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!