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The Victorian Club
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It’s said that if three middle-class Englishmen found themselves on a desert island the first thing they would do would be to found a club, with one as the Hon. President, one as the Hon. Secretary and one as the Hon. Treasurer. “The Hon.” emphasizes that they are English gentlemen and hence would be doing this on an amateur basis so nothing so vulgar as money would play a part of the story. They would probably also no doubt draw up a list of rules and regulations. They would be demonstrating their “clubbable” qualities. Of course it is also possible, particularly if they were younger, perhaps adolescents, that the veneer of civilization might disappear and the island society would come to resemble that found in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Perhaps the English have clubs as taming mechanisms to introduce order, to help organize their otherwise unruly lives, what has been called “tea-tabling” in the writings of E. M. Forster, decorum on the surface, possible chaos beneath.

Some disorder is to be found in club life at the two ends of A Room of His Own: A Literary-Cultural Study of Victorian Clubland. Clubs arose in part out of the earlier coffeehouses, “urban spaces.” They then took shape in the eighteenth century in the hard-drinking, hard-gambling, aristocratic and somewhat dissolute clubs such as Brooks, Boodles and White’s on St. James. At the end of the nineteenth century clubs took on a darker hue in the writings of Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Beerbohm and most important Wilde. The lightly implied homoeroticism of the clubs earlier on became more intense. Black writes well about Wilde and it is a striking point about his being involved throughout his life with male communities: Oxford, clubs, prison. He was a member of ten clubs, none of them particularly prominent. It is also intriguing that the Marquess of Queensberry left his notorious card for Wilde at the Albemarle Club, one of the few London clubs of the time that had women members, including Wilde’s wife. (I wish Black did not call such clubs and those that have become so more recently “coed.” That is a word that should be restricted to American educational institutions.) The study concludes with a nuanced discussion of John Galsworthy’s The Forsythe Saga. Even though it has quite a few scenes in clubs it was not, contrary to what some thought, an affirmation of club life.

There is no doubt that the nineteenth century was the Golden Age of the English club. The most famous were founded mostly in the 1830s. Only London clubs are discussed here; to write about clubs elsewhere in Britain would be far too formidable a task. Through sharing the costs, clubs were a way to enjoy gracious dining, a library, current publications, servants, perhaps even a place to stay. Among the best known were those that built their great palazzi around the corner from St. James on Pall Mall: the Carlton, the Reform, the Travellers, and the Athenaeum. Unlike their eighteenth-century predecessors they were designed for the successful members of the middle class, not coincidentally many of whom acquired the vote in the Great Reform Act of 1832. The Carlton for the Tories and the Reform for the Whigs/Liberals became the centers for political planning as well as places to lunch, dine, talk, or where one could nap or sit and read the papers, perhaps at a window observing the outside world. Although business was officially forbidden they were obviously where one would meet people of “one’s sort” who might be very helpful in one’s endeavors. This of course could cause problems if what began as private became public.

This was the great age of the expansion of periodical publications and many gossip sheets. Many of the writers for these publications belonged to one or more clubs, among the most prominent figures being George Augustus Sala and Edmund Yates. It was difficult to draw the line between what was heard at one’s club and what might be published. This led to the Garrick Club Affair “clubland’s most famous altercation.” Yates, a young...


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