Vingt-et-un vs Commerce, Cooling Your Porridge, and Irish Airs
What exactly is Vingt-et-un and Commerce? Is the phrase “Keep your breath to cool your porridge” really an old saying? If so, where did it come from? And what are Scotch and Irish airs? Find out the answers to these questions and more, in this episode of My Cousin Jane.
A Small Kind of Accomplishment
“And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
By donating to support the show, you can improve your mind even further with exclusive behind-the-scenes information, bonus content, and more.
Note: Some of the links on this page may be affiliate links. This means that every time you click on one and then buy something, I get paid billions of pounds by a secret organization trying to bring back the Regency period…or I get a few fractions of a cent from a company like Amazon, one or the other.
Books referenced in this episode
Note: Transcripts on this site are the scripts I used when preparing to record the show. They may or may not be a 100% faithful representation of the final recording. Audio clips of Pride & Prejudice come from Karen Savage’s narration of Pride & Prejudice, courtesy of LibriVox.org.
Welcome to My Cousin Jane, a podcast about Jane Austen and her works. With your host, Lee Falin. Season 2 – episode 6.
Welcome back to another episode of My Cousin Jane. Each week, we look at what you might think of as the behind the scenes featurettes or deleted scenes of a particular chapter in Austen’s books.
This week, we’re going to talk about Pride & Prejudice Chapter 6.
Chapter 6 jumps around a bit. We start with a brief blurb about the ladies of Longbourn visiting Netherfield, and the ladies of Netherfield returning the visit.
Sometime after that, Charlotte and Elizabeth discuss how much Mr. Bingley and Jane like each other, and debate whether or not Jane would be better off being more forward about her feelings towards Mr. Bingley.
Charlotte’s thoughts on matrimony here are a bit of a foreshadowing of what is to come later with Mr. Collins.
We then jump to Lucas Lodge, where the Lucas family has invited a large party for an evening get together.
We also discover for the first time that Mr. Darcy is beginning to admire Elizabeth, much to his own surprise. It’s also clear that Darcy is socially awkward, which people could certainly mistake as prideful behavior.
I’m not saying he isn’t guilty of pride, but it’s clear that he (and his sister Georgianna, from things we learn later in the novel), were raised in a somewhat sheltered way that made it difficult for them to converse easily with their peers.
The timing of this chapter is a bit difficult to nail down based solely on what we know so far. We do know that at least two weeks have passed since the first time Mr. Bingley and Jane have danced together.
Now one of the things about Jane Austen’s works is that there are phrases used in them that meant something specific in Regency-era England, that while the general meaning may be somewhat similar to what you think it means today, the actual meaning may have shifted quite a bit since that time period. Or it can have multiple meanings, depending on the context.
I want to discuss three such phrases that Austen uses in this chapter.
Vingt-et-un vs commerce
First, let’s listen to this clip of Elizabeth and Charlotte debating how well Jane knows Mr. Bingley. As always, our audio clips come courtesy of Karen Savage and Librivox.org.
She has known him only a fortnight. She danced four dances with him at Meryton; she saw him one morning at his own house, and has since dined in company with him four times. This is not quite enough to make her understand his character.”
“Not as you represent it. Had she merely dined with him, she might only have discovered whether he had a good appetite; but you must remember that four evenings have been also spent together—and four evenings may do a great deal.”
“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.”Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6
Here we learn that both Jane and Mr. Bingley like Vingt-un better than Commerce. These are card games that were popular in the 1800s.
If you know some French, you might recognize that Vingt-un or Vingt-et-un is French for 21. The game is called by its French name because it appears to have come to Britain from France in the late 1700s.
There are a number of modern variations on the rules for this game. In the US, the most popular variation is called Blackjack, while in the UK today, the most common variation is known as Pontoon.
The name Pontoon first appeared sometime during World War I. Card game historians believe this name may have come from a mis-transliteration of what some less educated infantryman heard when an officer talked about playing “Vingt-un”.
Some historians credit the game’s origins to Spain, sometime in the 1600s. This is because it appears in a short story collection written by Miguel Cervantes (of Don Quixote fame) called Novelas ejemplares.
But according to David Parlett, author of The Oxford Guide to Card Games, the game is probably a derivation of Thirty-One, a game that was popular throughout Europe in the 15th century.
Commerce, the other game Elizabeth refers to, is one of the many variations of poker that has been played over the years. Commerce itself has had some variations as well, depending on where and when it was played.
Turning again to David Parlett, author of The Oxford Guide to Card Games, Commerce is played by dealing a set number of cards face down to each player (most commonly 3 in regency era England). Then the same number of cards is dealt face up in the center of the table.
Players take turns deciding whether to exchange one or more of their cards for the ones in the center of the table.
What constitutes a good hand depends on the version of Commerce being played, but most commonly they are (in order of precedence): A three of a kind, then a consecutive sequence of three cards in the same suit (such as 4, 5, 6 or J, Q, K), followed by a flush (three cards of the same suit), then a pair, and finally a high card (sometimes called a point card).
But again, historians point out that there are so many variations of poker that go by the same name, it’s really hard to know exactly the version that is being played.
But the three-card version of Commerce I just described is the most likely candidate for the time period.
Keep your breath to cool your porridge
Later in chapter 6, we’re at Lucas Lodge, where Sir William Lucas has gathered a large party for an evening of socializing. Mr. Darcy is talking with Elizabeth and Charlotte, and Charlotte has just invited Elizabeth to play the pianoforte.
Here’s what Elizabeth says in reply:
“You are a very strange creature by way of a friend!—always wanting me to play and sing before anybody and everybody! If my vanity had taken a musical turn, you would have been invaluable; but as it is, I would really rather not sit down before those who must be in the habit of hearing the very best performers.”
On Miss Lucas’s persevering, however, she added, “Very well; if it must be so, it must.” And gravely glancing at Mr. Darcy, “There is a fine old saying, which everybody here is of course familiar with—‘Keep your breath to cool your porridge,’—and I shall keep mine to swell my song.”Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6
I’ve always been curious just how old that “fine old saying” actually is. The phrase “Keep your breath to cool your porridge” or “Save your breath to cool your porridge,” appears relatively frequently in 18th and 19th century literature.
Pride & Prejudice was published in 1813. You can find the phrase used in Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality published in 1841, Jonathan Swift’s satirical etiquette book Polite Conversation, which was published in 1738, and in Captain Charles Johnson’s 1736 book, Lives of the Highwaymen.
The Oxford English Dictionary, which maintains an excellent list of English language word origins, states that the phrase first appeared in print in 1694, in the first English language translation of a classic French story, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel.
It’s the story of a giant named Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, who travel around having adventures that are basically satirical social commentaries, very similar to Gulliver’s travels.
In the English translation, a character named Panurge is having a conversation with a Fryer, and at one point says to him,
“Well, friar, spare your breath to cool your porridge.”The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel
So thinking that this phrase was originally a French idiom, I tracked down the original French version of the book.
Unfortunately, while the English translator, Peter Anthony Motteux did a great job with his English translation, he is a bit infamous in literary circles for having little concern with adding a great amount of his own material to the translation.
It turns out that the passage where Panurge says “Spare your breath to cool your porridge”, is one of the many places Motteux added his own material. Because while the original French version does a conversation with the fryer, this particular bit of dialogue doesn’t exist there.
But, we still know that this phrase was at least known to the translator as early as 1694, so where in fact did this phrase originate?
Going back just a bit further, there’s one more recorded use of it in 1646 by a British educator named John Clarke. He published a collection of Latin idioms and their English language equivalents. One of the english idioms he uses is, “Save your breath to coole your porridge.”
From his use of it, it’s clear that the phrase has an even earlier origin.
Unfortunately, from there the trail goes cold.
Scotch and Irish Airs
Moving on to our last phrase, after Elizabeth finishes playing the pianoforte, her sister Mary takes over. Let’s listen to what happens next:
Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached. Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well; and Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who with some of the Lucases, and two or three officers, joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6
I want to spend a minute or two talking about Scotch and Irish airs. The term “air” in music sometimes means different things to different people, and even the generally accepted meaning differs slightly between genres of music and across time periods.
In a very simplified definition that tries to capture all of these meanings, an “air” means a melody from a song. What type of melody is where things get muddled a bit.
According to the BBC Classical Music Magazine, the Italian term “aria” is often translated as air in English, and generally means a solo vocal piece that can be extracted from an opera and performed on its own.
Probably the most well known in this style is the aria from Act III of Rigoletto, “La donna è mobile” (or a Woman is fickle).
Often an aria is performed so often on its own, that it becomes more well known than the opera it came from.
For example, many people could probably recognize the aria Largo al Factotum sung by Figaro from The Barber of Seville.
Or the arias Habanera and Toreador Song from Carmen, without having ever seen (or been aware of) the operas these arias originate from.
However, the term air in Regency-era England could also refer to a song-like vocal composition, such as Air on the G String, a special arrangement of part of a suite written by Bach, or one of the many “airs” that were popularized in France, written primarily for the Lute, but also adapted to other instruments.
So which type of air was Mary playing?
One additional clue is that in the various definitions of musical airs we’ve discussed so far, they explicitly mention that airs are not used for dance music. But according to Austen, that’s exactly what Elizabeth’s friends and family were using them for.
Knowing that, and the additional fact that Mary is playing Scotch and Irish airs points us in another direction.
According to The Companion to Irish Traditional Music by Fintan Vallely, in traditional Gaelic music, the term “air” usually refers simply to the melody of a tune. So instead of saying, “How does Jingle Bells go again?”, you would ask “What’s the air to Jingle Bells?”
But it can sometimes be a synonym for an Irish “slow air”, which Valley defines as:
An open-ended melodic formula…Often a slow air will be simply the air of an existing song…The slow air is played solo, is executed differently on different instruments, and individual players’ interpretations of it vary considerably too.The Companion to Irish Traditional Music
There are lots of different styles of music that get labeled under the umbrella of “traditional Irish music”, and one of the ironic things is that a lot of these songs were originally composed to tell a story about different battles or rebellions, or revolts that the Irish people had against English rule.
So it’s a little ironic that they would then take those songs and sing them in English assemblies or use them for British dances.
Within those different subgenera, you have things like sean-nós, which is a very distinctive vocal style. You also have Irish jigs, which were probably more inclined towards dance.
Here’s an excerpt of a traditional Irish jig played by Barbara Arens on the piano, which is very similar to what Mary probably would have been playing.
That wraps up episode 6 of season 2 of My Cousin Jane.
As always, if you enjoy the show and would like to help us out, please consider supporting us by heading over to MyCousinJane.com and clicking on the little donate button.
Either way, thanks so much for listening.
Subscribe to the My Cousin Jane Newsletter
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.”