A ROOM OF HIS OWN: A LITERARY-CULTURAL STUDY OF VICTORIAN CLUBLAND by Barbara Black, Reviewed by Jane S. Gabin
 

A ROOM OF HIS OWN: A LITERARY-CULTURAL STUDY OF VICTORIAN CLUBLAND
By Barbara Black
(Ohio University Press, 2012) x + 301 pp.
Reviewed by Jane S. Gabin on 2013-11-28.

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London clubs for gentlemen have only recently caught the attention of scholars. Considering their centrality to Victorian culture, it is a bit surprising that they have been so long neglected. In The Gentleman's Clubs of London (1979), Anthony Lejeune furnished an introductory sketch of these elite organizations, their headquarters, and their rules. But the first academic treatment of this topic did not emerge until 2011, with Amy Milne-Smith's London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late-Victorian Britain. This book is now joined by the present volume, which is thoroughly sociological, literary, and very readable.

Black credits both her own family background and her students' interest in "club culture" for this intriguing study, which is a major contribution to scholarship on British clubs and their effect upon society and literature. Black's childhood fascination with her father's Masonic status and her knowledge of the existence of "secret societies" during college are two factors that led her to examine this aspect of Victorian culture. Black seeks not so much to recount the history of the clubs themselves as to explain how their complex system of inclusion and exclusion defined the sociology of the ruling class. Her book examines both the elite social life of the powerful and the power of the social elite. Gentlemen's clubs decided which members of society possessed the essential "clubbability" that could earn them membership. And while "clubbable" -- a word dating from the late 1700s -- originally meant social and convivial, it came to mean "capable of fitting in" by the height of the Victorian era. While showing how club culture helped to define Victorian life, particularly in London, Black differentiates her work from previous studies of its topic by thoroughly treating references to clubs in British literature.

London clubs for gentlemen date largely from the Victorian age. Though they started in the eighteenth century, only three existed prior to the Napoleonic Wars They did not truly proliferate until the mid-1800s, and through the turn of the 20th century they remained a focal point of London life. Not coincidentally, the mid-1800s also saw the rise of the moneyed middle class, when people who had arrived financially sought to prove they had arrived socially. At the same time, those who were already socially established needed to distinguish themselves from the arrivistes. Club culture thereby became an extension of the British class system. The rise of clubs, Black notes, coincided with the growth of the Empire, which needed to enlarge its ruling class. "Clubs," she writes, "were instrumental to empire, and empire was for many Victorians concomitant with progress" (164).

Men -- and later, women -- were drawn to various clubs for an assortment of reasons. Besides providing a supportive refuge from domestic life, a club offered social acceptance and the company of those who shared a common interest, such as the military, travel, art or writing, or politics. The part of London on and around Pall Mall, where most of the clubs stood, was and still is called "clubland." The clubs remain bastions of power and privilege, and the word "clubland" still brings to mind images of large quiet rooms, expensive furnishings, and leather chairs in comfortable reading rooms well-supplied with current books and magazines. It is probable that many significant decisions affecting the outside world were and still are made in these rooms, just as many important business decisions in America may be sometimes made be sometimes made on golf courses rather than in boardrooms. It is no coincidence that many descendants of the British clubs -- the American country clubs -- are likewise socially powerful.

Black concentrates on gentlemen's clubs because most clubs in Victorian London admitted only men. "[C]lub culture," she contends, "is a uniquely British form that achieved high purpose and identity in the nineteenth century" (235). Paradoxically, we learn, clubs stretched the class system. Though club membership is often associated, accurately, with snobbery, it also allowed "middle-class Victorian men" to partake of the "corporate identity of Englishness" (235) and was therefore almost democratizing. No other Old World country saw its middle class expand so widely, and as a result the gentleman's club has become a fixture of British culture only. Yet this seeming democratization was very limited in its outreach, for as Black admits, club culture was both racist and misogynistic. "Colonial clubland built a social elite based on the rubric of race as it mapped out insiders and outsiders, guided by a compass of sameness and difference" (164). Even as clubs expanded their definition of insiders, therefore, they reinforced the exclusiveness of "us" by making "the ethnic marker of whiteness particularly visible" (154). For example, Black cites the Bengal Club, founded in Calcutta in 1827 as one of the first British clubs in India. Until 1962 it barred Indians.

If the obvious otherness of the Empire's nonwhites made them "unclubbable" in Victorian eyes, still more so were the legions of women, who were even more visible back in Britain. Yet since women were hardly asocial and lacking in conviviality, unclubbable" came to mean, more truthfully, "not like us." They were different from men, and therefore not welcome. Yet in echoing the title of a famous essay by Virginia Woolf, Black's title prompts us to wonder what clubs of their own were formed by women. While such clubs were numerous by the end of the nineteenth century, after a relatively late start, they get short shrift in this book. Although Black clearly states at the outset that she is writing primarily about gentlemen's clubs, I do wish she had not confined women to the final chapter with the unfortunate title of "Epilogue: A Room of Her Own." Why "Epilogue"? This makes the establishment of women's clubs look like an add-on rather than the parallel development that it was. The treatment of women's clubs should have been integrated with the material in earlier chapters, or at least not relegated to an endpiece.

I would also like to have seen Black discuss the actual rules of club membership, even the unwritten ones. On one hand, she does treat such criteria as the social class, education, military affiliation, and professional interests of those seeking admission to an elite club. While some clubs allowed no political discussion at all, lest it compromise members' loyalty to the club, other clubs required allegiance to a particular political point of view. Also, some occupations were considered unacceptable, and since some applicants for membership were denied simply because they were not liked, Black considers the origin and practice of "blackballing" potential members. On the other hand, she does not consider the deeply-held prejudices of those in power. Besides discriminating against nonwhites and women, what about the Victorian clubs' treatment of Catholics, Jews, the Irish, or foreign-born British citizens? "Exclusive" organizations became so because they excluded certain groups of people, and a fuller discussion of these would have enhanced the scope of the book.

Happily, however, this book makes room for Victorian literature, which was often set in the club. Among others, Black cites examples from Dickens, Disraeli, Galsworthy, Thackeray, Stevenson, Doyle, Kipling, Trollope, and Wilde, whose connection to clubland was particularly significant. Because it confers loyalty and protection, Black observes, "club culture can, in fact, engender a queer visibility" and in "nineteenth-century gay culture, clubland could function, literally, as a place of assignation" (194). It was no accident that Lord Roseberry delivered his damning, half-literate note to Wilde--"for Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite"-- to one of Wilde's clubs rather than to his home. Only a small part of Victorian literature set in clubs, however, concerned sexuality. Club-situated fiction mostly dealt with adventure, social class, crime, politics, and travel. But the club setting or reference set a certain tone of place, and therefore excited the reader's expectations. In Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), Black notes, we are told early on that "Phileas Fogg belonged to the Reform Club -- and that was all." By itself, this terse comment enabled readers of the time to grasp Fogg's character. Though Verne wasn't even English, the nineteenth-century understanding of the Reform Club transcended national boundaries.

Black's focus is not only literary but also sociological. Arguing that clubs promote friendship, belonging, and loyalty, she contends that the proliferation of clubs in the Victorian era made them "one of the great social forces of an emergent modernity"(2). And the fact that such organizations exist today-- offering degrees of inclusion and privilege--prove that clubs spring from an inherent human need to belong. People satisfy this need by joining fraternities, sororities, campus eating clubs, travel clubs offering gold, silver, and platinum "elite" benefits, and the wide array of alumni, professional, and charitable organizations that also confer benefits. People want to belong and to feel appreciated. Correspondingly, some people clearly relish the power of being gatekeepers, deciding whom to include and exclude.

When these individuals and their organizations move into the hierarchy of political and financial visibility, it is clear how their collective power could, and can, shape an era. At the very end of the book, in fact, Black affirms that all of us-- men and women -- still share the desire to belong, resulting in the success of what she considers the world's largest club: Facebook.

Knowing London clubs well (as already shown by her Victorian Web entry on this topic), Black explains each of them well: its location, architecture, and social qualities. She also provides ample illustrations, floor plans, and even recipes. Her text is accompanied by meticulous notes and a bibliography of over 300 sources from nineteenth and twentieth century works. Thorough research combined with well-selected anecdotes and a jargon-free style makes this volume a delightful read.

Jane S. Gabin, a counselor at the United Nations International School in New York and an independent scholar, is the author of American Women in Gilded Age London (University Press of Florida, 2006).


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