Magazine article The Spectator

Where Statesmen and Authors Met

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Statesmen and Authors Met

Article excerpt

THE KIT-CAT CLUB: FRIENDS WHO IMAGINED A NATION by Ophelia Field Harper Press, £25, pp. 524, ISBN 9780007178926 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

What a wonderful subject Ophelia Field has found, and how adroitly she has handled it. In the Kit-Cat Club, the coterie of Whig writers and politicians that began in the last years of the 17th century and lasted into George I's reign, she finds both a mirror and a source of great movements of taste and power. The club's founder was the cultivated publisher Jacob Tonson, who gathered and fed his authors at the Cat and Fiddle in Gray's Inn Lane ('kat' being slang for a small fiddle). Swelling numbers impelled a move to more spacious quarters, and eventually to a property in Barnes which was converted for the club's purposes by Vanbrugh, who with his fellow-playwright and rival Congreve was one of the initial luminaries.

Addison and Steele soon joined them.

Born of a literary impulse, the club rapidly acquired a political one. In the first age of entrenched political parties, Whigs and Tories fought out the issues of crown and parliament, of church and state, and of war and peace, that had been bequeathed or created by the Revolution of 1688. Whig noblemen and Cabinet members -- Somers, Montagu, Wharton, Walpole -- were as prominent in the club as the writers to whom they gave jobs and money, and through whom they sought, amid the frequent and bitter electoral contests of the age, to give their party's values and policies roots in public opinion. There were Kit-Cat members everywhere, on the back benches, among electoral agents, on embassies, in Dublin. When, on either side of Queen Anne's death in 1714, the principles of the Revolution were imperilled, the club prepared to summon the nation to arms in its defence. But once the Hanoverian oligarchy was entrenched, and the Whigs had divided the spoils, the KitCat withered.

The intimate alliance of statesmen and authors went back to the Renaissance and beyond it, though it is unimaginable now.

The two sides of the partnership honoured each other. Kit-Cat writers deferred to the grandees in social protocol but boldly told them how to think and act. They guided their tastes -- distinctively English tastes, in opposition to the cultural and political dominance of France, the Whigs' foreign enemy -- in architecture, music, poetry, drama, landscape gardening. …

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