A Room of His Own: A Literary-Cultural Survey of Victorian Clubland.
Barbara Black's "Literary-Cultural Study of Victorian Clubland" fills a notable gap in the existing literature. Private members' clubs played a unique role in fostering a sense of culture and associationalism, and the topic presents a rich vein of material for researchers, most fruitfully exploited by Peter Clark's seminal British Clubs and Societies. 1580-1800 (Oxford; New York, 2000), covering their early development. Yet it was in the Victorian period that clubs truly flourished, with London becoming the club capital of the world, containing two hundred elite clubs at a time (plus innumerable "popular" working men's clubs), variously themed around members' shared interests, professions or backgrounds. Only very recently have serious academic studies analyzed this Victorian club heyday, most notably Amy Milne-Smith's thoroughly-researched London Clubland (New York, 2011)--although an invaluable precursor can be found in the work of early twentieth-century sociologist M. Ostrogorski.
Black is most successful when covering the literary sphere. She builds a persuasive case for the iconic status of clubs in Victorian literature, drawing on a range of contemporary printed sources, and paying particular attention to the prevalence of clubs in novels. Many novelists chronicling Clubland were also club members and Black effectively connects the real-life club experiences of such writers as Dickens, Galsworthy, Thackeray, Trollope, and Wilde; she highlights their overlapping journalistic, social and personal worlds, while teasing out the broader context of Victorian society. Black's book is also particularly strong in engaging with existing literary scholarship, and the book is often enlightening in its thematic discussion of the club's popular place in society and the domestic world.
However, in tackling the cultural sphere, this "Literary-Cultural Study" has numerous shortcomings. The book is dogged by a surprisingly large number of errors, ranging from simple mistakes over spelling (Brooks club instead of Brooks's) and chronology (not an uncommon problem in works on Clubland), to more striking flaws betraying an apparent unfamiliarity with several aspects of Clubland itself, and several of London's largest clubs remain unmentioned, despite prominently featuring in contemporary literature.
Most problematically, Black's book leaves something to be desired in the Clubland sources consulted, perhaps explaining some of the errors. London had at least four hundred Victorian clubs in total (their turnover could be quite high), and fragments of several dozen club archives remain readily accessible today. Black's book relies heavily upon key facts from secondary sources, most notably the self-published hagiographie club histories of the nineteenth century, and Anthony Lejeune's amusing but unreliable The Gentlemen's Clubs of London (London, 1979, rev. 2012), which Lejeune himself admits was largely sourced from third-hand accounts over leisurely lunches in the 1970s. What archival work Black does cite appears largely focussed on the arts-themed Garrick Club. Whilst the Garrick possesses a rich and interesting archive, it is by no means representative of its contemporaries, and this reliance on Garrick material leads to some questionable choices. For instance, when reproducing a series of Garrick menus and dinner bills, greater reference to existing work on the Reform Club's celebrity chef Alexis Soyer would have indicated that Garrick was heavily influenced by Soyer. Moreover, consulting the Savage Club archive would have showed that Garrick was heavily influenced by the Savage's tradition of lavishly-illustrated house dinner menus, replete with caricatures. At times, a paucity of sources leads Black to fall back on clubland references that have little or nothing to do with the book's Victorian topic--references to Ian Fleming, for instance, are baffling.
Black's grasp of the secondary historical literature is equally unsure--discussion of journalism and the popular press recurs throughout this study (including a dedicated chapter on the subject), yet no reference is made to Stephen Koss's landmark The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain (London, 1981), which extensively references club archives and club involvement in the Victorian press. Nor does Black's interesting work on blackballing acknowledge the pioneering scholarship of both Milne-Smith and J. Mordaunt Crook on this particularly club-centric topic.
Additionally, surprisingly little attention is paid to the typicality or accuracy of Clubland literary portrayals cited; for instance, few members of the Reform Club would have recognized the figure of Phileas Fogg, who was a figment of the imagination of a French writer who had never set foot in the club, yet whose description of it remains the best-known; the apolitical Fogg sits strangely at odds with the earnest Reformers and Liberals who formed that club.
Nonetheless, for all its shortcomings, the book digs up new and interesting material. A section on the Cannibal Club--surely one of London's more exotic establishments--adds to our appreciation of the sheer diversity and sense of "otherness" of London clubs. The book's epilogue, on women's clubs, is in many ways the best chapter--it dissects the mixed fortunes of women's clubs, which skilfully complements Milne-Smith's full-length study focussed on masculinity and draws on welcome journalistic source material, broadening our understanding of the all-too-neglected phenomenon of mixed-sex clubs and women-only clubs.
Ultimately, Black's study is generally strong on the literary significance of clubs in fiction and journalism alike, but it is of less help than it should be to the historian or the sociologist, and it is not an especially accurate book. Whilst its writing makes perceptive points in places, particularly in tackling thematic issues such as blackballing, this extremely promising study of an important topic is undermined by an unsure grasp of the archival base and of where the primary literature is mistaken, and by a limited familiarity with the full scope of Clubland itself.
Seth Alexander Thevoz
Warwick University and the Rhodes Project
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|Author:||Thevoz, Seth Alexander|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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