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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 December 2006

Gentlemen's Clubs


The gentlemen’s club is really a creature of the nineteenth century. Yes, many clubs were founded in the eighteenth century, and some are still in existence today, but club membership exploded in the Regency and Victorian eras. You may have only heard of one or two famous clubs, but the St. James area of London’s West End was bursting with them during this time and is still called "Clubland" to this day.

There were clubs for Whigs and for Tories, clubs defined by profession and by class. Some clubs were exclusive to men who’d attended a specific school like Oxford or Cambridge. Each had a personality whether it be stuffy and silent or scandalously raucous.

White’s is arguably the most famous, though Brooks’s isn’t far behind. White’s was home of the infamous betting book. There was gambling at all clubs and many had house books to place bets in, but White’s betting book was the stuff of legend. Within its pages, personal bets between peers of the realm were placed. Such heady stuff as whether a certain Lord M would marry before year’s end, or which raindrop would chase its way down the window first. It’s rumored that a man once collapsed outside the club doors and bets were immediately placed on his chances of survival.

Gambling was a big focus of the clubs. Men would stay up all night playing hazard and whist. My favorite club, Crockford’s, was founded solely to accommodate hard and deep play. It had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with fun (or ruin).

Fun or not, most clubs didn’t allow women of any sort, not even the disreputable kind. Although many of them had bedrooms, they were strictly for sleeping. The clubs were a bastion of pure masculinity. This brings me to my own personal theory. (Not to say it’s original, I just haven’t done any research into the social theory of gentlemen’s clubs.)

Personally, I think club membership exploded during the Victorian era because of individual and social repression. There were so many rules governing interaction between the sexes; even if you were completely accustomed to it, I can’t imagine it would ever have been comfortable and relaxing. After introductions and courting and betrothals and marriage, there were still strict ideas about how one behaved at home (often considered the woman’s domain).

Can you imagine being married to a strange and completely foreign creature? Someone you not only didn’t understand, but were never supposed to understand? Someone you considered a duty? There were no televisions or radios for entertainment or distraction. Evenings were just man and wife, perhaps occupied with reading or some other task. How would you carry on an enjoyable conversation with a person raised and educated to have utterly different interests and desires?

For many men of the time, their clubs were their true homes. They took their meals there, relaxed, found connection and comfort, not to mention entertainment. Some men lived in their clubs for weeks at a time, married or not. During my research, I read of one man who found his late grandmother’s letters. In them, she laments that she’d been married a year and her husband had only taken dinner at home once.

Of course, we write about heroes, men who defy what’s expected of them, in small or fantastic ways. So would your hero belong to a club? Which kind and how many? I’ve never written much about it, but I’m hoping to write a hero who is a member of Crockford’s someday. I like a bit of scandal in my books!

Happy New Year to all you hoydens out there!

-Victoria

19 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Victoria! What I know about Victorian men's clubs comes from PBS!

And oh, the story of a married woman with a husband who only dined at home once is painfully sad. I think a book about an underground women's club of the time sounds like a great premise (but pure fantasy of course).

7:16 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Kathrynn, you're a genius!

7:52 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Cool post, Victoria! I love the men’s clubs. I got to eat at Black’s last time I was in London (a friend’s brother is a member). In the 18th century, Black’s was a dining club founded by Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds! It was reopened in the 1980s as a private membership dining club (with bar and rooms just like before). I’d kill to get into White’s . . .

As an aside about a club for women, when Twinings (yes, that Twinings) opened they specifically catered to women, selling tea leaves as well as hot tea to be drunk on the premises.

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Victoria. Which book(s) would you recommend for in-depth research on gentlemen's clubs?

While women didn't have clubs, they had charity organization meetings, morning calls, and other womens-only get-togethers during the day time. The problem of restriction of their movement alone after dark meant that they couldn't go partying, even in each other's houses, at all hours of the night. What a pity!

10:08 AM  
Blogger Camilla said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Camilla said...

There were women's clubs! By the 1880s, with the advent of the New Woman, ladies were forming their own social clubs and by 1911 there were nearly twenty ladies clubs founded under various subjects(fencing, bridge, politics, etc). Not to mention that in Paris, ladies were allowed to join the gentlemen's clubs(where the stigma attached to the club was unlike the English clubs due to the history of everyone meeting at street cafes in France). Which is why I love my period: the freedom women had.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Julia Templeton said...

I'm so glad I found this blog!
Great information from women who love historical romance as much as I do. Hooray!!!!

I'm currently writing a vampire historical...and my hero wouldn't be the type of man who visits a gentlemen's club. However, a couple of previous heroes would have.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Great post, Victoria! I confess, I'm in a bit of a White's rut as a writer--I sometimes forget there were many other clubs out there for our heroes to belong to. Mine are always White's guys--which I think was a Whig club, and for some reason my heroes *always* have Whig inclinations.

I can't even imagine being married to a virtual stranger, as many Regency/Victorian women were, especially without the diversions of today. I think sometimes women today forget just how far we've come in two hundred years.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Camilla said...

Well...not just women Kristina! I'd hope that even back then men wished for love and companionship as they do today--it's just that it was much easier for them to pick up and leave their wife than for a woman. (And yet another reason why I love writing historicals: the stigma of--and the difficulties of obtaining a--divorce forced the h/h to grin and bear it!)

3:08 PM  
Blogger Camilla said...

BTW, I just checked and White's was the Tory(Conservative Party to us Victorian writers) club, Brooke's being the Whig(Liberal Party) club *G*

Back on topic, I'd say that the hero of my current WIP would leave White's for the Brooke's, the Reform Club or Devonshire Club, since he's the black-sheep, flaming Liberal in his staunchly Conservative family.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Keira, as far as books go. . . I didn't find much. There's a book by Anthony Lejeune called The Gentlmen's Clubs of London that I found at the university library. If my terrible memory serves (and it often doesn't), it was written in the 1970's about all the clubs still in existence (quite a few) and their history. I THINK each club had its own short chapter and that there were pictures of many of them.

I ended up abandoning the story tidbit I was researching, which is why I didn't study it more.

Depending on your time period, there is a book written in 1933 called The Clubs of Augustan London by Robert Joseph Allen, but I don't know any more than that.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Speaking of abandoning the research. . . how often does this happen to the rest of you? It doesn't occur very often for me, because I don't enter into research lightly *snort*, but this time I just couldn't find any good info.

I wanted the hero to find out the heroine (yes, the one with the gambling problem) was placing wagers about their relationship in a club's betting book. I wanted her to place the wagers through a member of the club, but I could not determine whether this would've happened. Considering their opposition to feminine interference, I finally decided not.

Oh, but it would have been so PERFECT if she'd been manipulating their relationship just to win bets!!! He would have been furious! *sigh*

4:57 PM  
Blogger Jessica Trapp said...

Awesome post!

10:00 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love it when a topic races away with us!

My guys tend to be Whigs. Lovely liberal Whigs. I've been kicking around a plot where the whole family opposition is based on a Whig-Tory split between the two families . . . I think that in modern America this kind of age-old theme might cut just close enough to the bone to ring true.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Julia, we're so happy to have YOU here!!! Glad you found us!

7:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I always do White's -- and always have nasty Tories shedding their bad influence on my heroes (or, in the case of ALMOST A GENTLEMAN, my heroine dressed as a hero).

But I have trouble with the concept of lovely liberal Whigs, because they were so damn ineffectual when they had the chance, in the late 18th century especially -- will I blow my nicey-nice romance-writer cover if I say that I'll take a radical like Tom Paine any day? (Or Joseph Johnson, Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft's brave, generous, publisher). Though I also have trouble with the self-serving personal selfishness of a brilliant radical like Shelley -- yes, I know, I'm hopping generations here.

My private term for Regency Whigs is "landau liberals."

And I love the idea of a secret women's club.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam said, "And I love the idea of a secret women's club."

Me, too.

Thanks for the book title, Victoria. I'm going to try to find it at my local library.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Victoria, that annonymous comment is from me. Don't know why my login didn't take.

Kalen, hope you recover from your cold soon!

5:25 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Keira, that's really weird. I know your name was on them before. Huh.

7:14 PM  

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