Pure winsome fun

I just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma and it was fascinating to think about how people spent their leisure time pre-radio, pre-TV, pre-digital media etc. (One should note, of course, that Austen writes of the landed gentry and aristocracy.)

Music was huge—everyone played or sang, and the accomplished performers, in this case the mysterious and brilliant Jane Fairfax and our heroine Emma, were assured the limelight on any number of occasions. Word games are important and the undependable Frank Churchill plays one in a critical scene where he provides letters that have to be arranged into his intended word…discovery. And there are a number of riddles used, successfully or not, for fun or even to communicate romantic interest! (Caution, Emma.) Card playing is popular with everyone, and in smaller groups we have people reading aloud, embroidering, drawing, and simply conversing. Morning and evening visits to one another’s homes are the lifeblood of social interaction, and while short walks and turns around the garden are commonplace, a big day out could include a picnic, a visit to a home several miles away, and occasionally…a ball!

Over the years I have developed something of a fascination for vintage games that I have read about, heard of, or come across in flea markets and antiques fairs. It was hard to avoid references to Sardines and Postman’s Knock growing up, both of which turn out to be excuses for physical interaction. Sardines is a form of hide-and-seek, except that everyone who finds the hider joins them in the space until the last person discovers them—crushed like sardines! And there are different versions of Postman’s Knock, which is essentially a license to kiss…or more. Oh, we English are so repressed


I love simple word games. Parrish and I spent many a happy hour on long car journeys playing Crambo, which apparently dates to the 14th century. You pick a word, say ‘stitch,’ and you communicate the rhyme using another word definition. E.g. “My word sounds like a female dog.” Once the other player or team has the correct rhyme, they ask questions formed as definitions. “Is it a person with lots of wealth?” “No, it is not rich.” “Is it a hole dug alongside a road?” “No, it is not ditch.” And so on, until either the player or the guessers are stumped. Using the formal cadence of the questions is key to making it engaging…there’s something irresistible about the sentence structure. And, if not in the car, one can play Dumb Crambo in which the definitions are acted out! Hilarious!

Noel Coward’s Hay Fever has a wonderful scene where the Bliss family and their guests are playing a chaotic game of Adverbs, in which one person leaves the room, the group chooses an adverb, and the returning players asks people to perform actions in the manner of the word. Winsomely remains an all time favorite and if I can only dream of playing Sorel.

The charm of these games is their air of romantic innocence in comparison to the packaged pleasures of computer and video games. Ah, could one only be transported for an evening to Highbury to hear Jane Fairfax play her newly arrived piano, or to a 1930s country house weekend full of charades and sardines.

Next time: Pure (murderous) fun!

11 responses to “Pure winsome fun”

  1. PB says:

    Back in the earliest days of the Northeast Corridor Social Club we played a game called “Tullimania” named after a reference from Slade’s former life. Everyone would write down 10 famous people, tear them into individual strips and throw them in a bowl. Two team would take turns playing. During each team’s turn one person would pull a name from the bowl and give clues to their teammates who would try and guess the name. Correct guesses would be points, wrong guesses back in the bowl. The team had a minute. This would go on until all the names were gone. MB always put in obscure Japanese shogun that no one knew, SSW always added Bob Marley, etc. After a while you could just say, “that famous boy wizard that Pandora always puts in the bowl . . .”

    We also played the poetry game, passing around lines of “poetry” and adding your own line.

    We play loads of alphabet games in the car, most having to do with movies.

    And . . . my best connection with this utterly winsome post, in my little house we actually have a sitting room where the only electricity is lighting. The other night I was upstairs in gleeful wonder as I listened to 8 teenagers sprawled about (on lovely furntiure I might add) chatting in my sitting room. Chatting I tell you. narry a gadget in sight. Ah, Austen in the ‘burbs.

  2. Dave says:

    But were they chatting about marriage prospects, expected income from their uncles’ estates, and the progress of the Napoleonic wars?

  3. PB says:

    Napoleonic wars, yes. Marriage no. Sex, drugs and rock and roll, definitely.

  4. You know what makes for a fun party? Performing tableaux, is what.

  5. Dave says:

    IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single teenager in possession of a good spliff must be in want of a lay.

  6. Rachel says:

    Can’t wait to play Crambo.

    Another great parlor amusement is the Name Game, which I learned as a drinking game in grad school, but works just as well for two people passing time in the car. It’s very simple: start with a name of a public figure–say, Jane Austen. The next person’s name has to start with ‘A’, and the turns continue from there: Alexander Graham Bell, Barry White, Woody Harrelson, Henry Ford, Frank Sinatra, Slavoj Zizek, Zero Mostel…ad nauseam. Speed is of the essence. Same-initial names (e.g. Lucy Liu) reverse the direction of play. It’s fun to try and stump your opponents, and everyone usually ends up learning something to boot. Try it!

    Thanks, Stella.

  7. Once again, our fond associations are the same, Stella. I’m fond of Hay Fever, Sardines is a favorite game of mine to play with my family, and within that family, word games have always indirectly educated younger siblings.

    I haven’t ever heard of Crambo, though.

  8. playing Sorel

    Is this a typo for “Sorely”? Or something else?

    I used to love to play Dictionary, but of late I seem to have fallen in with a crowd of insufficiently-vocabulary-obsessed fellow travelers.

  9. LP says:

    Yes, Crambo was a source of much hilarity on car trips (and otherwise). Stella’s right, it’s all in the intonation and phrasing of the question. It’s best to affect an English accent (if you don’t already have one) and ask the question in as arch a tone as possible. “Would it, perchance, by some fluke of nature, be a female dog?” Eyebrows skyward. Teacup clutched between index finger and thumb.

    And I always got confused and called Dumb Crambo “Damn Crambo.”

  10. Stella says:

    Sorel is a character in Hay Fever, but sorely would be a most excellent choice of adverb.

    Last T-giving, sans PB sadly, we did play the poetry game and predictably hilarity ensued.

    LP – was than English accent you were affecting? Just checking! (ok, foul play!)

  11. Tim says:

    Another good version of the name game is played thusly: one participant chooses a name, first and last (let’s say, “Patrick Henry”); the next participant names a person whose first name is the same as the last name of the first (“Henry James”), and so on. If someone cannot supply a name, the previous player must, so for any play you make you’ll need to have an option for the next play already figured out. See how far you can get: Patrick Henry James Joyce Cary Grant Hart Crane.