At the turn of the twentieth century, London boasted approximately two hundred gentleman's clubs; half of these all-male enclaves had been founded in the last thirty years of the century, and at midcentury applicants could expect to endure waits of eighteen or twenty years. Gentlemen's clubs tended to cluster in London in the exclusive preserve known as “clubland,” located predominately on St. James's Street and Pall Mall, a suburban promenade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that began to assume the shape of a street at the end of the seventeenth and whose name was coined after a seventeenth-century French form of croquet, “pallemaille.” Premier among the Victorian clubs were the Athenaeum, founded in 1824 for men of science, literature, and art; the Reform (1836) associated originally with supporters of the Reform Bill; its twin club the Carlton, founded in 1832 for political conservatives . . . and the various clubs that could provide for needs of an Imperial city, such as the Travellers Club, founded in 1819 for men who had travelled a minimum of 500 miles outside the British Isles, the Royal Colonial Institute, for men associated with the colonies and British India, and the United Service Club (1815), founded after the Battle of Waterloo for senior level military officers. Other distinctive and important clubs included the Garrick (1831), which boasted one of clubland's best art collections, the Eccentric (1890) for music hall performers; the Saville (1868), for the younger generation of literary men; and the Savage (1857), for actors, musicians, and artists. [8-9]

[Thackeray created the decorated initial “B” below for Vanity Fair.]

Thackeray's decorated initial B

arbara Black has written a valuable examination of the world of Victorian men's clubs and their importance to some major novelists of the age. Her work is particularly welcome since most earlier books have been written by clubmen who directed their books at fellow club members. As one might expect, their tone was adulatory rather than analytical. In contrast, Black has “pursued the traces left by Victorian London's affiliations of like-minded men — groups of ‘brothers’ who are not blood kin but nevertheless form a vital community, an associational culture heavily reliant on sameness sharpened on the whetstone of difference, on the maneuverings of exclusion and inclusion, on a keen sense of social distinction that keeps the socially ineligible at bay. Concerned with social acceptance and social acceptability, clubs are fundamentally about friendship, and thus they demand loyalty” (1-2). After an introduction that emphasizes clubs as a place to which men threatened by women flee, the first chapter surveys the history of clubs and their dual origin in eighteenth-century coffee houses and gambling dens. “A Night in the Club,” the next chapter, takes us into the clubhouses, emphasizing Brooks, the Reform, the Athenaeum, the Garrick, the Travellers, and the Oriental. The next chapter, “Conduct befitting a Gentleman: Mid-Victorian Clubdom and the Novel,” convincingly explains the roles clubs play in a novels by Disraeli, Trollope, and Thackeray, chiefly Sybil, Phineas Phinn, and Pendennis. Here Black explains,

Within works written during the period of financial stability occasioned by mid-Victorian achievement and expansion, clubland can cement social position, provide social cohesiveness in the urban chaos, and erect standards for conduct, fueling an esprit de corps through mythologies, rituals, and invented traditions. Literary representations of clubland are changed with this potent sense of opportunity, yet they also bristle with the risk of fraud and failure raised by mid-Victorian economics — and instability mirrored in the range of treatment (from the didactic to the idealized to the satirical) that clubland receives in the works of the mid-Victorian novelists Anthony Trollope, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

A third chapter, “Clubland's Special Correspondents,” by far the book's weakest, discusses the relationship of clubs and journalism, and a much better fourth, “Membership has its privileges: The Imperial Clubman at Home and Away,” does a good job fulfilling the promise of its title, and it is followed by chapter five, “The Pleasure of Your Company in Late-Victorian Pall Mall.” The book closes with a sixth chapter and a fascinating epilogue that together make an interesting pair of commentaries on men, women, masculinity, and society: the sixth examines the club in early twentieth-century fiction, particularly in a welcome discussion of Galsworthy, and the epilogue, “A Room of Her Own,” provides some information about women's clubs, information that both confirms and challenges what has come before.

Black generously points to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's “groundbreaking” Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) as the “necessary starting point” of her work: “In effect,” she tells us, “my study literalizes the configuration central to Sedgwick's thinking on gender, class, and sexuality: What in fact happens when women disappear from the triangulation of desire? I am also interested in her argument that gender is a class issue — and I suppose I have, in effect, accepted her challenge by doing what she calls ‘less glamourous’ work of talking about “crucially important’ institutional male homosocial bonds” (31). Despite the sincerity of this tribute to Sedgwick, much of the book concerns rather different matters that Black explains in such a different vocabulary and prose that the book occasionally seems so schizoid as to have been written by two different people.

The book is at its useful best when describing in clear, forceful, interesting prose how clubs came about, how they worked, and how they influenced Victorian politics and culture. Here, for example, is Black on the Reform Club:

A club that directly and profoundly affected government through what founder-member Ellise called “club government,” the Reform introduced changing election procedures. It encouraged its members to register to vote; it permitted notices to be posted in the clubhouse asking for party funding. Members often worked hard to find candidates to run for public office; thus, it is no surprise that Trollope's protagonist Phineas Finn, as a member of the Reform, is counseled at the club to run for public office. The club was the institution that reconciled factions and repair hostilities within the Liberal Party itself. As the headquarters of the liberal movement, the Reform was home to liberal prime ministers such as Palmerston and Asquith and progressive politicians such John Bright. Upon being elected to Parliament, Bright knew that he needed to be elected to the Reform, too. Prime ministers' cabinet members also joined: nine out of thirteen from Melbourne's second administration and thirteen out of seventeen from Gladstone's fourth. The club permitted parliamentary business to be conducted its private rooms. [56]

Among this book's many wonderful passages is the following description of where in the Athenaeum some of Victorian Britain's major novelists did their writing:

In addition to the ‘Writer's Corner,’ the club was known for its nooks staked out by famous members' predilections. Macaulay's favorite spot, near the books on history in the library, became known as ‘Macaulay's Corner’. Dickens also wrote in the library, while Trollope preferred to write in the southwest corner of the drawing room. It was here, so the famous story goes, that Trollope heard club brothers complaining about his character Mrs. Proudie and decided to kill her off. And Burton worked on his translation of Arabian Nights at the club's center table. It seems suitable that the club's other working writer, Thackeray, found neutral ground in this most urbane of clubs — specifically in the hall of the Athenaeum, near the coats at the staircase — to reconcile with Dickens in 1863. [62]

Despite its obvious value to students of Victorian literature and culture, A Room of His Own has a few flaws, such as its overemphasis on the Garrick Club and reliance on George Augustus Sala whom she describes as “clubland's most faithful social actor” (21). What does that description mean? I understand “clubland's most accurate historian (or commentator),” but what is a “faithful social actor”? Faithful to what? Far more serious are disturbing flaws best explained as a conflict between the author's historical research and her theoretical allegiances often caused, or at least abetted, by the author's shaky sense of historical argument and historical evidence that allows her to make statements such as the following: “To be a man in the nineteenth century was to be a gentleman, or at least to appear and behave like one” (18). A clear, forceful statement to be sure, but one not remotely true for 95% of Victorian men and boys!

A similar problem appears when Black much overemphasizes the role of clubs in allowing men to escape their wives. Of course, as the Victorian fiction she quotes makes abundantly clear, many men did in fact spend a great deal of time in clubland avoiding domestic responsibilities and domestic relationships. But Black's historical reasoning and use of supposed evidence appear very unconvincing, particularly her connection of men's clubs to supposedly gendered architecture. Although Black several times explains that most clubs come after 1875, she often writes as though her remarks apply to the entire nineteenth century, a fact which leads to several questions. When, for example, did the gendered domestic architecture she seems to think near universal come about? Other scholars find this occurring quite late in the century — well after the major clubs came to prominence. Could the gendering of domestic space therefore have been prompted by the clubs rather than their reaction to it? The author treats one Robert Kerr, hardly a well-known architect, as authoritative, but shouldn't one look at the statements and designs of major architects, such as Richard Norman-Shaw and J. J. Stevenson, who built the homes for some of those men who belonged to clubs? My phrase some of those men who belonged to clubs reminds us that, following evidence presented by the author, one has to conclude that a large percentage of those who joined the first-wave clubs (Brooks, Boodles) and later prestigious ones (the Athenaeum, Reform, Carlton, and Garrick) either lived in family homes, often mansions, designed long before Kerr had his say, or in homes constructed before Victoria's accession to the throne. Would not a responsible scholarly argument require the author to compare lists of Victorian club members with their postal addresses, thereby testing an hypothesis that Black states as fact? What percentage of members were bachelors to whom her claim about married men doesn't apply? of the remaining members, how many lived in homes built long before the appearance of gendered domestic architecture? 10%? 60%? It makes a difference.

Of course, such a claim about the relation of clubland to homes dominated architecturally and otherwise by women, even if true, conflicts with points Black makes so beautifully in her second chapter, — namely, that clubs provided places in which to work and to advance oneself professionally and economically. How then can we factor in the the indisputable fact that clubs permitted men to escape domesticity, particularly the domesticity created by a wife, into our understanding of clubland? How much, for example, did the club-as-escape-from-domesticity differ from, say, the banker's office or the barrister's chambers?

The chronological inaccuracies involved in Black's claim about the role of gendered architectural spaces appear again when she insists that increasing empowerment of women so threatened men that they fled in large numbers to their clubs. By the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the next, women's entrance into education and the professions, like their increasing legal protections, certainly threatened many men (and a good many conservative women as well) and generated the misogyny of the Aesthetes and Decadents. But almost all the empowerment of women she cites occurs long after the rise of the men's club to prominence — in some cases several generations afterwards. Gender anxiety — if it is in fact anxiety and not simply men's irresponsibility — may well explain the burgeoning of clubs in late-Victorian England, but if so, one has to look at earlier clubs and the literature related to them much differently than one does at clubs in the 1890s and 1900s.

The author runs into considerable difficulties in chapter five, “The Pleasure of Your Company in Late-Victorian Pall Mall.” Max Beerbohm's “Defence of Cosmetics” (text) is not, as she states, a “stirring manifesto for late-century Aestheticsm” (179) but, as my students and Beerbohm himself have pointed out, a wickedly funny parody of it. Apparently having similar problems with Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1834), she takes his satirical remarks on the dandy rather too straighforwardly. This same chapter shows her desperately forcing her case, using as examples Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (even though “no literal club appears in Stevenson's gothic masterpiece” [179]) and Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray, which is simply compared to a club. About Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective we are told that his home is, well, sort of a club: “the alternative domesticity that Holmes enjoys at 221b Baker Street . . . [is] more club than home — the most intimate of clubs” (188). The book that began with presenting clubs as a married man's escape from domesticity now treats a bachelor's domesticity as sort of a club. Fortunately, Black has Mycroft's Diogenes Club and Stevenson's Suicide Club.

Some of these theoretical difficulties are likely responsible for the way this usually skilled writer occasionally lurches into a jargon-laden prose, telling us, for example: “As an institutional culture that operated on fraternal ideologies to construct a public, professionalized masculinity reliant on a set of shared cultural practices and male bourgeois sociality, Victorian clubland provided a way of structuring class class relations and encouraging — even regulating — identification with one's own class” (11). Does this clogged sentence say more than "Victorian clubs inculcated middle-class beliefs about men and the proper relations between them"? People have always used jargon to distinguish members of a group from outsiders, and here Black seems eager to make her writing a form of branding that demonstrates her aspiration to become a member of a particular group of critics and theorists. In other words, this terminology has far less to do with the world of scholarship than with the world of advertising. “Use L'Oreal — or phrases like “male bourgeois sociality” — because you're worth it.”

Nonetheless, despite a glitch here and there and occasionally riding a hobby horse a little too hard, Black has written and interesting and useful book. Anyone who reads the novels of Disraeli, Trollope, and Thackeray that she discusses will find her remarks on clubs very helpful.

Related Material

Bibliography

Black, Barbara. A Room of His Own: A Literary-Cultural Study of Victorian Clubland. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8214-2016-4 (print); ISBN 978-0-8214-4435-1 (electronic book). 300 + x pp.


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Last modified 18 April 2013