On "Gentlemen's Clubs" from 1859

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I love the richness of the language here!
Check out the whole book available online at:
Dictionary of Victorian London

Keep your sightglass full and your firebox trimmed

Twice Round the Clock, or The Hours of the Day and Night in London,
by George Augustus Sala, 1859


THE English are the only "Clubable" people on the face of the earth. Considering the vast number of clubs which are more or less understood to flourish all over the Continent, and in the other hemisphere, it is within possibility that I shall be accused of having uttered something like a paradox; but I adhere to my dictum, and will approve it Truth. Not but that, concerning paradoxes themselves, I may be of the opinion of Don Basilio in the "Barber of Seville," expressed with regard to calumny. "Calumniate, calumniate," says that learned casuist; "calumniate, and still calumniate, something will always come of it." So, in a long course of paradoxes, it is hard but that you shall find a refreshing admixture of veracity.

Do you think you can call the French a "clubable nation," because in their revolutions of '89 and '48 they burst into a mushroom crop of clubs? Do you think that the gentleman whom a late complication of political events brought into connection with a committee of Taste, consisting of twelve honest men assembled in a jury-box, and whom, the penny-a-liners were kind enough to inform us, was in his own country known as "Bernard le Clubbiste," could be by any means considered as what we called a "club-man?" Could he be compared with Jawkins or Borekins, Sir Thomas de Boots, Major Pendennis, or any of the Pall Mall and St. James's Street bow-window loungers, whom the great master of club life has so inimitably delineated? No more than we could parallelise the dingy, garlic- reeking, revolutionary club-room on a three-pair back at the bottom of a Paris court-yard, with its "tribune," and its quarrelsome patriots, to the palatial Polyanthus, the Podasokus or the Poluphlosboion. French clubs ever have been - and will be again, I suppose, when the next political smash affords an opportunity for the re-establishment of such institutions - mere screeching, yelling, vapouring "pig-and-whistle" symposia; full of rodomontading stump orators, splitting the silly groundlings' ears with denunciations of the infamous oppressors of society ...

In Imperial Paris there are yet clubs of another sort existing, though jealously watched by a police that would be Argus-eyed if its members were not endowed with a centuple power of squinting. There are clubs - the "Jockey," the "Chemin de Fer," and establishments with great gilded saloons, and many servitors in plush and silk stockings; but they are no more like our frank English clubs than I am like Antinous. Mere gambling shops and arenas for foolish wagers; mere lounging-places for spendthrifts, sham gentlemen, gilt-fustian senators, and Imperialist patricians, with dubious titles, who [-202-] haunt club-rooms, sit up late, and intoxicate themselves with alcoholic mixtures -so aping the hardy sons of Britain, when they would be ten times more at home in their own pleasant, frivolous Boulevard cafés, with a box of dominoes, a glass of sugar-and-water, and Alphonso the garçon to bring it to them. Such pseudo-aristocratic clubs you may find, too, at Berlin and Vienna, scattered up and down north Italy, and in Russia, even, at Petersburg and Moscow, where they have "English" clubs, into which Englishmen are seldom, if ever, admitted. Some English secretaries of legation and long-legged attachés, have indeed an ex-officio entry to these continental clubs, or "cercles," where they come to lounge and yawn in the true Pall Mall fashion; but they soon grow tired of the hybrid places; and the foreigners who come to stare and wonder at them, go away more tired still, and, with droll shrugs, say, "Que c'est triste!." The proper club for a Frenchman in his café; for, without a woman to admire him or to admire, your Monsieur cannot exist; and in the slowest provincial town in France there is a dame de comptoir to ogle or be ogled. The Russian has more of the clubable element in him; but clubs will never flourish in Muscovy till a man can be morally certain that the anecdote he is telling his neighbour will not be carried, with notes and emendations, in half an hour, to the Grand Master of Police. As for the German, put him in a beer-shop, and give him a long pipe with his mawkish draught, and - be he prince, professor, or peasant - he will desire no better club; save, indeed, on high convivial occasions, when you had best prepare him a cellar, where he and his blond-bearded, spectacled fellows may sit round a wine-cask, and play cards on the top thereof.

I don't exactly know how far the English club-shoot has been grafted on the trunk of American society, but I can't believe that the club-proper flourishes there to any great extent. I like the Americans much, recognising in them many noble, generous, upright, manly qualities; but I am afraid they are too fond of asking questions - too ignorant or unmindful of the great art of sitting half an hour in the company of a man whom you know intimately, without saying a word to him, to be completely clubable. Moreover, they are a people who drink standing, delighting much to "liquor up" in crowded barrooms, and seldom sitting down to their potations - a most unclubable characteristic. All sorts of convivial and political reunions exist, I am aware, in the United States, to a high degree of organisation; and I have heard glowing accounts of the comfortable, club-[-203-]like guard-rooms and stations of the New York volunteers and firemen; but I can't exactly consider these in the light of clubs. They are not exclusive enough - not concrete enough-not subject to the rigid but salutary discipline of that Imperium in Imperio, or rather, Rempublicam in Republica, the committee of a club.

I daresay that you would very much like to know the name of the particular club, the tableau of which adorns this sheet, and would feel obliged if I would point out the portraits of individual members you would be very much pleased to be told whether it is the Carlton, the Reform, the Travellers', the Athenaeum, the Union, the United Service Senior or Junior, the Guards, the Oriental, the Oxford and Cambridge, the Parthenon, the Erectheum, the Wyndham, Whyte's, Boodle's, or the Army and Navy. No, Fatima; no, Sister Anne. You shall not be told. Clubbism is a great mystery, and its adepts must be cautious how they explain its shibboleth to the outer barbarians. Men have been expelled from clubs ere now for talking or writing about another member's whiskers, about the cut of his coat, and the manner in which he eats asparagus. I have no desire for [-214-] such club-ostracism; for though, Heaven help me, I am not of Pall Mall or St. James's, I, too, have a club whose institutes I revere. "Non me tua fercida terrent, dicta, Ferox :" I fear not Jawkins, nor all the Borekins in Borekindom; but "Dii me terrent, et Jupiter hostis:" I fear the awful committee that, with a dread complacency, can unclub a man for a few idle words inadvertently spoken, and blast his social position for an act of harmless indiscretion.


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