There is a lot about the Victorian age that I am either missing or that has been warped in my imagination by stereotypes in film and literature. In particular, I have been curious about “clubland,” that male-dominated, class-entrenched society that haunts behind the works of the male 19th-century novelists and into the 20th century in stories like Sherlock Holmes or in the character of Winston Churchill. Some of the gentlemen’s club names are familiar to Londoners, like the Athenaeum, the Reform, the Travellers, the Carlton, the United Service, and places located in the Temple and Pall Mall. Notorious, fascinating, troubling, these clubs are laced behind much of Victorian and Modernist literature.
And, frankly, I just don’t understand smoking room culture. I don’t get guy spaces like that, and yet I spend my life working with people and stories that are coming out of this culture. One of my favourite books every is Virginia Woolf‘s A Room of One’s Own–clearly a book Barbara Black wants to be in conversation with. There Woolf is carving out a space for women that I’m pretty sure is evocating clubland culture on top of the Oxbridge male-dominated world she is shredding. The Inklings and friends that I study were formed by literary groups–certainly the Inklings, but also the TCBS and, extending out to the world around, the Bloomsbury Set, the Paris Expats, the Mutual Admiration Society, the Detection Club…. I would argue that British literature from WWI to the sexual revolution was revolutionized by writers who made their own ad-hoc writing clubs.
This is why I picked up A Room of His Own, so I could fill in some historical background that I’m missing. In one way, it worked remarkably well. It is a fun, well-written social history using a literary lens. It gets a bit involved at times, but it really is the kind of thing I would like to write in my world.
However, to be honest, I read this book a decade or so too early. It seems I am really not familiar with English male novelists before WWI other than Dickens and some reading H. Rider Haggard, a bit of Anthony Trollope, and the fantasists. I will get there, I’m sure, but I have a ways to go, and this book is ideally suited to someone who knows Trollope, Dickens, Hardy, Butler, Conrad, and Kipling really well. Although I finished A Room of His Own, I am really mentally setting it aside until my reading has filled out a bit in the background.
Now, where have I put my smoking jacket?