NY: Coward-McCann, 1963.
If you read much English fiction, especially that produced in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, or in which the setting is self-consciously “aristocratic,” there are certain background topics that most Brits take for granted but which remain rather a mystery to middle-class Americans — mostly because of the fundamental differences in the American class system. One of these is the culture of the London club, which goes back to the turn of the 18th century, when taverns hadn’t yet been replaced by hotels.
Partly, the country landowner coming “to town” on business, and who wasn’t wealthy enough to maintain a townhouse, needed a place to stay for a few days, a place where he could also meet privately and socially with others like himself. Add to this the desire of gentlemen living in London for similar places where they could go to dine and converse — but mostly to gamble, which was the principal function of nearly all the early clubs. By the mid-19th century, clubs also had been established around political themes, and to give military and naval officers a place to gather between overseas assignments, and to allow men of various professions to get together. It wasn’t cheap to belong to such a club, but even more important in maintaining its exclusivity was the fact that not just anyone was allowed even to apply for membership, no matter how much money they might have. Even the Reform Club and the Liberal Club are (and always have been) thoroughly undemocratic. Several clubs used to offer nearly automatic membership to ambassadors from other countries — a practice sharply curtailed in the early 1960s with the appearance of a number of new Commonwealth nations in Africa.
A typical club might supply its members with dining facilities (not necessarily with good food, though the Carleton was and is famous for its kitchen), a morning room where one could read the newspapers, a bar, a library, a card room, a billiard room, a “silence room” (the latter being almost a cliché in the public view of the men’s club), and a number of bedrooms (usually without personal toilet facilities). And they nearly always excluded women, nearly all the time. The character even of many of the older, most famous clubs had begun to change by the time this book was published forty-plus years ago, much to the distress of the older members of the upper class, and that process has continued, with many clubs having merged in order to survive financially, and with others becoming more family-oriented. There also are clubs in many other UK cities now, not to mention overseas, and many of those in London offer their services to visitors from clubs with whom they have an established relationship — very handy for traveling businessmen, professionals, and civil servants. Non-British clubs, though, are either modeled closely on the London clubs (often not very successfully), or are more of the character of the local Rotary. “Clubland” is definitely an English phenomenon.
This volume devotes a couple of pages each to sixty clubs, beginning with White’s, the senior surviving club (established 1693), and Boodles (established 1762 and possibly the most famous), and ending with those clubs established only since World War II — and there aren’t many of those. Famous members are noted and classic anecdotes recounted (“I see you’ve just buried your wife.” “Yes. Had to. Dead, you know.”), and capsule histories supplied. While this volume could not in any way be regarded as a serious study, it’s practically the only thing available. (A few of the older clubs have published histories for their major anniversaries, but none of them circulated many copies and all are long out of print.) By the time you’ve gone through the whole volume, you’ll begin to grasp some of the variations among different clubs — and there are many differences — but you should search for some of them online and note which clubs now have websites, and see how they’ve continued to change. And, perhaps deservedly, to wither.