Gambling in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel: “A Leprosy is o’er the Land”

By Michael Flavin. (2003). Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 254 pp.,
ISBN 1-903900-18-2 (hardcover). Price (approx.): CA$78 or US$70.

Thou knowest, Lord, the fell disease.
Has Smitten myriads, rich and poor;
The workman’s hour, the wealth of ease
Are squandered for the gambler’s store.
Palace and cottage, works and mart
Are suffering from the fatal bane;
Prison, asylum, refuge, home,
Are peopled with the victims slain.

“A Leprosy is o’er the Land”: Winner of The National Anti-Gambling League’s hymn-writing competition, 1905 (pp. 222–223).

According to Michael Flavin, gambling was so widespread in England during the 19th century that it was considered to be the most prevalent vice of the age—a leprosy over the land. In Gambling in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel, Flavin examines the attitudes towards gambling shown in the novels of seven prominent English writers: Disraeli, Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, and Moore. His examination of the content of these novels is interlaced with an examination of major historical events that shaped these views and legislation that attempted to curtail gambling throughout this period. For example, excessive gambling during the Regency period (1811 to 1820) created a strong negative reaction against gambling during the middle part of the century.

The consensus of most of the novels examined in this book is that gambling is harmful to society. Patrons of betting shops were viewed as being driven to insanity, theft, and even suicide. A strong link is also drawn between gambling and crime. To partake of one vice was to be lured into other vices. Gamblers in these novels have little self-control. Gambling was also seen as a contamination. As a result, Trollope was concerned about how people of lower classes were allowed to mix with people of higher classes at racetracks.

Attitudes were not universally negative. Dickens, for example, is characterized as advocating control rather than abolition. George Moore appeared to have negative views of gambling in most of his novels, but in his Ester Waters he presents a sympathetic characterization of a bookie, driven to his death by unfair regulation of gambling. In addition, one of the main characters in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (Rawdon Crawley) makes his living for a short while as a professional gambler.