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A Room of His Own
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What is more British, and more male, than the London clubs that have clustered on or near the street of Pall Mall since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? In their way they define a society, so it’s a surprise to find a definitive book about them, A Room of His Own—A Literary-Cultural Study of Victorian Clubland (Ohio University Press/Swallow Press), by an American. In fact, by an American woman, Barbara Black. But her background as a professor of English at Skidmore College in New York gives her the tools for the task.
Black pays her scholarly dues in a long introduction that I advise non-specialist readers to skim through, getting the sense of its title "The Man in the Club Window," before settling into the succeeding chapters which deal with that very British fellow, the club man, his peculiar habits and values, and the role these masculine bastions filled under one of England's great rulers, who was, curiously, a woman.
Springboard to success
No word on whether Victoria’s Prince Albert was a club member, but certainly many men found comfort in these elegant surroundings, which Black says were "the institutionalizing of masculine access and privilege." A new middle class, newly affluent, took to the clubs to learn how to behave as though they had always been there. "Club life," Black explains, "prepared Victorian men for various life paths and careers; strategically connected club men were well-positioned to become successful novelists, influential public figures, powerful politicians, metropolitan journalists…key officials in service to the empire."
One reason we’re aware of London clubs is that member writers have often incorporated them into their stories. Phileas Fogg sets off to circle the world in eighty days from the Reform Club, then and now a splendid edifice at 104 Pall Mall. (Note: women have been members of the Reform since 1981. Even clubs must change with the times.) Clubs are important in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga and in William Thackeray’s novels. Rudyard Kipling was a solid club man at home and abroad; English men’s clubs in the outposts of empire figure in his novels.
Women, it should be said, did begin to form their own associations and by the end of the nineteenth century, strong women’s clubs existed, some still in force today. It’s also true that today the all-male club is not the norm.
Black recognizes the human need for a sense of belonging as the potent force behind these clubs, both in their inception and their modern form. "Club culture," she says, "is very much alive today." It shows itself in new ways, she suggests, mentioning, "the new country of Facebook. I would call it a club." We can understand our needs for bonding better having looked, through this book, at an extreme expression of it in Victorian England.