Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of London’s Private Members’ Clubs

Book review by Deane Barker tags: society

I have a romantic view of social clubs, especially those in London. I think I get it from James Bond novels. I love the idea of upper class Englishmen having a whisky at “the club” while debating politics or other matters of world importance.

This book is a wonderfully readable history of those clubs. Unbeknownst to me, the clubs are actually at a nadir these days. Their heyday was in the 1800s.

In fact, the author has written a previous book called Club Government where he argues that the UK government was essentially run out of social clubs during that era.

The book jumps around a bit, but since it’s history, it doesn’t fall into the annoying narrative habits of Rose George’s books (see this and this). The author is apparently the world’s foremost history on English social clubs, and he sprinkles fact with lots of interesting anecdotes.

As it turns out, the business model of social clubs is awful. They hardly make any money, and are constantly shutting down or falling into disrepair. There’s also the constant question about whether or not to admit women (and there are some women’s only clubs).

A very interesting chapter deals with social clubs and homosexuality. Given that the clubs were private places where men congregated, there was apparently an undercurrent of gay culture running underneath them for many years. Oscar Wilde, the famed pederast, was first confronted for his crimes via a note left at his club, the Albemarle.

I have this weird dream of someday opening or partnering with a social club in Sioux Falls. But after this book, perhaps not. It de-glamorizes the clubs considerably, explaining what they actually were – often boring places with bad food and high prices – rather than what we want them to be.

Book Info

Seth Alexander Thevoz

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