The Tarot Muse
Carolyn R. Guss
Certified Professional Tarot Reader and Teacher

Tarot Inspires and Empowers!

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The Tarot and Jane Austen 

Note: This article is adapted from a talk I presented for the Jane Austen Celebration at the Ardmore Public Library (Ardmore, PA) on February 28, 2009. [You will find, at the end of the piece, some brief information about the Tarot itself, as well as a list of correspondences for the major arcana and court cards of The Tarot of Jane Austen, by Diane Wilkes and Lola Airaghi, published by Lo Scarabeo/ Llewellyn Worldwide, 2006.]


My relationship with both the Tarot and Jane Austen began in high school, although that is my only connection between the two. Not so Diane Wilkes, creator of the delightful The Tarot of Jane Austen. Diane is a certified Tarot Grand Master with a Master’s degree in English from Carnegie-Mellon University. She has been both a Tarot and Austen devotee for over thirty years, and it shows in this excellent collaboration with illustrator Lola Airaghi.

Card Games

What, you might well ask, do Jane Austen and the Tarot have in common? More than you might think. First of all, Tarot began its life as we know it as a card game played by the fifteenth-century Italian nobility. One of the first Tarot decks, the lovely Visconti-Sforza—which is still available in reproduction—was created in Renaissance Italy (c. 1420-1440) by an artist named Bonifacio Bembo as a wedding gift for the Visconti and Sforza families. The cards are large (about 6 1/2” high), heavy cardboard, hand-painted and decorated with gold leaf applied with a small punching tool. The bulk of these cards reside in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, although a few are missing, and several remain in private hands.

 The game they played was called Tarocchi. Similar to Bridge, it is still enjoyed in Europe today. And anyone who has read a Jane Austen novel knows how much time the characters spend playing cards: the games Whist, Piquet, Cassino, Commerce, Loo, Quadrille, Speculation, and Vingt-un (Twenty-One, or modern Blackjack) are mentioned in nearly all of her novels.

 Those Renaissance Tarocchi players and Jane’s Regency-period ones had a great deal in common. They were the gentry: comfortable, landed, with lots of time on their hands. Card games were a common social activity, and one in which gossip was exchanged and alliances fostered or made. Thus, a “simple” game of cards could have so much impact. In Austen’s fiction, alliances are paramount: whether female or male, one must make the right match—and indeed, as we all know, matchmaking itself is a bit of a game. And while Tarot cards were not widely known in England while Jane was writing her novels (they weren’t really used in the United Kingdom until later in the century), her card-playing characters—and the settings in which these games were played—shared some very basic qualities with their Italian counterparts three centuries earlier.

Tarot and Story-Telling

Another connection between Austen and the Tarot lies in the concept of story. Jane Austen is a consummate storyteller. The writer and editor E.M. Halliday, in his preface to Pride and Prejudice, points out that she “quickly envelopes her readers in a world of make-believe which is marvelously convincing”—which is why we keep reading her novels and return to them again and again.

The Tarot cards are a symbolic language—a language of pictures, as it were—and a Tarot reading is a story that connects one card to another to form a complete picture, much as a writer does in evolving a plotline.

The deck contains 78 cards, which can be divided into three sections: the major arcana, or greater mysteries (the word comes from the Latin word arca, a chest in which secrets could be kept, and is the root of the English word arcane); the minor arcana, or lesser mysteries; and the court (or face) cards. Actually, the court cards are part of the minor arcana, but in the context of this article it makes sense to consider them as a separate group, for reasons which will soon become clear.

The Tarot resembles a playing card deck in that it is comprised of four suits: Wands (corresponding to the English suit of Clubs), Cups (Hearts), Swords (Spades), and Pentacles or Coins (Diamonds): these are the suits on an Italian or Spanish playing card deck. (Remember that the Tarot as we know it originated in fifteenth-century Italy.)  There are four types of court (or “face”) cards, instead of three as in the playing cards: a page, knight, queen, and king.

Original playing card decks (which preceded the Tarot deck in origin by roughly fifty years) contained three masculine figures: a king, a superior officer, and an inferior officer; the latter pair later became the knight and the knave (or page), respectively. The queen appeared later in German and French decks in place of the superior officer. Italian card makers liked the new addition of the queen and gave her a place of her own in the deck, increasing the court cards ranks to four. So we have the Italians to thank for not only the Tarot itself but for the queen’s presence in the playing cards as well.

In The Tarot of Jane Austen, the court or face cards are, of course, characters from Austen’s novels, and I’ll be describing a few of those shortly.

         Each Tarot suit is connected to one of the Western elements: the Wands to fire, Cups to water, Swords to air, and Coins to earth. (A varying style of elemental designations assigns fire to Swords and air to Wands.) In The Tarot of Jane Austen, Wilkes appropriately modifies these suits slightly to become: Candlesticks (for Wands), Teacups (for Cups), and Quills (for Swords); Coins remain the same.

 The suit of Wands/Candlesticks, governed by fire, is about energy, passion, and initiative: in short, how we distinguish ourselves in the world. Bright and forward-looking, they are also associated with the fire zodiac signs: Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius. (Jane herself was a Sag, having been born on Dec. 16, 1775.)

The suit of Cups/Teacups, ruled by water, involves human emotions: particularly love, but also others, including joy, satisfaction, and sorrow. Deeply reflective, creative, and even nostalgic, they draw on the past and connect to the water signs of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.

The suit of Swords/Quills, governed by air, is about the mind: thinking, logic, analysis, and rationality. Our mind can, of course, be our best friend or greatest enemy, as Austen so astutely understood. The air signs come into play here: Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius.

Last, Coins (sometimes Pentacles or Disks), ruled by earth, are supremely physical, dealing with financial and other resources, material goods, home and hearth, nature and animals. They involve worldly pleasures and honest work, and so connect to the earth signs: Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn.

In The Tarot of Jane Austen, altering the suit of Cups to Teacups,  Swords to Quills, and Wands to Candlesticks is a lovely touch because--as all Austen readers know--many cups of tea are consumed and many letters written by quill-point pen, often by candlelight, in her works. Retaining Coins as Coins makes equal sense when one considers the importance of financial resources to the characters in all of the novels: money determines how they live and, often, who they will (or will not) marry.

What is sometimes called the Tarot’s “fifth” (or quintessential) suit is the major arcana, or Tarot trumps (trionfi in Italian)—so-named because in playing the game Tarocchi, these cards “trumped” the other cards. There are twenty-two of them, numbered 0 through 21, The Fool through The World, respectively. (Technically, The Fool, as card 0, is not considered part of the trumps, but stands on his/her own.) These are the cards most generally used when the Tarot is read in films or on TV. They are considered the most powerful element in the deck, or the archetypal energies.

In The Tarot of Jane Austen the numbered cards (ace through ten) of the four suits are presented as scenes from the novels, and the Major Arcana cards take shape as a combination of characters and scenes, depending on the card.

To return to the concept of story-telling, we might think of it this way: the court cards are the characters and the minor arcana or suit cards are the situations in which the characters find themselves. Thus, they form the plot of the story. And the major arcana or trumps create the theme or essence of the work. In short, as another superb novelist, E.M. Forster said: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot’.” Given that, then, the theme might revolve around the overwhelming power of love.

The Tarot and Jane Austen’s novels can be seen on several levels: lighthearted and playful, as a game—and deeper, conveying wisdom and serious life lessons. As a Tarot reader, I have been hired to give readings to people at parties “for fun,” and also have many private clients who deeply value the insights and wisdom they receive from their sessions—and both are perfectly fine ways of using the cards. Likewise, one can read Austen for sheer escapist entertainment or to glean deep truths about the nature of human behavior and interaction.

Austen’s stories, like a good Tarot reading, reveal their truths, and their characters, little by little, in a measured fashion. For example, Colonel Brandon, in Sense and Sensibility is introduced as a thirty-five-year-old gentleman bachelor, who seems “old” to the teenage Marianne Dashwood. She refers to him as “infirm,” although he is indeed quite healthy.

He is then thought of, erroneously, by Mrs. Jennings, as being the father of an illegitimate child; shown to be a devoted friend to his former love, Eliza; a kindly if somewhat absent caregiver to her own illegitimate daughter after Eliza’s death; a possible suitor to Marianne; a benefactor to Edward Ferrars—and so on—such that his personal story evolves as the plot moves forward. The critic Halliday sums it up by saying, “Thought and feeling, and their verbal expression—that is the world of Jane Austen, so beautifully illuminated for us by her narrative artistry.”

Austen’s plots are intricate tapestries with many interwoven threads—as are Tarot readings. And similar to rereading a novel, one returns to a Tarot spread in order to harvest further truths. In other words, well-written fiction—and a good Tarot reading—contain layers, like the proverbial onion, to be peeled away, with more to be revealed at subsequent revisitations.


In her companion guide to The Tarot of Jane Austen, Wilkes addresses the concept of Tarot and duality. Two of Jane’s novels contain duality in their titles, and use it as a theme for these works: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

Sense and Sensibility, her first novel (published anonymously as “by a Lady” in 1811), lays out the twin concepts of practicality vs. emotional resonance—and the need to balance both within one’s own life.

In this novel, the “sense” aspect refers to the concept of common sense, as embodied by the character Elinor Dashwood, who appears in The Tarot of Jane Austen as the Lady (or Queen) of Coins. She delights in painting and reading but is, at her core, serious and practical, like the suit of Coins she inhabits.

The “sensibility” facet is embodied by Elinor’s younger sister Marianne as the Maiden (or Page) of Teacups: emotionally and creatively expressive—Marianne plays the piano beautifully and throws her heart into anything that interests her—she is vulnerable and unfocussed. As a maiden or page, she is a youthful risk-taker, eager, callow, and inexperienced, but also prone to dangerously consuming emotions, as evidenced by the debilitating illness that overtakes her after being abandoned by her quixotic suitor, John Willoughby.

Willoughby, as the Knight of Cups, is ardent, romantic, charming, and seemingly loving—as well as unrealistic, changeable, and unreliable. In traditional Tarot, the Knight of Cups is seen as the Grail Knight of the Arthurian tales--and indeed, Willoughby rescues Marianne when she takes a nasty fall in a rainstorm. However, he, like the Knight of Cups, is somewhat fickle and more in love with the concept of love than with a specific person—and he is unable to provide for the emotional needs of Marianne, no matter how akin in some “sensibilities” they may be.

How different this is from Elinor’s suitor, the steadfast Edward Ferrars as the Knight of Coins, who honors his childhood engagement to Lucy Steele, with whom he no longer shares a “sensibility.” The Knight of Coins is a stalwart, duty-bound fellow who commits-to what he engages with and always follows through. And another duality is glimpsed in the relationship between the aforementioned Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars, both of whom belong to the suit of Coins. Brandon, as the Lord (or King) of Coins, stoically shoulders burdens and later offers help to the more youthful “Knight” Edward, when he is cast out by his family for keeping his promise to Lucy.

Taking this duality “two” steps further, Wilkes assigns the second major arcana card, The High Priestess, to Jane Austen herself. This archetypal figure is often thought of as the “virgin priestess”—that is, she who lives without a man. A private person, the Priestess holds deep wisdom and innate understanding of the workings of the world. And indeed, Austen kept her writing somewhat secret, often covering her manuscript when others would enter the dining parlour where she wrote, and publishing anonymously. (On visiting the Jane Austen homestead in Chawton, England, in 1989, I was struck by the meager side table and hard wooden chair upon which Austen composed her lush and expansive novels.)

Astrologically, The High Priestess is ruled by the Moon; considered a mirror, she reflects the world around her, much as Austen insightfully reflected the society she lived in through her novels. In true High Priestess fashion, Austen’s writing contains more than  meets the eye, including inherent wisdom to be delved into. In many Tarot decks The High Priestess holds a scroll—or, in some versions of the card, a book—inviting us to partake of the wisdom she embodies--but only if we choose to do so.

And her number is two, a numeral signifying balance, duality, choice, communication, dialogue, and receptivity. As Wilkes points out, “These qualities form the spine of Austen’s work.” Considered a feminine number, two is also linked to intuition—and how often we hear those words paired: “feminine intuition.” (Indeed, men have the same capacity for intuition—they just call it “hunches.”)

 The use of intuition—or lack thereof—is rampant in Austen’s novels. Often it represents the ability to know when to speak and when to keep silent, as well as what to say and what not to--and the same discretion with regard to taking action or holding back. The characters in Austen’s Regency England society were well-schooled in that, as one sees in a character like Elinor Dashwood, who is astute in her observations but circumspect in how she disseminates them. Or as Fanny Price says in Mansfield Park: “We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”


Another Tarot figure connected to the number two is card eleven, Justice. Eleven, itself a master number (any number composed of double digits that are the same, such as 11, 22, 33, etc.), reduces to a two—so in a certain way Justice is a “sister” card to The High Priestess. Ruled by Libra, Justice represents balance, fairness, clarity, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions in crafting one’s life. A thinking card that is also associated with the opening of the “third,”or “psychic,” eye, one of the many things she balances is logic and intuition: in a certain way, “sense” and “sensibility.”

Wilkes’ version of the Justice card depicts Pride and Prejudice protagonists Fitzwilliam Darcy (who is also Lord/King of Quills among the court cards) and Elizabeth Bennet (Lady/Queen of Candlesticks. Lizzy also appears as The Fool in the major arcana, due to her seemingly impetuous hike through muddy fields to visit her ailing sister.) In the upper corner of the Austen Tarot’s Justice card, Darcy is writing his now-famous letter to Lizzy who, in the lower corner, is reading it: the text forms the card’s background. The letter, written in a measured, balanced fashion, begins to change Lizzy’s mind—just as the discussion between them that engendered it alters him for the better. Thus, this is where Darcy’s “pride” and Lizzy’s “prejudice” begin to mellow and harmonize--ending, ultimately, in equilibrium. His actions also bring about “justice” for Lizzy’s impulsive sister, Lydia (Maiden of Candlesticks), regarding her elopement with George Wickham. Likewise, in Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters, practical Elinor and romantic Marianne, are able to happily balance the qualities of “sense” and “sensibility” by the novel’s end.

In her introduction to the deck, Wilkes asserts that Jane Austen and the Tarot share “the vital importance of balance in our everyday lives….If one reads Austen carefully, she provides a template for the way life should be lived”—according to our individual moral compass, certainly, all the while “recognizing the benefit of equipoise and equilibrium,” lest “that compass be inaccurate or break altogether.”


The Tarot’s major arcana culminates in a final card, 21, The World. In traditional versions of the card, a nude hermaphrodite, discreetly-covered by a well-placed sash, dances joyously within a green wreath. She/he often carries two double-terminated wands. As one might suspect, The World is a card of unity, union, and the harmony these engender. It’s a little more complicated than that, but basically the “union” (the culmination of an esoteric concept known as the alchemical marriage) is not necessarily with another but a union of the self with the self, ultimately linking to the divine. Here again is duality, but by now harmonized.

Most of Austen’s novels end in at least one happy union: the right couple joined together after various tribulations. Ultimately, however, the union The World card speaks to is a coming to peace within oneself and one’s own heart—which is a recognition most of Austen’s heroines and heroes seem to arrive at. In that way, they face the unknown, together or alone. As Austen says of Lizzy and Darcy soon after their engagement in Pride and Prejudice, “They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought and felt and said for attention to any other objects.”

The Austen Tarot’s World card, drawn from the novel Emma, depicts the uniting of Emma Woodhouse with George Knightley, which Wilkes refers to as “the wedding of two souls who have grown in harmony with themselves and one another.” Emma (who also appears in the deck as the Maiden/Page of Quills), particularly, has matured, learning to pay attention to the wisdom of her own heart rather than manipulate others’ feelings. She has learned a great deal about human nature, including her own. This is not easy work, and The World card is ruled astrologically by planet Saturn, considered the zodiac’s stern taskmaster and definer of human limits. Thus, as Wilkes points out, this happy union “is not a blessing showered upon you from above, but one that you have earned.”


In closing, I want to mention Jane’s own modest but now-famous estimation of her work, as written in a letter to her nephew Edward on her birthday in 1816. (She would live roughly one-half year after penning these words.) She described her novels as “…the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”

Of course, centuries of adoring fans have proved her wrong about the second part—and yet the tandem image of the ivory and the brush has become a metaphor of Austen’s genius. The Tarot also—little bits of cardboard, sometimes finely and sometimes crudely worked, but with big messages--comes down to us with its own legacy: further evidence of the “good things come in small packages” adage. Thus, both Austen and the Tarot have proved to have enduring appeal.    

The nineteenth-century French occultist Éliphas Lévi—who was born seven years before Jane died—called the Tarot “…a monumental and singular work, simple and strong as the architecture of the pyramids and, in consequence, as durable; it is a book…which informs by making one think; [and] is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the human mind….”        

I received my first Tarot deckthe Swiss 1JJand my first Austen novela fifty-cent paperback edition of Pride and Prejudicein the late 1960s. It seems significant that I have them still.


Carolyn R. Guss, The Tarot Muse, is a certified professional Tarot reader and teacher with more than twenty-five years of experience in seriously working with the cards.


The Tarot and Jane Austen 

Saturday, February 28, 2009 – Carolyn R. Guss, The Tarot Muse

  The Tarot of Jane Austen, by Diane Wilkes, illustrated by Lola Airaghi
Published by Lo Scarabeo/Llewellyn Worldwide, 2006.  

"Do you prefer reading to cards?" said he; that is rather singular." "Mis Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards.  She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else" - Pride and Prejudice


The Tarot is a deck of 78 cards that was first produced in 15th-century Italy, although its influences are myriad. Its early use was for game-playing, and only later did it begin to take on a mystical and divinatory significance, chiefly due to the writings of European occultists such as Court de Gébelin, Éliphas Lévi, and Etteilla, among others. It was used in the United Kingdom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (after Jane Austen’s death) by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical society, whose members included writers William Butler Yeats and C.S. Lewis. The group produced several Tarot decks, most notably the Rider-Waite Tarot (now known as Rider-Waite-Smith), created by Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, and first published by Rider in 1909. Rediscovered and reproduced in the 1960s, it is the most widely known and used Tarot deck in the world--and served as the influence for The Tarot of Jane Austen.


My talk will explore what the Tarot and Jane Austen have in common, with a focus on the following areas: Card Games, Story-Telling, Duality, Balance, and Union.


Correspondences for The Tarot of Jane Austen


The Tarot Trumps (Major Arcana)

    0 The Fool—Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
    I The Magician—Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park)
   II The High Priestess—Jane Austen, author
  III The Empress—Anne Weston (Emma)
   IV The Emperor—Sir Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park)
    V The Hierophant--Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice)
   VI The Lovers—Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
  VII The Chariot--Mary Crawford (Mansfield Park)
VIII Strength--Fanny Price and Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park)
IX The Hermit--Mr. Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
    X The Wheel of Fortune--The Dance (Emma)
   XI Justice--Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Letter (Pride and Prejudice)
  XII Hanged One--Fanny Price (Mansfield Park)
 XIII Death--Henry Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility)
  XIV Temperance--Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse (Emma)
   XV The Devil--Lady Susan Vernon (Lady Susan)
  XVI The Tower--Louisa Musgrove’s Fall (Persuasion)
 XVII The Star--Louisa Musgrove’s Recovery (Persuasion)
XVIII The Moon--Emma Woodhouse’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (Emma)
   XIX The Sun--Emma Woodhouse & George Knightley’s Betrothal (Emma)
    XX Judgement--Final Hurdle to Emma & Knightley’s Marriage (Emma)
   XXI The World--Emma and George Knightley’s Marriage (Emma)


The Four Suits (Minor Arcana)

Candlesticks (Wands)—ruled by Fire
Teacups (Cups)—ruled by Water
Quills (Swords)—ruled by Air
Coins (Coins/Pentacles)—ruled by Earth

The Court Cards (Minor Arcana)


Maiden--Lydia Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
Knight--Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey)
Lady--Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
Lord--Captain Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion)                                     


Maiden--Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility)
Knight--John Willoughby (Sense and Sensibility)
Lady--Jane Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
Lord--Charles Bingley (Pride and Prejudice)


Maiden--Emma Woodhouse (Emma)
Knight--Frank Churchill (Emma)
Lady--Anne Elliot (Persuasion)
Lord--Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)



Maiden--Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice)
Knight--Edward Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility)
Lady--Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility)
Lord--Colonel Brandon (Sense and Sensibility)