dependent on luck. However, to avoid introducing gambling to children, the London publishers decided to replace the two dice of the original French version with a teetotum, which is a sort of spinning wheel.
A Clever Marketing Ploy
The game was a commercial success, and one can see why. For starters, it was practical. The board I admired was mounted on 12 separate pieces of thick paper or cardboard with a cloth backing, and could be easily folded and stored away.
Although the copy in the Edinburgh museum was in black and white, the game was sold in different finishes in a scale of rising price points. The cheapest version was little more than printed pieces of paper. In the most expensive version, the materials were more refined and the illustrations in colour. It was a shrewd move to widen the game’s appeal to a broader audience by making it more accessible.
A Game for the Little Knights?
We know from Jane Austen’s letters that she spent long periods at Chawton House, home of her brother Edward Knight and his brood. She doted on her many nephews and nieces and played all sorts of games with them.
Since my discovery of The New Game of Human Life, I have reached the conclusion that Jane Austen must have played a similar board game at some point – or perhaps this very one. Edward’s fortune meant that he could easily afford even the fanciest version of the game!
In any case, if you visit Edinburgh, do give yourself a couple of hours to visit the Museum of Childhood and its collection of toys, games, books and artifacts for children. It’s a little gem, and very centrally located, too – just off the Royal Mile – so you have no excuse to miss it.
What do you think of The New Game of Human Life? Do you enjoy boardgames, or think you will find one under the Christmas tree?
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