Books & Manuscripts

Game Austen: The Childhood Toy That Captivated Pride and Prejudice Author

By Sotheby's

A cup-and-ball game, which has been passed down through generations of Jane Austen’s family, will feature in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale on 13 December. Cup-and-Ball, or bilbocatch (from the French bilboquet), was a popular domestic game in the 19th century which was mastered by the well-loved author.

Austen gives a good indication of how frequently she played the game in a 1809 letter to her sister Cassandra, telling her: ‘We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed; and we mean to avail ourselves of our kind papa’s consideration, by not returning to Winchester till quite the evening of Wednesday.’


The author excelled at the game according to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1871 memoir, in which he wrote: ‘Jane Austen was successful in everything that she attempted with her fingers. None of us could throw spilikins in so perfect a circle, or take them off with so steady a hand.  Her performances with cup and ball were marvellous.  The one used at Chawton was an easy one, and she has been known to catch it on the point above a hundred times in succession, till her hand was weary.’


Ahead of the sale, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-great-great nephew, who played ‘Aunt Jane’s’ cup-and-ball game with his family as a child, has given some tips on the game that has been picked up by the family for over two centuries of play.

- To catch the ball in the cup:  Stand with one arm in front of you, horizontal from the elbow, lightly holding the game’s stem just below the cup

- Let the ball hang and wait until it is perfectly still

- Using the cup, gently flick the ball straight up to about three inches above the original cup height while at the same time pulling the cup  towards yourself (to allow the ball to pass) and then back to its original position, which should now be 2-3 inches below the ball. Almost a circular motion

- The whole idea is to get the ball moving vertically up with enough height to allow time for the cup to be withdrawn and repositioned under the ball

 To catch on spike (a technique mastered by Jane Austen) is much harder, but there is a trick :

- Stand as before lightly holding the game’s stem just below spike

- Let the ball hang but then the trick is to get the ball spinning fast with the other hand and a sharp flick of the wrist. Try to get the ball spinning in its original position without swinging about.

- You have to allow the ball to finish spinning (winding up), and when it has built up good speed spinning back (unwinding) move hand as before, trying to position the spike under the hole in the ball.

- The spinning causes a gyroscopic effect which keeps the ball rotating on its axis with the hole pointing down, ready to be caught on the spike.


Other items of interest to Jane Austen fans in the sale include a letter from the author to her sister Cassandra from 1800 in which she talks about Harris Bigg-Wither, the man whose proposal she accepted then later rejected.


There is also an autograph manuscript of the continuation of her unfinished final work, Sanditon, by one of her closest relations, Anna Lefroy, the daughter of Jane’s eldest brother.

The cup-and-ball game features in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale on 13 December.

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